The People Who Will Draft the Democratic Platform Have a Conflict of Interest Problem

Next up after the Biden-Sanders task forces? The Democratic platform drafting committee—and progressives have their work cut out for them.

Branko Marcetic July 9, 2020

The Democratic platform will chart the course of a potential Joe Biden presidency. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

A month out from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, the par­ty con­tin­ues to be pulled in oppos­ing direc­tions by its pro­gres­sive and cor­po­rate wings. While pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee Joe Biden and the par­ty estab­lish­ment charts a course of cau­tious cen­trism, reject­ing poli­cies like Medicare for All and key planks of a Green New Deal, pro­gres­sives and sup­port­ers of Bernie Sanders are attempt­ing to push Biden as far left as they can.

The vast majority of appointees to the drafting committee are establishment-friendly Democrats—many of whom hold potential financial conflicts and questionable backgrounds of their own.

With the par­ty plat­form due to set the agen­da for both Biden’s cam­paign and pres­i­den­cy, Sanders allies have sought to shape the fin­ished prod­uct through a set of uni­ty task forces, which on Wednes­day unveiled rec­om­men­da­tions that both encour­aged and dis­ap­point­ed pro­gres­sives. While the task force rec­om­men­da­tions called for a short­ened time­line on cli­mate pol­i­cy and a host of crim­i­nal jus­tice reforms, for instance, they don’t go as far as to ban frack­ing or legal­ize recre­ation­al mar­i­jua­na. And while they would expand health­care access with a robust pub­lic option, they don’t advo­cate a sin­gle-pay­er system.

Those rec­om­men­da­tions will now be kicked to the party’s plat­form draft­ing com­mit­tee, a fur­ther sieve through which these rec­om­men­da­tions must fil­ter before becom­ing offi­cial Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pol­i­cy. It remains to be seen if they will.

In 2016, while many Sanders sup­port­ers were pleased with what they won in plat­form nego­ti­a­tions, Hillary Clin­ton-appointees to the draft­ing com­mit­tee who held per­son­al finan­cial con­flicts of inter­est helped defeat a num­ber of pro­gres­sive planks around issues includ­ing the min­i­mum wage, health­care and cli­mate change. Judg­ing by the mem­ber­ship of this year’s plat­form draft­ing com­mit­tee, we may soon see his­to­ry repeat itself. While the com­mit­tee con­tains three Sanders allies, includ­ing his for­mer nation­al polit­i­cal direc­tor Analil­ia Mejia, the vast major­i­ty are estab­lish­ment-friend­ly Democ­rats — many of whom hold poten­tial finan­cial con­flicts and ques­tion­able back­grounds of their own.

From the board­room to the draft­ing room

Sev­er­al of the committee’s mem­bers, announced last month by DNC Chair Tom Perez, have cor­po­rate ties. Delaware State Uni­ver­si­ty Pres­i­dent Tony Allen, for instance, worked for years as a speech­writer and spe­cial assis­tant to pre­sump­tive Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee Joe Biden, before mov­ing into the world of banking.

Allen first joined MBNA, the cred­it card com­pa­ny that infa­mous­ly served as Biden’s all-time top donor and pushed for his 2005 bank­rupt­cy bill, assailed by bank­rupt­cy judges around the coun­try for the oner­ous restric­tions it placed on house­holds try­ing to expunge their debts, includ­ing one who called it the most poor­ly writ­ten piece of leg­is­la­tion that I or any­one else has ever seen.” Allen worked at MBNA from 2004 through 2006, just as the bank­rupt­cy bill was being ush­ered to pas­sage. At the same time, the com­pa­ny was pay­ing Biden’s son, Hunter, a $100,000-a-year retain­er, crit­i­cized as an attempt to cur­ry favor with Biden as he shep­herd­ed the bill through Congress.

After Bank of Amer­i­ca acquired MBNA in 2006, Allen left the lat­ter for the for­mer, where he stayed for the next eleven years. He spent much of that time work­ing on cor­po­rate rep­u­ta­tion,” which, accord­ing to his uni­ver­si­ty bio, involved rep­u­ta­tion analy­sis” and devel­op­ing pro­gram­ming to influ­en­tial media elites, nation­al social jus­tice advo­cates, aca­d­e­mics and elect­ed offi­cials.” Such tasks were no doubt a tough-job at the scan­dal-plagued bank, which in that peri­od paid out mul­ti­ple set­tle­ments over racist preda­to­ry lend­ing, sign­ing up 1.4 mil­lion cus­tomers to expen­sive cred­it card pro­grams they nev­er autho­rized, and push­ing home­own­ers into foreclosure.

