Corporate titans bankroll key races in wake of Citizen's United ruling

Monday October 29, 2012

Unleashed by the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, top corporate power players in Mass achusetts are pumping millions into an array of campaign coffers and freewheeling political committees as control of the White House and a coveted Bay State Senate seat hangs in the balance, a review of contribution records show.

A trio of big-name business leaders, including a sneaker tycoon, a top Bain Capital executive, and a biotech entrepreneur, has chipped in well more than $1 million each into the presidential campaign, the state’s hard-fought Senate race, and other contests, according to a review by the New England Center for Inves tigative Re porting. NECIR analyzed a newly created, comprehensive database that combines federal contributions with contributions from seven states, including Massachusetts.

Overall, two dozen Bay State executives have contributed $200,000 and up during the last two years to state and federal candidates, both in the state and across the country.

The data presents a more complete picture of the scope of Massachusetts donors’ political reach, revealing that deep-pocketed donors give more to federal, not state, causes and candidates. Despite its reputation as the "bluest state," Massachusetts contributions were fairly bipartisan.

The spending surge is fueled partially by a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision giving corporate donors permission to dole out unlimited amounts of cash for political causes, experts say.

Some top executives now funnel most donations to "super PACs" that have become major players in nightly political TV ad wars.

"It is a terrible ruling that has opened the floodgates to unlimited amounts of money to be spent in our elections," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts. "The result is a distorted election and increasing opportunities for corruption in our political system."

The big players

Bay State power couples are the leading donors in the 2011-12 election cycle, the NECIR analysis shows.

n Reinier and Nancy Beeuwkes of Concord top the list of the biggest political givers from Massachusetts, chipping in $1,137,800 to an array of Democratic candidates, from President Obama on down to the Maine Democratic Committee. A former Harvard Medical School professor, Reinier chairs Ischemix, a Maynard-based biotech.

n Paul Edgerly, a longtime Bain Capital director, and his wife, Sandra, of Brookline, have doled out $1,091,600 to an array of Republican candidates, from Mitt Romney on down.

n Newton billionaire Jim Davis, chairman of New Balance, has spent $1,104,100, almost all of it on Republican efforts to retake the White House.

n Paul Egerman, co-chairman and chief executive officer of eScription, and his wife, Joanne, of Weston, dropped $904,550 into a range of Democratic causes and candidates across the country, from Senate challenger Elizabeth Warren to Al Franken, the comedian turned Minnesota U.S. senator.

n Former Dell chief Kevin Rollins and his wife, Debra, of Dover, have spent nearly $638,700 on contributions to a range of Republican candidates and causes.

In addition, 19 executives or wealthy individuals shelled out enough in contributions to buy a house, ranging from just over $220,000 to nearly half a million. An exclusive club, it includes philanthropist and backer of women candidates Barbara Lee ($492,371), Put nam Investments chief Robert Reynolds ($438,300), and super market fortune heir David Mugar ($367,815).

"Personally, I contribute to progressive candidates, and I have helped to elect every sitting woman Democratic governor and U.S. senator," wrote Lee, former wife of billionaire Boston financier Thomas Lee, in an email.

The other power players highlighted above either declined comment through a spokesperson or couldn’t be reached.

Rise of unlimited spending

Bay State corporate elites may be as divided in loyalty as the rest of the country during a particularly bitterly partisan election season.

But uniting both conservative and liberal contributors has been the rise of the super PACs, which have opened the door to unlimited political expenditures by wealthy individuals and corporations.

Set loose by the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2010, Citizens United, these shadowy political committees are reshaping the state and national political landscapes.

The ruling stated government couldn’t ban corporations and unions from making direct political expenditures. A subsequent appellate court decision allows super PACs to take unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions.

The only limitation is that independent expenditure committees can’t coordinate with candidates or directly fill campaign coffers, Wilmot said. But free to make their case through ads and other venues, Super PAC’s are a major political force.

The super wealthy now can pump large sums into races. Previously, federal and state contribution limits, which remain in place for individual candidates, required donors to spread the money around.

"The large contributions to super PACs this year clearly are a function of the Citizens United and court decisions," said Clark University political science professor Robert Boatright. "It’s a regrettable development and the cumulative consequences of all of this money means that candidates have less control of their campaign messages, the public is subjected to a flood of special interest advertising."

Influence seekers

While ideology plays a role in whether the wealthy write checks for candidates, it’s naive to think that high-powered business executives aren’t expecting a return on their investment, said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause in Washington D.C. For major donors, there can be wide potential rewards, including political appointments, an ambassadorship or favorable business treatment.

"A million dollars today is a very significant contribution, whether the givers will ac knowledge it or not," Boyle said. "They are all savvy business people -- they don’t invest a million dollars without expecting something in return."

Still, some contributors question the current money-soaked political environment.

"I am a strong proponent of reforming our campaign finance system, because a campaign finance system that best serves the interests of the public is one that is transparent and levels the playing field for all people," Barbara Lee wrote in an email to NECIR.

Republican Albert Merck, former director of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., was blunter.

Merck has given thousands since 2011 to Massachusetts Republicans like U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney.

He wants more competition in Democratic Massachusetts, saying the increasing need for political wealth is "corrupting the system."

"If you want to run, you can’t run without good amounts of money," Merck said. "We are trapped."

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit investigative newsroom based at Boston University.


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