Analysis: ‘Power Players’ Donated $20m to Fuel Campaigns
View MASSACHUSETTS POWER PLAYERS 2012-2014 in a full screen map
By Ashley Jones, Dan DeFraia, Isabel Schooler, Ana Maria Lopez Jijon and Xuedong Wang
BU News Service
BOSTON – Since 2011, a staggering $20 million has been dumped into the campaign war chests of a slew of Massachusetts candidates and political action committees or super PACs, by an elite set of corporate and cultural Bay State power brokers, a new analysis of campaign finance data by Boston University journalism students has found.
The moneyed slate of 18 “power players” include a quartet of husband-and-wife teams who have long been active in state and national politics, as well as new members, including sneaker tycoon Arnold S. Hiatt and Schooner Capital founder Vincent J. Ryan.
An average donation from just one member of the exclusive group of individual donors equaled the same amount of money given by roughly 37,000 average Massachusetts residents in the same time period. All of Massachusetts – about 6.69 million people, according to 2013 census data – gave about $227 million since Jan. 1, 2011, meaning the current power players donated about 9.08 percent of total election contributions from individuals since then, the analysis shows.
The huge sums from a tiny but influential corps of Massachusetts residents are cause for concern for some critics of the unlimited campaign spending unleashed since 2010 by two pivotal U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The rulings found it unconstitutional, as a matter of free speech, to limit both election spending by corporations, unions and non-profits as well as the aggregate amount a donor can contribute to a federal candidate, PAC or party committee in a single election cycle.
The impact: wealthy donors can steer vast cash to the so-called super PACS, who in turn can spend unchecked amounts on political ads or other electioneering tools to advance their candidate or cause. The big money can bring big results for certain well-heeled spenders, critics of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions said.
“Usually you don’t write a check with six or seven figures on it because you’re a great believer in the democratic system,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit open government group based in Washington, D.C. “You’re usually trying to make a political investment because you have interests before the government.”
For the 2014 election cycle, super PACs collected about $593 million, spending $339 million of that money in support of their various agendas, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit campaign finance watchdog group.
“We’re in big trouble as a democracy until we reign in all of this large spending,” said Pam Wilmot, Executive Director at Common Cause Massachusetts, a non-profit government watchdog group in Boston.
The Massachusetts power players emerged from an analysis of combined federal and state donations in the past two election cycles. It was compiled by the non-profit Investigative News Network in California, and shared with journalists across the country this fall. The Center for Responsive Politics provided the federal data while the state data was provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The Massachusetts power player contributions skyrocketed during the 2012 presidential election, with the donors giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to both progressive and conservative political action committees or super PACs, and smaller, though sizable contributions to federal and state candidates in both parties.
The compilation provides a broader picture of the true financial influence of elite donors in the current state and federal races and reveals some wealthy Massachusetts contributors edging out their peers, who had dominated a similar top donor list in 2010-2012 election cycles, but have since fallen off.
Those include Brookline philanthropist Dr. Ellen M. Poss, supermarket heir David Mugar and the family of Robert Reynolds, president and CEO at Putnam Investments and Great West Financial.
None of the current power players agreed to be interviewed, despite numerous phone and email requests.
Eight couples each occupy a spot on the power player list; married partners often donate separately to the same causes and politicians as a way to give more money while still complying with legal limits on individual donations. But their combined totals, calculated by the analysis, sharply illuminate their giving power to favored candidates and committees.
Philip (Terry) Ragon, founder of Cambridge-based technology company Intersystems, and his wife Susan, were the top contributing couple, donating more than $3.3 million to Democratic super PACs and candidates.
The Ragons, both executives at Intersystems, have contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense to provide electronic medical database reports to the Veteran’s Administration, and have spent more than $75,000 in lobbying efforts since January 2014.
“Mr. Ragon rarely gives media interviews, and he prefers not to comment on his campaign contributions… because of personal preferences,” said Catherine Marenghi, corporate director of media and analyst relations at Intersystems.
Trailing the Ragons’ in the second power couple slot, with donations of $2.7 million, are Beth S. Klarman and her husband, Seth A. Klarman, billionaire co-founder and CEO of Baupost Group, a Boston-based hedge fund. The Klarmans gave mostly to Republican candidates and super PACs.
Diana DeSocio, director of corporate communications for Baupost, said Klarman does not usually grant interviews, and would not make an exception for this story.
Although most power players decline to divulge their motives for giving, Cambridge philanthropist Barbara Lee, who runs a foundation dedicated to increasing female involvement in politics, directs her money towards pro-choice, progressive candidates.
“Change starts with being empowered,” said Erin Souza, a spokeswoman for Lee, who occupies the 9th spot on the Bay State power players list with donations totaling $1,033,845 since 2011, the data shows.
In 2012, Lee, the former wife of billionaire Boston financier Thomas Lee, proudly pointed out she had helped elect every sitting female Democratic governor and U.S. senator to date.
“Our goal is to be pragmatic and see what we can do about the challenges women still face in politics,” said Souza, her spokeswoman.
This story was produced in a reporting research class taught by BU Clinical Professor of Journalism Maggie Mulvihill. It is part of an Investigative News Network collaboration examining the major political donors in states across the U.S. To view other stories in this initiative, please visit www.investigativenewsnetwork.