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Back in 2012, then Newark, New Jersey mayor Cory Booker went on Meet the Press and defended Mitt Romney from criticisms over the Republican presidential candidate’s career at Bain Capital, urging President Obama and other Democrats to “stop attacking private equity” and calling such attacks “nauseating.”
Since that infamous appearance, Booker has done much to refine his image. Soon after, he took to YouTube to walk back his comments shielding private equity. Upon taking office in the Senate, he has voted against Wall Street interests, pledged his support for Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All plan and sworn off corporate PAC money. And during his 2020 presidential run he has styled himself as an unabashed progressive.
Yet the sources of Booker’s campaign funding for his senatorial campaign committee during the most recent cycle suggest he still has a long way to go to convince skeptical progressive voters that he’s really turned over a new, populist leaf. Even as Booker was publicly repositioning himself as a stalwart progressive, he continued to receive money from firms and organizations that lobby, work for, or are otherwise connected to the very industries he would, in theory, have to challenge as president.
Despite rejecting corporate PAC money in February 2018, he still received large amounts of contributions that year from individuals working in industries and lobbying firms whose interests run counter to many progressives’ most cherished policy goals. Among his current top contributors were individuals from major Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Prudential Financial and private equity firm Apollo Global Management.
His top source of funding, New York-based corporate law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, receives much of its business from the financial sector, particularly Citigroup. The firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison has worked with Citigroup for more than a decade, including behind-the-scenes maneuvering in 2010 to pressure the SEC to drop fraud claims against a Citigroup executive. One of the firm’s former partners, Mark Pomerantz, argued in 2014 that the fees the Justice Department forced financial institutions to pay in the wake of the 2008 crisis were “grossly excessive” and “nonsensical.”
Individuals from several top lawyer-lobbying firms have also been among Booker’s biggest backers. One is Sullivan & Cromwell, which has lobbied for corporate entities such as Barclays, UBS and the Private Equity Council. In 2017 and 2018, Sullivan & Cromwell represented both Goldman Sachs
and the Salt Lake City-based Zions National Bank, lobbying on behalf of the firms in support of President Trump’s successful roll-back of
the Dodd-Frank financial regulations.
Another top Booker supporter has been law firm Greenberg Traurig, which in 2018 lobbied on behalf of groups including Bankers Financial Corporation, pharmaceutical giant Bayer, the Business Roundtable, Lifepoint Hospitals and the Institute for Legal Reform — the latter being the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “tort reform” branch that fights to weaken the ability of ordinary people to seek legal recourse for corporate malfeasance.
A less recognizable name is the politically connected Gibbons P.C., ranked for nine straight years by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission as the state’s top lawyer-lobbying firm. Booker received $134,375 from the firm during the 2018 cycle, a combination of individual and PAC donations, but his connection to the firm extends beyond its donations. In 2015, Booker held a fundraiser for a local Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer at the firm’s offices, where his staff have also met with local constituent groups before.
According to its most recent state filing, Gibbons lobbied in 2017 for the American Council of Life Insurers, Visa and pharmaceutical companies Alkermes and Sanofi-Aventis, among others. In 2016, it also lobbied for health insurer Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. In a 2011 op-ed by the right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute, one of the firm’s partners railed against an executive order issued by former President Obama that forced those bidding for federal contacts to disclose their last two years of political donations, likening it to Richard Nixon’s enemies list.
NorPAC, Booker’s second biggest contributor behind Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, is similarly little known. Describing itself as “the largest pro-Israel PAC,” NorPAC also lists among its priorities legislation combating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and imposing sanctions on Iran. NorPAC has also given generously to figures such as Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Joe Manchin (D-WV). Although Booker voted for the Iran Deal after much public agonizing, he also went against the Obama administration’s wishes in 2014 by voting to impose sanctions on Iran at a key point in U.S.-Iranian relations, and co-sponsored 2017 legislation prohibiting US companies from joining international boycotts of Israel.
Despite Booker’s more populist positioning in recent years, this donor profile suggests that some of the country’s most powerful moneyed interests continue to view Booker as an ally, and someone worth showering with great sums of campaign cash.