Though Allen left in 2017, the bank con­tin­ued to be hit with law­suits over alleged mis­con­duct that occurred dur­ing his time at the bank, includ­ing hir­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against minor­i­ty job­seek­ers and fail­ing to main­tain homes in Black and Lati­no neigh­bor­hoods in 37 metro areas.

Allen’s is a quin­tes­sen­tial case of the Wash­ing­ton revolv­ing door, mov­ing from Biden’s office to the world of bank­ing and now help­ing draft the plat­form the for­mer vice pres­i­dent will run on. But he’s far from the only one.

Take Tom Vil­sack, cur­rent pres­i­dent and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Coun­cil. Vil­sack was plucked from his seat as a bio­fu­el- and biotech-friend­ly Iowa gov­er­nor to serve as Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary. While his tenure wasn’t uni­form­ly bad — Vil­sack resist­ed Repub­li­can attacks on food stamps and upped fed­er­al sup­port for organ­ic food — he angered pro­gres­sive groups by let­ting poul­try fac­to­ries self-reg­u­late, speed­ing up the approval process for GMO crops, shelv­ing new reg­u­la­tions on big agri­cul­ture at the industry’s behest, and step­ping in to craft an indus­try-friend­ly nation­al GMO-labelling bill intend­ed to replace a pio­neer­ing stricter stan­dard in Ver­mont. The move helped earn him the deri­sive moniker Mr. Mon­san­to” and the enmi­ty of many Bernie Sanders sup­port­ers at a time in 2016 when he was short­list­ed as one of Hillary Clinton’s poten­tial run­ning mates.

Days after step­ping down as agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary, Vil­sack spun through the revolv­ing door to the U.S. Dairy Export Coun­cil, where he now earns near­ly $1 mil­lion as the top exec­u­tive at its par­ent orga­ni­za­tion, Dairy Man­age­ment Inc. The pow­er­ful Coun­cil boasts a who’s who of big agri­cul­ture and even phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals as mem­bers, and last year, Vil­sack urged Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates not to crit­i­cize or tar­get agri­cul­tur­al monop­o­lies, cit­ing the poten­tial of job loss­es. Vil­sack was also a major boost­er of the con­tro­ver­sial Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship trade deal.

Julianne Smith has one of the more direct links to Biden, hav­ing served as his Deputy Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advi­sor while he was vice pres­i­dent, and now advis­ing his cam­paign. Smith is also play­ing dou­ble duty, serv­ing as senior advi­sor at two sep­a­rate busi­ness con­sul­tan­cy firms.

One is Wes­t­Ex­ec Advi­sors, which is stacked with for­mer nation­al secu­ri­ty, defense, state depart­ment and oth­er gov­ern­ment offi­cials that, in its own words, brings the Sit­u­a­tion Room to the Board Room,” and brings the full pow­er of our net­work to bear in help­ing clients nav­i­gate rapid­ly emerg­ing chal­lenges and opportunities.”

Wes­t­Ex­ec doesn’t list its clients, but it does give exam­ples of the kind of work it does. It advised a major finan­cial ser­vices firm” and a lead­ing U.S. lux­u­ry goods com­pa­ny,” for instance, on a poten­tial mul­ti-bil­lion-dol­lar acqui­si­tion in east­ern Europe and an invest­ment from the Mid­dle East, includ­ing on any rep­u­ta­tion­al risks” to do with the lat­ter. It helped an arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence ana­lyt­ics firm” secure work from mul­ti­ple nation­al secu­ri­ty agen­cies” in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Wes­t­Ex­ec assist­ed a lead­ing Amer­i­can phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny” and a mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar Amer­i­can tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­ny” to expand into Chi­na and East Asia while nav­i­gat­ing trade ten­sions. While it’s unclear which firms any of these are, the Inter­cept report­ed in 2018 that Wes­t­Ex­ec helped lead a drone war­fare ini­tia­tive between Google and the Pentagon.

The oth­er busi­ness con­sul­tan­cy firm that Smith advis­es is Berlin Glob­al Advi­sors, which pro­vides sim­i­lar ser­vices to clients that include cor­po­ra­tions, hedge funds and pri­vate equi­ty firms. That includes secur­ing gov­ern­ment con­tracts, get­ting clients access to gov­ern­ment and busi­ness lead­ers,” run­ning advo­ca­cy cam­paigns to defend and pro­mote busi­ness inter­ests, and pro­vid­ing pub­lic affairs and lob­by­ing help to secure anti-trust approval, licens­es or subsidies.”

