Ehlers Discloses Portrait Donors

Vern Ehlers Has Partially Disclosed Donors To His Congressional Portrait

Over the weekend, the Grand Rapids Press reported that Representative Vern Ehlers provided them with a list of donors that he had previously refused to disclose. Ehlers is currently raising the funds to pay for a portrait of Ehlers that will be hung in a committee room in the U.S. Capitol.

However, while the Grand Rapids Press praised this “disclosure”, Ehlers has still not fully disclosed the donors. He is still refusing to release the amounts that donors have contributed–saying only that the maximum contribution was $5,000–and has not posted the list on his website, instead providing it only to The Grand Rapids Press, a media outlet that has long supported Ehlers.

According to the Press, the donors include:

  • Verizon
  • Dan and Pam DeVos
  • Richard and Helen DeVos
  • Doug and Maria DeVos
  • Terri Lynn Land
  • Fred and Lena Meijer
  • Norma and Lewis Van Kuiken
  • The Secchia Family Foundation
  • The Frey Foundation
  • Steelcase

Many of these folks are long-time supporters of Vern Ehlers according to Pam and Dan DeVos have given over $20,000 to Ehlers, Richard and Helen DeVos have given over $19,000, and Norma and Lewis Van Kuiken over $7,000.

Ehlers has said that he should not be criticized, saying “Instead of criticizing me, folks should be saying, ‘He’s doing it the way it should be done, with folks back home raising money for him.”

However, the portrait is being funded by the wealthy, white folks that have traditionally supported him and benefited from the policies that he has supported in Congress.

Ehlers Denies Report that Lobbyists are Funding Congressional Portrait

Vern Ehlers Says Lobbyists Are Funding His Congressional Portrait, But Refuses Disclosure

West Michigan Congressman Vern Ehlers is denying a report that lobbyists are funding a commemorative portrait of him that will be hung in the US Capitol Building.

According to The Hill, Ehlers is one of three members of Congress who are currently raising money for portraits. The money will be given to the US Capitol Historical Society who will then commission the paintings. Ehlers–along with Jerry Lewis and Don Manzullo–has established a committee to fund a Congressional portrait. Ehlers and his chief of staff are coordinating donations, and according to the article, have received a $5,000 donation from Verizon.

Watchdog Group Questions Fundraising

In The Hill, the watchdog group Public Citizen questioned the fundraising, saying the portraits are another way through which major corporations, business groups, and lobbyists can purchase influence. Craig Holman of Public Citizen was quoted saying, “Note that there are few, if any, private funders for these portraits that do not have business pending before Congress” and that “This is an influence-peddling opportunity identical in nature to special interests hosting dinners and receptions that honor a member of Congress before whom they have pressing business.”

Ehlers Denies Lobbyists Raising Money, but Disclosure Limited

The Grand Rapids Press reported Wednesday that Ehlers’ spokesperson is denying that lobbyists are raising money to pay for Ehlers’ portrait.

Ehlers’ spokesperson, Kevin Chapman, says in The Press that “Vern has strong integrity” and that “He is one of the most independent thinkers in Congress, and he absolutely does not allow fundraising activities to influence his decision-making as a legislator.”

However, the response is essentially one that asks for constituents to simply trust Ehlers. Ehlers is portrayed as a man of integrity, but there is no way to verify that claim. This is especially true because Ehlers’ office is refusing to disclose donors, saying only that 90% are from West Michigan and that “the vast majority of donors to Vern’s portrait fund do not have pressing business before Congress.” Without knowing who the donors are, there is no way to tell if they are influencing legislation.

It’s also worth noting that in the 2008 election cycle, 46% of Ehlers’ campaign funds came from PACs.

The Inauguration: Brought to you by the Wealthy

Barack Obama's Inauguration was paid for by a small number of wealthy donors and fundraisers

While many of us spent today watching Obama’s inauguration, few news sources have reported on where the money for the lavish inauguration festivities comes from. Contrary to what it may seem, it is not public money. Rather, inauguration funds are raised by the incoming administration.

Positive Steps towards Transparency

As he did in his presidential campaign, Obama banned corporate and lobbyist funding for his inauguration. He also greatly expanded disclosure of donor information and improved transparency of what has often been in the past a closed, unregulated process. He also set voluntary limits of $50,000 for individual contributions and $300,000 for bundled contributions.

However, while Obama’s disclosure deserves praise, it does not mask the fact that the inauguration was paid for largely by wealthy donors hoping for a final chance to buy influence with the new administration.

Despite Transparency, Inauguration Still Paid for by a Handful of Wealthy Donors

The group Public Citizen reports that 80% of Obama’s total inauguration contributions ($35.3 million) came from just 211 individual “bundlers.” “Bundlers” are well-connected fundraisers–often corporate executives, lawyers, or other individuals with position of power–who collect contributions from individuals and deliver them to the inaugural committee. Of the 5,632 reported contributions to the inaugural committee, only 113 were “small” contributions of $200.