Booker’s reputation as a friend of finance is also backed up by the speaking fees he has disclosed over the years. From 2014 to 2017, Booker received thousands of dollars from executives and representatives of private equity, law and investment firms including Sagewind Capital, Winston & Strawn, Energy Capital Partners and Trillium Management. One payment came from Ron Piervincenzi, a former partner at the controversial McKinsey & Company where he worked for its Global Pharmaceutical and Medical Products Practice, before moving on to Biogen, a multinational pharmaceutical and biotech company. That money was paid out to an undisclosed charity.
A seemingly less troubling source of support for Booker is former classmate Steve Phillips, a wealthy San Francisco-based lawyer and Center for American Progress fellow. Phillips, who has pledged to raise $10 million for Booker, was involved in various left-wing causes during his college years, earning him the ire of the Right. He has long criticized the Democratic Party’s shafting of minority voters, and financially backed Stacey Abrams and Ben Jealous in their gubernatorial campaigns last year. Through the PowerPAC+ that he co-founded, Phillips also “conducted the largest independent voter mobilization effort backing Barack Obama, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris,” according to its website. (PowerPAC+ gave $5,000 to Booker for his 2014 race).
So where does Phillips’ PowerPAC+ get its money? In 2018, nearly $2 million of its funds came from Herb Sandler, Phillips’ father in law and Democratic donor who also funds the news outlet ProPublica. Sandler also secretly paid Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta $7,000 a month for consulting work during the 2016 campaign. PowerPAC+’s other major contributor is the Black Economic Alliance PAC, which contributed $350,000 and whose founders have previously met with Booker and Harris.
The Black Economic Alliance is an entity created by a coalition of business executives and hosts a board of directors that includes current and former executives and board members in industries like real estate management, weapons manufacturing, investment banking and telecommunications. It is co-chaired by Tony Coles, a biotech firm executive and former CEO of Onyx Pharmaceuticals.
The Black Economic Alliance’s PAC has received donations from representatives of organizations like Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Blackstone, a private equity firm that has profited from the financial crisis by buying up foreclosed homes, acting as a virtual slum lord, and evicting its tenants at sky-high rates. Some of the big names on its advisory board include former RNC chairman Michael Steele, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former Goldman Sachs co-CEO and Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (perhaps best known for spearheading the Clinton administration’s deregulation of Wall Street), and Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is currently working on Starbucks billionaire Howard Schultz’s run.
The Alliance has engaged in such initiatives as funding screenings of Selma at schools around the country and raising money for a police reform plan in the wake of police shootings. But its prescriptions for “black economic progress,” as outlined by its executive director Akunna Cook, rely primarily on policies such as investment in STEM fields, vocational schools and apprenticeships, down-payment assistance and support for fair-housing and more government support for minority-owned businesses. While these may be worthy endeavors, they fall far short of what many black progressive groups, such as the Movement for Black Lives, have demanded, including Medicare for All, a federal jobs program and expansive worker protections.
How much influence might all these establishment interests have on Booker’s campaign and potential presidency? We’ve already seen that, besides
supporting the Iran Deal, Booker has steadfastly sided with Israel-backed legislation in Congress. At the same time, he’s also consistently voted against Wall Street deregulation in Congress. On healthcare, his record is mixed: Booker notoriously voted against an amendment in 2017 urging the federal government to allow Americans to buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, and though he signed on to Sanders’ Medicare For All legislation, he has already seemingly begun to modulate his position on the stump, conflating universal health care with a public insurance option.
The fact that Booker has refused to deregulate Wall Street despite its support for him is encouraging. But the next Democratic president should have far more ambitious goals than just protecting existing financial regulations: passing universal healthcare, breaking up monopolies, starkly limiting corporate influence, and implementing a Green New Deal, to name a few. Such policies won’t just require raising taxes on the wealthiest to come to fruition, but making a massive dent in the sky-high profits of corporate America.
The question is, can a candidate whose funding comes from that same corporate America really bite the hand that feeds him? We may soon get an answer.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.