Editor’s note: The following is adapted from Chapter 2 of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money, released this week from John Wiley & Sons.
The New York City sky was perfectly blue, and the Great Lawn splendidly green on an August Sunday morning in Central Park. The humidity would not rear its head for a few hours, and the 80-degree air felt perfect. It was an ideal day for a game of lawn croquet.
Decked in varied attire (men in white tie or seersucker, and women in ball gowns and tiaras or tennis whites and pearl necklaces), the “Billionaires for Bush” enjoyed some croquet and badminton, while sipping champagne. The group, one could imagine, gathered some attention, especially when passersby noticed their signs, which read, “Taxes are not for everyone” and “Widen the income gap.”
The revelers were not truly billionaires. Nor, as you might have guessed, were they “for Bush.” They were drama students and protestors in New York during the Republican National Convention to make a point. Bush’s policies, they implied through sarcasm and entertainment, benefited the very rich at the expense of everyone else.
The idea that the very wealthy are Republicans (and the corresponding implication that everyone else who is not wealthy is a Democrat) goes unchallenged in the media. Everyone knows that. Well, maybe everybody but Herb and Marion Sandler.
The Sandlers are very rich. They have run their thrift bank (a lending institution that takes in savings deposits and lends out mortgages), Golden West Financial, so well that Forbes magazine called it “perhaps [the U.S.’s] best financial company.” Golden West, by early 2004, had $80 billion in assets. The Sandlers’ combined net worth is over $2 billion.
But they are not greedy. Herb told Forbes, “If our dreams come true, we’ll give every last dollar away.” In 2004, the Sandlers worked towards that end by giving $13 million to the campaign to defeat George W. Bush and other Republicans. The Sandlers gave $8.5 million to Citizens for a Strong Senate, a 527 group that spent about $20 million trying to get Democrats elected to the upper chamber. They also gave $2.5 million to MoveOn.org, perhaps the most famous of the 527s.
Marion gave $19,000 to Democratic candidates for Senate in the 2004 cycle, and $25,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. She gave $11,000 to Democratic House contenders and $35,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In addition to six-figure gifts to three other anti-Bush groups, Herb and Marion Sandler sent a $500 check to Billionaires for Bush.
The $500 check is small, but the irony is great: two financial tycoons worth billions spend their riches to condemn George W. Bush as the candidate of the rich.
The Sandlers, who spent millions to defeat Bush, are not a rare breed.
Hedge-fund king George Soros, worth $7.2 billion, famously spent $23.5 million on his anti-Bush crusade in 2004. Peter Lewis, president of Progressive insurance company (worth $1.9 billion), spent just less than $23 million against Bush in 2004. Steve Bing inherited $600 million from his father’s business building luxury apartments and is now a movie producer. Bing reportedly once checked into the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and stayed there for nine years. He spent $13.9 million against Bush in 2004.
Those men, all billionaires or multi-millionaires thanks to corporate success, were the top four contributors to 527s in the 2004 campaign. Number five, realtor Bob Perry, spent over $8 million in favor of Bush. Number 6, developer and owner of the San Diego Chargers Alex Spanos, spent $5 million to help the president.
The primary effect of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance laws was to drive political donors away from the parties (who could no longer accept “soft money”) and towards these 527 groups. At well over a half-billion dollars, the 527s raised and spent more than either the Kerry or the Bush campaign. For rich people looking to influence the 2004 elections, 527s were the place to be. (As a point of comparison, the most generous donor directly to campaigns and parties in 2004 gave less than a half-million dollars — one-fortieth of Soros’s largesse.)
Again, the top four donors to 527s in 2004 — and the only donors to spend in the eight figures on that election — all gave exclusively to pro-Democrat groups. Of the top 25 individual donors — all billionaires or multi-millionaires — 15 of them gave to pro-Democrat groups, and 10 gave to Republican-supporting groups. From this elite group of super-rich donors, the Democratic side got $108.4 million, compared to the Republican side’s $40 million. Soros and Lewis together spent more to defeat Bush than the ten most prolific Republican fat cats combined spent to support the president.
This dynamic was not particular to 2004, and the anti-Bush fever. In 2002 (before McCain-Feingold and the explosion of the 527s), Haim Saban, entertainment mogul and CEO of Saban Capital Group (net worth $2.8 billion), topped the donor list with $9.4 million — every dime to Democrats. Second place was another media mogul Fred Eychaner, president of Newsweb Corporation. Eychaner also gave exclusively to Democrats. Steve Bing was third in 2002. In fact, the top nine donors all gave exclusively to Democrats. Number 10, Roland Arnall of Ameriquest Capital, gave 65 percent to Republicans and 35 percent to Democrats.
The top 25 donors in 2002 gave $4.5 million to Republicans, but $51.5 million to Democrats. Democrats had 20 donors give more than one million dollars. Republicans had four.
In 2000, the story was much the same. Daniel Abraham, head of Slim-Fast, headed the list with $1.6 million. Right behind him was Bernard Schwartz of Loral, with $1.4 million. They both gave exclusively to Democrats. The top five all gave only to Democrats, with number six, Carl Lindner, giving just over half of his $1.2 million in gifts to Democrats. In 2000, you had to go down to number 13 to find a loyal Republican donor. While the Democrats had five people who gave in the seven figures, not a single donor gave a million dollars to the Republican party in 2000.
In 2006, there is little reason to believe the picture will be any different. These numbers, of course, do not track the political leanings of the richest Americans (those numbers are more ambiguous), but the political leanings of the most politically active billionaires. The very rich have many reasons to support Democrats and big business, but we can’t expect the media to get that anytime soon.
– Timothy P. Carney is author of The Big Ripoff : How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money.