Among those donating were prominent Wall Street executives:

  • Louis Susman, vice chairman of Citigroup Corporate and Investment Banking and managing director, vice chairman of investment banking, Citigroup ($300,000)
  • Mark Gilbert, senior executive, Lehman Brothers ($185,000)
  • Robert Wolf, chairman and CEO, UBS Americas ($100,000)
  • Jennifer Scully, vice president, private wealth management, Goldman Sachs ($100,000)
  • Bruce Heyman, managing director of the Private Wealth Management Group, Midwest region, Goldman Sachs ($50,000)
  • Kobi Brinson, senior vice president and assistant general counsel, Wachovia ($35,000)

Inaugural Donations Bring Increased Access

Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook stated in a news release, “The inauguration is the last chance for big donors to throw money at the feet of the president.” As shown above, wealthy donors are taking this seriously, and in many ways, Obama is accommodating their desires.

While Obama has said that inauguration donors will not have undue influence, the money donated to the inauguration does buy increased access. Yesterday, USA Today reported that:

“Contributors who gave at least $10,000 to help underwrite the inauguration received two tickets to witness the Democrat take the oath of office, watch the Inaugural Parade and party at one of the 10 black-tie balls attended by Obama and his wife, Michelle. Those who gave $50,000 — or raised $300,000 from other contributors — received a total of four tickets to official inaugural activities.

Donors also were invited to private gatherings, such as a Sunday “welcome brunch” with an entertainment lineup that included singer Carole King and a Sunday evening reception organized by Penny Pritzker, a Chicago hotel executive who was Obama’s top campaign fundraiser. Today, donors can attend a breakfast briefing with policymakers, including Tom Daschle, Obama’s pick to run the Health and Human Services Department.”

In the article, Public Citizen research Alexander Cohen called the donor benefits “unseemly.”

In response, an Obama spokeswoman said donors will not have undue sway: “”The president-elect made it clear throughout his campaign that the people who have power in his campaign are the grass-roots.”

Obama Transition Team Includes Fundraisers and Lobbyists

Obama’s Transition Team features a number of bundlers, fundraisers, and lobbyists according to a new review by the Center for Responsive Politics.


The Center for Responsive Politics has released a new database of Obama’s transition team members and their research suggests it might not have been just their resumes and expertise that got them places on the team. According to the research, many members of the team either contributed to Obama’s campaign or were current or former lobbyists.

The Center provides a useful breakdown of the numbers:

$824,155: Minimum total that transition team members contributed to Obama’s campaign and to joint fundraising committees formed to support his election. Like figures below, this amount may well be higher. Lacking more than just a name for many team members, CRP has not been able to match everyone to our databases.

$3,869.27: Average contribution to Obama and joint fundraising committees from those on the transition team who contributed to the president-elect this election cycle. Supporters were limited to giving $4,600 directly to Obama since the start of 2007 but could give additional money to the Democratic party.

56: Percent of all announced transition team members who contributed to Obama or a joint fundraising committee supporting his candidacy.

$2 million: Total amount that donating transition team members gave to Democratic candidates and committees this cycle.

$7,977.04: Average contribution that donating transition team members gave to all federal candidates, parties and committees this election cycle. Any individual could give up to $108,200 this election cycle. The percentage of Americans who give even $200 to federal politics is less than one-half of 1 percent.

6: Number of team members who, apparently, didn’t give money to any Democratic party committee or candidate, including Obama, but contributed to Republicans or other parties.

23: Number of transition team leaders who are, or have been since 1998, federally registered lobbyists. Seven of them were registered lobbyists as of the start of this year. Obama has prohibited currently registered lobbyists from working on his transition team in fields of policy on which they’ve tried to influence Congress in the last year. They’re also required to stop all lobbying activity during their transition work.

14: Number of transition team members who raised at least $50,000 for Obama’s campaign. Every one of these bundlers also gave at least $2,300 to Obama out of his or her own pocket.

$2.8 million: Minimum total amount bundled by members of the transition team.

Once again, it’s important to make note of these facts and to consider how they might shape progressive strategy.

Top PACs Raise $37.1 Million

Michigan’s top PACs have raised less money than the record setting 2006 election cycle, but they are still up 25% from 2004.

Michigan’s top 150 political action committees (PACs) have raised $37.1 million according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The number is down 28.5% from the 2006 election–due in part due to a smaller number of state level races–but still up 25% from 2004.

