By Scott Van Voorhis
Sarah Kuranda and Jenna Russo New England Center for Investigative Reporting
---- — Click HERE for an interactive list of the 17 largest donors.
Unleashed by a controversial Supreme Court ruling, top corporate power players in Massachusetts are pumping millions into Bay State campaign coffers as the White House and a coveted U.S. Senate seat hang in the balance.
A trio of big name business leaders, including a sneaker tycoon, a top Bain Capital executive and a biotech entrepreneur, have pumped more than $1 million each into the presidential campaign, the hard-fought Brown-Warren race for Senate and other contests, according to a review of campaign records by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
NECIR analyzed a newly created, comprehensive data base 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 in Massachusetts and across the country.
The data reveals a more complete picture of the true scope of Massachusetts donors’ political reach than previously disclosed, showing that deep-pocketed donors give more to federal, not state, causes and candidates. Despite its reputation as the “bluest state.” contributions from Massachusetts were fairly bipartisan.
The surge of spending has been fueled in part by a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that has given executives and companies the ability to dole out unlimited amounts of cash for the political causes they support, campaign finance experts say.
In fact, some top executives are now funneling most of their campaign dollars not to the candidates but rather to the so-called super PACs that have become major players in the nightly political ad wars on TV.
“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, a group dedicated to battling the influence of money in politics. “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 2011-2012 election cycle, the NECIR analysis shows.
— — 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 firm.
— Paul Edgerly, a long-time 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.
— Newton billionaire Jim Davis, chairman of New Balance, and his wife Anne have spent $1,104,100, almost all of it on Republican efforts to retake the White House.
— 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 Massachusetts Senate challenger Elizabeth Warren to Al Franken, the comedian turned U.S. senator.
— 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.
Meanwhile, a who’s who of local business executives coughed up hundreds of thousands in cash for their favored causes and candidates.
Overall, 19 executives and 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), Putnam Investments chief Robert Reynolds ($438,300), and supermarket 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. “My personal giving history is publicly available through the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance and the Federal Election Commission. “
The other power players highlighted above either declined comment through public relations representatives or could not be reached for comment.
The Bay State’s corporate elite may be as divided in their loyalties as the rest of the country during a bitterly partisan election season.
But one common thread 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 Citizens United, these shadowy political committees are helping reshape the state and national political landscapes this election cycle.
In Citizens United, the high court ruled that government couldn’t ban corporations and unions from making direct political expenditures. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. later gave even more power to the super PACs, permitting acceptance of unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions.
The only limitation is that such independent expenditure committees can’t coordinate their actions with candidates or directly put money into campaign coffers, Wilmot said. But free to make their case through ads and other venues, super PACs have become a major political force.
The decision allows super wealthy contributors to pump large sums directly into races rather than having to spread the money around to multiple committees and candidates to stay within federal and state contribution limits, which remain in place for individual candidates.
For local executives looking to dish off big chunks of campaign cash, super PACs have become a favorite vehicle.
Of the $1,104,100 that Davis, the billionaire athletic shoe tycoon with a factory in Lawrence, has contributed this election cycle, a total of $1 million has gone to Restore Our Future, a super PAC backing Mitt Romney.
Davis spread the rest to a range of candidates, mainly Republicans. The roster includes congressional candidates Sean Bielat and Richard Tisei, as well as U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a contender to take over the powerful Senate Finance Committee should Republicans win control of the chamber come November.
Other conservative power couples also put money into Restore Our Future.
Paul and Sandra Edgerly pumped a million into that super PAC, while Kevin and Debra Rollins chipped in $500,000. For both couples, this represented the majority of their political expenditures during this election cycle.
And local wealthy contributors backing liberal causes and candidates were hardly outdone, pumping big money into their own set of super PACs.
Paul Egerman, eScription chief, ploughed $250,000 into Priorities USA, $200,000 into American Bridge 21st Century and $100,000 into the House Majority PAC. His wife Joanne gave $100,000 to Planned Parenthood Votes.
Meanwhile, Reinier Beeuwkes, the Harvard Medical professor turned biotech chief, gave $100,000 to Priorities USA while his wife Nancy Beeuwkes donated $200,000 into American Bridge and $250,000 into Women Vote!
Influence of money
As financiers and tycoons pump more cash than ever before into campaign coffers, their generosity is raising questions about the influence such large sums of money can have on the political system.
Robert Boatright, a Clark University political science professor and campaign finance expert, said most big contributors aren’t looking to hit the jackpot, just score dinner or a phone call of appreciation from the candidate.
“I don’t know that they are getting individual favors in return, although it’s not uncommon for presidents (Democratic and Republican alike) to occasionally reward a large contributor with an ambassador post or something of that nature,” Boatright said. “I suspect that large donors agree with a candidate’s general perspective but generally don’t want anything more than the occasional gesture of appreciation – dinner with the candidate, a phone call.”
But others contend that power players who contribute more than a million are likely taking a business-like approach to their political activity.
While ideology plays into the decision by wealthy individuals to open their wallets for certain candidates, it would be naïve to think that high-powered business executives aren’t expecting a return on their investment, said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause’s national office in Washington, D.C. For big donors and fundraisers, there can be an array of potential rewards, including political appointments and even an ambassadorship, or the chance to gain favorable treatment for business endeavors.
“A million dollars today is a very significant contribution, whether the givers will acknowledge it or not,” Boyle said. “They are all savvy business people — they don’t invest a million dollars without expecting something in return.”
That said, some contributors say they are none too thrilled with the current system either.
One of the most prolific contributors to political campaigns in Massachusetts and nationally, Barbara Lee said the system needs reform.
“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,” Lee wrote in an email to NECIR.
Albert Merck, a former director of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. was blunter when reached by phone at his Lexington home.
Merck has given thousands over the past two years to the Massachusetts Republican Party and to promising state legislative candidates fielded by the state’s minority party, as well as to Sen. Scott Brown and Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney.
A lifelong Republican, Merck would like to see more competition in Democrat-dominated Massachusetts.
But he also made clear he finds the current, increasingly money dominated political system distasteful, arguing it 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 and supported in part by media outlets that include The Eagle-Tribune. This story was done in collaboration with the Investigative News Network.
For this story, NECIR teamed up with the Investigative News Network to examine the top contributors to campaign coffers and political committees in Massachusetts and six other states. The Center for Responsive Politics provided the federal data while the state data was provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.