“I don’t want their money,” proclaimed a recent fundraising email from the Democratic candidate in the 2nd Congressional District, Liuba Grechen Shirley. “Their money” is corporate PAC money, which she has pledged not to accept in her race to unseat long-term incumbent Peter King.
Perry Gershon, the Democrat squaring off against incumbent Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin in the 1st Congressional District, also has taken that pledge after initially accepting a $1,000 PAC donation from a friend’s company.
The two Long Island Democratic candidates are among a growing number nationwide who have made rejecting corporate PAC money a centerpiece of their progressive bona fides as voices independent of corporate influence. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) stopped taking such donations in January, joining a handful of other prospective presidential candidates now in the Senate who have made it part of their platform.
“There is a huge energy among voters for reform: it’s true in Suffolk County, it’s true in Nassau County,” said Jefrey Pollock, president of Global Strategies Group, a political consulting and polling company that counts Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo among its clients. “People are frustrated at the notion that candidates are beholden to corporate special interests and not their interests.”
Incumbents are far more likely than challengers to reap the largesse of corporate PACs, political operatives note. Challengers rejecting it hope to gain far more in credibility and individual contributions. And marquee candidates such as Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, currently running against Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, have scored huge fundraising successes.
However, “not everyone is going to suddenly become an online fundraising phenom,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Brooklyn-based political consultant, who tells candidates to make the choice only if it’s important to their credibility, “not because you can assume you can raise enough to offset” the lost contributions.
“If you do raise enough to offset it, that’s gravy,” he said.
Gershon’s latest campaign finance report for the quarter ending June 30 shows a long list of business contributions, but contributors’ names are provided in a memo the campaign files with its quarterly reports. Corporate PACs, or political action committees, bundle money from donors without having to name them.
“I’m running for office for clean government so the last thing I’d want to be called is a servant for special interests,” said Gershon, of East Hampton.
Zeldin (R-Shirley) has taken in nearly $640,000 in business PAC money as of June 30, and his total PAC donations of more than $800,000 represent almost a third of his contributions in this election cycle. Over the same cycle, King (R-Seaford) took in $354,750 in PAC money as of June 30, including more than $200,000 in business PAC money and $135,000 from labor, or 38.27 percent of total contributions. That compared to $21,700 in Grechen Shirley’s noncorporate PAC contributions, or 3.60 percent of her total.
King, said Grechen Shirley, “has a war chest of $3 million but we have more individual contributors than anyone else he’s ever run against. He’s outraised us since the beginning of the cycle, but in the last quarter we outraised him by $25,000.”
King, who first won election to his seat in 1992, dismissed the no-corporate PAC pledge as “a phony issue raised by those who don’t have any business support.”
He takes corporate PAC contributions, he said, because they are legal, and come from industries he supports as “vital” to the local economy. “It’s important that all contributions be disclosed, and let the voters decide if it was that contribution that influenced my vote.”
Zeldin, seeking his third term representing a district covering the eastern end of Long Island, rejected the idea that contributions from special interests and corporations could influence his votes.
A statement provided by aide Chris Boyle said: “While all other campaigns can speak for themselves, Congressman Zeldin absolutely cannot be bought. Period. He’s totally grounded by family, military and constituents.”
Abby Wood, an assistant professor of law, political science and public policy at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, said the reality is that “PAC money is an incumbent game,” noting the top 50 PAC money recipients in the House of Representatives all were incumbents, and 76 percent were Republicans.
Steve Israel, who served in Congress from 2001 to 2017 representing a Long Island district, decided not to run for re-election in part because of his distaste for constant fundraising after a stint as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And while he lauds the rejection of corporate PAC money, he said it carried risks.
“I hate money in politics and it’s why I left Congress but I do worry that candidates who disarm unilaterally will face an avalanche of Republican Super PAC money and Super PAC lies and won’t be able to respond,” he said. “Those who chose not to accept PAC money better make sure they have a robust grass roots fundraising plan to counter the well-funded Republican attacks that will try to knock them out in the last two weeks of October.”
Super PACs are a newer form of political action committee enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited anonymous contributions to PACs as long as the PACs didn’t contribute to or overtly coordinate with a particular candidate.
Democrats (many of whom still accept corporate PAC money) also benefit from Super PACs and from PACs representing political parties and ideological groups, which can contribute directly to candidates. PACs that contribute directly to candidates must impose limits on the amount individual contributors can donate.
As chairman of the DCCC, Israel said he would counsel candidates not to announce that they were rejecting PAC money “because I believed they would need it. What is different now is that campaign finance reform and the dark influence of money is rising to the top of polls that I’m seeing everywhere.”
And for many of the new progressive candidates running for office this year, the purity pledge poses little risk.
“Challengers typically receive a significantly smaller percentage of their funds from corporate PACs. Truly progressive candidates/challengers would receive even less than that,” said Jennifer Heerwig, an assistant professor of sociology at Stony Brook University.
Challengers who can’t count on wide publicity to attract contributions have alternatives now: ActBlue, for example, is an online platform created in 2005 that makes it easy for candidates to raise funds online from within their district and out.
About 1.5 million people used the platform to contribute a total of $335 million in small donations to Democratic campaigns across the country in 2014, while so far this cycle, about 3.8 million small donors have contributed more than $1 billion, with an average donation of $33.85. And this cycle, more than 13,000 campaigns and organizations have raised money on the platform, according to ActBlue, up from about 5,000 total for the 2014 election cycle.
But rejecting corporate PAC money can cost candidates, especially incumbent senators such as New York’s Gillibrand. Her campaign estimates it has forsworn nearly a million dollars in potential donations.
Grechen Shirley, 37, who lives in Amityville, said most of her individual contributions were from within the district, and the vast majority from within the state, and that most came from working people. “Where the money comes from is as important as how much we raise.”
Ferguson said polling shows that “the biggest gains come among independent voters when you turn down the influence of corporate tax money in politics. Which is not surprising: Democrats believe Democrats, Republicans believe Republicans and independents doubt the credibility of both parties. So if you are willing to turn down corporate PAC money, it makes the case you are standing up for working people more credible to those critically needed independent voters.”
Concern about special-interest influence on politics and policy is not just a Democratic issue, said Andy Bozzi, spokesman for End Citizens United, a group that studies and advocates for campaign finance reform and is itself a PAC funded by small donations from more than 400,000 people. “I think both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump talked about the issue of a rigged system and money in politics,” Bozzi said. “They did it in different ways but showed that it’s not just one party’s voters who are concerned about this issue.”
In fact, Trump’s campaign raised $239 million from donors who gave less than $200, or 69 percent of his individual donations. That was far more than any other Republican candidate — and more than his Democratic opponents — and accomplished in only a few months over the course of his presidential run. However, he also accepts contributions from corporate PACs.
While there is still an ongoing debate in the Democratic Party about giving up such contributions, Bozzi said, “we believe it’s good policy and good politics not to take it. I think a new crop of candidates are more in tune with the voters across the country.”
As one Democratic operative suggested, “The days of the big giant donors controlling the party is in the rear view mirror. There is a change in the party and in the long run, this is where the party is headed . . . and should be headed.”