Several PACs were up significantly, including the House Democratic Fund which is up by 11.4%. It is also worth noting that Kalamazoo philanthropist John Stryker is the greatest single source of money in Michigan politics. His PAC contributions included:

“Coalition for Progress: $3,834,300; Michigan Equality PAC: $255,000; Michigan List: $135,000; Planned Parenthood: $75,000; America Votes Michigan: $50,000; Michigan Pride PAC: $50,000; Lieutenant Governor John Cherry’s Genesee Fund: $24,000; the House Democratic Fund: $20,000; and the Civic Fund: $15,000. He also has given $320,000 to the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee and $100,000 to Cure Michigan, the proponent of Proposal 2.”

The Great Lakes Education Project–a PAC formed by the DeVos family–once again has become a leading PAC, raising $450,000. $250,000 of that money came from Richard and Helen DeVos and $100,000 from Dick and Betsy DeVos.

60% of Television Advertising for Supreme Court Race “Off the Books”

The campaign for Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court is being shaped by advertisements bought with next to no disclosure according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network is reporting that the campaign for Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court is largely an “underground” campaign where much of the spending is not subject to campaign finance regulations.

According to the organization, 60% of the television advertising in the race is “off the books.” The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee have spent $1,783,000 for television advertisements that attempt to “define the record, qualifications and character of one candidate or the other.” However, because the advertisements never mention voting, they are not required to report their spending in campaign financing reports, nor do they have to disclose the source of the money.

Executive Director Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network says “The peril in this is that an individual or interest group could secretly spend a million dollars to market a candidate – a very important contribution, and then have that justice vote to select its case and rule on its case.”

The Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo combined market has seen $724,090 in spending from Taylor’s campaign, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee. The area has seen the second highest amount of ad spending after Detroit.

US Elections Will Cost $5.3 Billion

This election is likely to be the most expensive US election in history, with Democrat Barack Obama shattering previous fundraising records. But what does this mean for democracy, and will these contributions impact legislation?

In September, Democratic candidate Barack Obama broke the record for money raised in one month by a presidential candidate, raising $150 million. To date, he has raised more than Bush and Kerry did combined in the 2004 election and his campaign is spending money in ways that no other candidate has.

According to Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, “The Obama campaign has “flooded the zone” with advertising. It has a full-time “Obama Channel” on Dish Network. Ads have been inserted into video games like “Guitar Hero.” The campaign has bought a full 30 minutes of prime-time airtime on NBC, CBS, and Fox six days before the election. Fox even moved the start time of the World Series to accommodate the ad buy, provided there will be a Game 6.

Goodman is one of the few reporters in the US to raise the question of what this level of campaign fundraising and spending will mean for democracy. The Obama campaign has been claiming that most of his money is coming from small donors, but as we reported a few days ago, the bulk of his money is coming from large corporate sectors.

The Center for Responsive Politics (CPR) recently predicted that $5.3 billion would be spent on this election before it is over, making it the most expensive election to date. $2.4 billion will be spent on the presidential election alone. The CPR has documented that business interests account for about 72% of the money that has been raised so far. The non-partisan website also reports that the leading industries for campaign contributions in 2008 are real estate, insurance and finance. However, the dominant donor group by far is the financial sector, which has favored Democratic candidates overwhelmingly:

“After ActBlue, the online organization that directs individual contributions to progressive candidates, the top corporation in 2008 is once again Goldman Sachs. The global investment bank’s employees and PAC have contributed at least $5 million to the ’08 campaign. Citigroup is next at $4.2 million, followed by JPMorgan Chase & Co. at $4.1 million. The biggest-giving industry association is the National Association of Realtors, which has given nearly $3.2 million.”

The CPR also identifies incumbents as the likely winners in this year’s election. All candidates for the House and the Senate have raised $1.5 billion as of the most recent FEC filing, with incumbents having a very substantial advantage over newcomers. Executive Director of CPR, Sheila Krumholtz states:

“The Democrats’ takeover of Congress in the 2006 election quickly shifted the fundraising advantage to their side. Money follows power. The Republican Party’s longtime lead in the campaign finance game has been erased in this election, due to the Democrats’ control of the congressional agenda and their side’s more skillful use of online fundraising, especially in the presidential race.”

We will provide any updates on this issue in the remaining days before the election and more importantly, we will continue to track how campaign contributions impact legislation after the New Year, no matter which administration takes office.

Third Party Candidates’ Election Fundraising is Less than Obama Raises in a Day

The third party candidates for president this election have collectively raised less all campaign than Democrat Barack Obama averages in a day. Its another example of the many challenges facing third party candidates.

This election year, has reported on a number of the difficulties facing third party candidates for president. We have covered the difficulties candidates face in getting on the ballot, their frequent exclusion from debates, and their exclusion from media coverage. Many of these methods of marginalizing third parties are institutionalized by laws and policies deliberately designed to make it difficult for candidates to operation outside of the two party system.

