February 23, 2012
Donors With Agendas
The presidential primary season is being brought to you by a handful of multimillionaires and companies who have propped up the candidates with enormous donations to their "super PACs." Just two dozen or so individuals, couples and companies have given more than 80 percent of the money collected by super PACs, or $54 million, according to disclosure forms released on Monday.
Freed of nearly all regulations or good sense by Citizens United and other court decisions, the super PACs are raising money in ludicrously large sums. The $10 million from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson to Winning Our Future, which has sustained Newt Gingrich's trailing campaign, is the biggest single donation to a candidate. But every candidate now has his own millionaire supporter, and the concentration of wealth in the campaign is growing.
The people writing these outsize checks are committed to defeating President Obama, but their interests don't stop there. Many are involved in businesses or ideological causes that have clear policy agendas with the federal government. Their huge influence on individual candidates demonstrates the potential for corruption inherent in the super PAC era. Among the biggest givers:
* Harold Simmons, a billionaire corporate raider, has given $1 million to Mr. Gingrich's political action committee, $1.1 million to Rick Perry's PAC, $100,000 to Mitt Romney's PAC, and $10 million to American Crossroads, the super PAC advised by Karl Rove that is supporting many Republican candidates. Mr. Simmons's companies make metals, paints and chemicals, among other things, and have gotten into trouble over lead and uranium emissions from previous decades. He also runs a radioactive waste dump in Texas that has clashed with environmental regulators over its proximity to a nearby aquifer. He controls Waste Control Specialists, which has contracts to clean up federal hazardous waste sites, including emissions from other companies he controls.
* Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an outspoken libertarian, gave $2.6 million to Ron Paul's PAC. In 2009, he wrote that the 1920s were the last decade when one could be optimistic about American politics, lamenting the subsequent rise of the welfare state that he blamed in part on giving women the right to vote.
* Foster Friess, who gave $1 million to Rick Santorum's Red White and Blue PAC, is a mutual fund manager who recently declared that aspirin used to be an effective contraceptive when women put it between their knees. He is a former president of the Council for National Policy, a secretive club of some of the country's most powerful conservatives, which opposes unions, same-sex marriage and government regulation.
In addition, six-figure checks were given to Mr. Romney by seven executives at hedge funds or investment firms. Leaders of this industry are interested in fewer regulations and a low tax rate for their type of income.
President Obama's super PAC, Priorities USA Action, received only two seven-figure checks last year, one from the Service Employees International Union for $1 million, and one from the movie executive Jeffrey Katzenberg for $2 million. (Mr. Katzenberg said last month that he was disappointed with Mr. Obama's opposition to antipiracy legislation but would continue to raise money for him.)
Until a few weeks ago, the president might have credibly campaigned against the undue influence of special interests on his Republican rivals. He can no longer make the case because, after his PAC received only $58,816 last month, Mr. Obama invited donors to give without limits. And all but the most privileged Americans will pay the price if the nation's wealthiest can buy elections.