Both of these firms are the type of revolv­ing door out­fits that pro­lif­er­ate in cen­ters of pow­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly Wash­ing­ton, where for­mer gov­ern­ment per­son­nel lever­age the exper­tise and con­nec­tions they’ve made in pub­lic life into lucra­tive posi­tions to ben­e­fit multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions. They also pose some seri­ous poten­tial con­flicts of inter­est for some­one advis­ing Biden — the per­son who may soon be in charge of both eco­nom­ic and for­eign pol­i­cy — while help­ing write the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s platform.

Also with a direct link to Biden is Don Graves, the for­mer vice president’s domes­tic and eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy direc­tor and lat­er trav­el­ing chief of staff. Graves, an ex-Trea­sury offi­cial who first served in a vari­ety of posts under Oba­ma, led the administration’s Detroit recov­ery pro­gram, and before that, was exec­u­tive direc­tor of the President’s Coun­cil on Jobs and Com­pet­i­tive­ness — a nat­ur­al fit for some­one who once served as the direc­tor of pub­lic pol­i­cy for the Busi­ness Roundtable.

Ini­tia­tives that came out of the coun­cil ran the gamut from the laud­able (increased invest­ment in renew­able ener­gy, broad­band and infra­struc­ture con­struc­tion) to the ques­tion­able (insert­ing an Entre­pre­neur in Res­i­dence” at the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion, and direc­tives to review and poten­tial­ly elim­i­nate reg­u­la­tions, described by one con­ser­v­a­tive schol­ar as a peace offer­ing” from Oba­ma to big business).

Graves is now the head of cor­po­rate respon­si­bil­i­ty and com­mu­ni­ty rela­tions at Key­Bank, a mid-sized Cleve­land-based finan­cial insti­tu­tion. Graves han­dles the bank’s char­i­ta­ble and sus­tain­abil­i­ty work, as well as its $16.5 bil­lion Nation­al Com­mu­ni­ty Ben­e­fits Plan, cre­at­ed in the wake of its 2016 acqui­si­tion of First Nia­gara Bank in Buf­fa­lo, which locals feared would lead to a spate of job loss­es. The bank has also been in the spot­light for less noble things: forc­ing a retired father back to work to pay off his deceased son’s stu­dent loan debt, refus­ing to hon­or decades-old bonds issued by a pre­de­ces­sor, and being sued over alleged­ly charg­ing tens of thou­sands of cus­tomers high 401k record-keep­ing fees. The bank also lob­bied around the 2018 roll­back of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform leg­is­la­tion, from which it ben­e­fit­ed.

Defense con­trac­tors and union busters

The elect­ed offi­cials on the plat­form draft­ing com­mit­tee have their own poten­tial con­flicts of inter­est. Take Illi­nois Sen. Tam­my Duck­worth, who is also under dis­cus­sion as a poten­tial Biden run­ning mate. Accord­ing to her most recent finan­cial dis­clo­sure, for 2018, Duckworth’s hus­band draws a salary from VAE Inc. and Fox­hole Tech­nol­o­gy Inc. — both defense con­trac­tors to the tune of mil­lions of gov­ern­ment dol­lars per year. She also owned stock in Ver­i­zon and Dis­ney, along with numer­ous mutu­al funds. That year, she sold her stock in Gen­er­al Elec­tric, con­fec­tionary multi­na­tion­al Mon­delez Inter­na­tion­al, and Wal­greens Boots Alliance, a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal hold­ing com­pa­ny. A pro­lif­ic investor, Duck­worth has in recent years owned stock in com­pa­nies like min­ing multi­na­tion­al BHP, Gold­man Sachs, McDonald’s and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal giant John­son & John­son. Her most recent dis­clo­sure is due in August.