Another area in which third party candidates face nearly insurmountable difficulties is fundraising. The Center for Public Integrity recently reviewed third party fundraising and found that it pales in comparison to the major party candidates. Ralph Nader’s independent campaign has raised the most out of third party challenges, taking in $3.7 million. His total is more than triple that of the next closest, Libertarian candidate Bob Barr, who has raised $1.1 million. Other candidacies don’t even come close to that amount, with Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney raising only $177,915, Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin raising $241,934, and independent candidate Alan Keyes raising $415,000.

By comparison, Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama has raised $621 million and Republican candidate John McCain has raised $371.3 million. In September, Obama’s daily average–over $5 million per day–was more than that raised by third party candidates all election.

Of course, the candidates’ fundraising difficulties are intertwined with the other challenges facing them. Few people will see them as viable candidates worth their financial support if they don’t receive media attention, yet the media often dismisses third party candidates as not having “visible” campaigns. Yet, how can they be visible if they don’t have the money to travel the country, pay organizers, and receive the free media coverage given the major party candidates?

“Either Way 08” Video Targets Corporate Support for Presidential Candidates

The local antiwar group ACTIATE has released a new parody video titled “Either Way ’08” that looks at how corporations will win no matter which candidate gets elected.

The Grand Rapids based group ACTIVATE has produced a video parodying how corporations support both major party candidates. While the video is somewhat of a joke, it underlies the fact that big business has a disproportionate influence on presidential elections in the United States.

The video:

ACTIVATE further writes:

“Of course, this video is a parody and cannot convey a complete analysis of the elections or provide a comprehensive critique of electoral politics as a strategy for social change. We encourage anyone viewing the video to consult a piece ACTIVATE wrote earlier this year on the role of elections.”

Obama’s Small Donors: Not as Simple as It Seems

Many partisans of Obama–and reporters in the media–are quick to point out that Obama’s campaign is a “grassroots” campaign built on the support of “small donors.” However, a new review by the Washington Post shows that only a quarter of his money comes from such donors.

One of the most prominent refrains coming from Democrats and progressives regarding the candidacy of Barack Obama is that he is a new kind of politician. Most often, partisans point to the community organizing model employed by the campaign and the fundraising support that Obama has received from small donors. For many, the support of small donors shows that Obama’s campaign is a “grassroots” candidacy.

However, a new report from the Washington Post calls the second argument into question. According to a review of donors to Obama by Washington Post reporters, Obama’s fundraising power does not come simply from small donors (those giving under $200) as many would have you believe. Rather, the reporters write:

“Lost in the attention given to Obama’s Internet surge is that only a quarter of the $600 million he has raised has come from donors who made contributions of $200 or less, according to a review of his FEC reports. That is actually slightly less, as a percentage, than President Bush raised in small donations during his 2004 race, although Obama has pulled from a far larger number of donors. In 2004, the Bush campaign claimed more than 2 million donors, while the Obama campaign claims to have collected its total from more than 3.1 million individuals.”

While his donor base is wider than previous campaigns, Obama’s financial support still relies heavily on major contributions:

“From the start, Obama’s campaign has designed a fundraising effort that tries to maximize contributions from both small and large donors. That effort expanded in late summer, when Obama prepared to accept his party’s nomination and the DNC set up separate committees that would enable top donors to give as much as $65,500 to support his bid.

The best-known of those committees, the Obama Victory Fund, has catered to party regulars who attended one of dozens of gala events around the country, including VIP gatherings for those able to donate $28,500. The Committee for Change has quietly accepted millions more, in checks ranging from $5,000 to $66,900, from celebrities, corporate titans, Native American tribes and several of Obama’s most ardent bundlers.

The closest equivalent to the soft-money donors of the Clinton era, or to Bush’s “Pioneers” and “Rangers,” are those who have contributed to each facet of the Obama fundraising machine.

Among those who have both raised top dollar and donated it are St. Louis developer Bob Clark, Florida lawyer Mark Gilbert, and Hollywood moguls Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose children each gave $37,000 to the Committee for Change.

The Crowns, longtime Obama patrons, are among a handful who have given across the board: They raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s campaign, they collectively gave $18,500 directly to the campaign, they donated $57,000 to the Victory Fund, and they sent $74,000 to the Committee for Change.”

According to the Center for Public Integrity’s Bill Buzenberg this is problematic because:

“What is wrong with this is, after this election, the people have bundled and put together big pots of money are going to come back to whoever is elected, and they will be looking for access and influence.”

Obama has developed a sophisticated fundraising machine by bypassing traditional public financing. However, while he has amassed a huge financial advantage of the McCain campaign, it begs the question of who will hold more influence in an Obama White House–a college student who gives $25 dollars over the Internet or an Obama patron who has donated several thousand. Moreover, it is worth noting that while McCain has said that the current campaign finance system is “broken,” he has not proposed an alternative system on his campaign website or for mitigating the influence of those that give more.