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.
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.
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.
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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.