Atlanta May­or Keisha Lance Bot­toms, also on Biden’s VP short­list with a par­tic­u­lar­ly influ­en­tial role as the chair of the draft­ing com­mit­tee, like­wise has poten­tial finan­cial con­flicts. Bot­toms’ hus­band, Derek Bot­toms, is vice pres­i­dent of employ­ment prac­tices and asso­ciate rela­tions at Home Depot, a com­pa­ny he’s been with for 18 years, and one with a dread­ful record on work­ers’ rights. In 2018, hun­dreds of its employ­ees flood­ed Splin­ter News with accounts of low pay, long hours, safe­ty issues, dis­crim­i­na­tion and union-bust­ing. Besides its treat­ment of employ­ees, the com­pa­ny is a polit­i­cal influ­ence machine, sec­ond only to Wal­mart among big box retail­ers in how much it spends on polit­i­cal dona­tions and lob­by­ing. Recent issues Home Depot has lob­bied against include union rights and the 2017 CEO-Employ­ee Pay­check Fair­ness Act, which aimed to incen­tivize com­pa­nies into pay­ing out rais­es for employ­ees by oth­er­wise deny­ing tax deduc­tions for exec­u­tive pay.

Bot­toms is also a busi­ness-friend­ly politi­cian who, through­out her career, has seen her cam­paigns fueled by gen­eros­i­ty from par­tic­u­lar sec­tors: cor­po­rate law prac­tices, lob­by­ing out­fits, busi­ness con­sult­ing firms, as well as the finance, real estate, hos­pi­tal­i­ty and restau­rant indus­tries, par­tic­u­lar­ly those involved in the Atlanta air­port. Dur­ing her may­oral run in 2017, Bot­toms was buoyed by dona­tions of dubi­ous legal­i­ty from con­ces­sion com­pa­nies that com­pete for air­port con­tracts from the city.

Then there’s Mass­a­chu­setts Rep. Kather­ine Clark, the sec­ond high­est rank­ing woman in the House behind Nan­cy Pelosi who some see as a poten­tial future speak­er. A mem­ber of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus, Clark led the 2016 House sit-in protest in favor of gun con­trol, opposed U.S. involve­ment in Syr­ia, and has authored bills tak­ing aim at the opi­oid epi­dem­ic, domes­tic vio­lence and oth­er issues.

But Clark was also the archi­tect of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Committee’s (DCCC) Red to Blue strat­e­gy for the 2018 midterms, recruit­ing a host of con­ser­v­a­tive, often busi­ness-friend­ly Democ­rats, includ­ing for­mer mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence agents, for­mer Repub­li­cans, a dar­ling of the NRA, and even an ex-health­care exec­u­tive. Like Pelosi, key to Clark’s ascent up the Demo­c­ra­t­ic ranks has been her pro­lif­ic fundrais­ing. Clark’s sin­gle biggest career donor is arms man­u­fac­tur­er Raytheon, and her most gen­er­ous indus­try is phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and health prod­ucts, which may explain why Clark teamed up with the GOP to repeal Obamacare’s 2.3% med­ical device tax.

Oth­er mem­bers hold spe­cif­ic ide­o­log­i­cal views which may prove a hard fit with an increas­ing­ly pro­gres­sive Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­er base. Retail, Whole­sale and Depart­ment Store Union Pres­i­dent Stu­art Appel­baum, for instance, as a DNC mem­ber sup­port­ed the rein­state­ment of the ban on cor­po­rate mon­ey in 2017, but is also a pro-Israel hawk. Appel­baum has com­plained about the ven­om” direct­ed towards Israel by the left abroad,” and that we are increas­ing­ly wit­ness­ing on the left over­seas … anti­semitism cloaked under the veil of anti-Zion­ism.” In 2007, the Jew­ish Labor Com­mit­tee, of which he’s pres­i­dent, orga­nized a state­ment con­demn­ing the boy­cott, divest­ment, sanc­tions move­ment (BDS) signed onto by labor lead­ers, and urged Ger­man teach­ers’ labor orga­ni­za­tions to pun­ish a group of Old­en­burg edu­ca­tors call­ing or a boy­cott of Israel. Appel­baum has said that too many LGBT pro­gres­sives in the West … focus their ire on Israel,” and that gay and les­bian his­to­ry has shown the dan­gers of ignor­ing the threat posed by rad­i­cal Islam.”

End of the road

The draft­ing com­mit­tee is only one part of the jour­ney of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form, poten­tial­ly shaped by every­thing from the Biden-Sanders uni­ty task forces, to the DNC staffers tasked with writ­ing the actu­al doc­u­ment, to vot­ing at the full plat­form committee’s meet­ing before this year’s con­ven­tion. But if the fin­ished prod­uct ends up look­ing watered down and unam­bi­tious, much of the blame may well lay at the feet of the cor­po­rate-friend­ly drafters the par­ty has again put in charge.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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