The big role that big donors still play, quietly, for Biden

New York Published: Oct 20, 2020, 07:59 PM(IST)

Joe Biden Photograph:( AFP )

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While Biden’s campaign has trumpeted the small donations flooding in at record rates, the elite world of billionaires and multimillionaires has remained a critical cog in the Biden money machine

One Monday evening last month, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Kamala Harris, and two actors who portrayed them on “Saturday Night Live,” Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, gathered for a virtual fundraiser benefiting the Biden campaign. By all accounts, the livestream was a smashing success: About 100,000 people watched and donated. The event raised $4.4 million.

That same night, Joe Biden beamed into a more intimate affair of fewer than two dozen people: a $500,000-per-ticket fundraiser hosted by billionaire financier Haim Saban. It raised even more: $4.5 million.

While Biden’s campaign has trumpeted the small donations flooding in at record rates, the elite world of billionaires and multimillionaires has remained a critical cog in the Biden money machine. And as the size of checks has grown, the campaign has become less transparent, declining so far to disclose the names of its most influential check collectors, known as bundlers.

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From Hollywood to Silicon Valley to Wall Street, Biden’s campaign has aggressively courted the megadonor class. It has raised almost $200 million from donors who gave at least $100,000 to his joint operations with the Democratic Party in the past six months — about twice as much as President Donald Trump raised from six-figure donors in that time, according to an analysis of new federal records.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood producer, and his wife, Marilyn Katzenberg, gave $1.4 million. Sean Parker, the tech entrepreneur, and his wife, Alexandra Lenas, gave $1.2 million. And Reed Hastings, the Netflix chief executive, and his wife, Patricia Ann Quillin, gave $1.4 million. Top executives with investment, private equity and venture capital firms like Blackstone, Bain Capital, Kleiner Perkins and Warburg Pincus all contributed handsomely.

This parade of industry giants delivered a surge in donations even as the progressive base of the Democratic Party agitates against the influence of billionaires and corporate titans. A group of progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, signed a letter last week that reads like a warning shot to a potential Biden administration, urging the Senate to reject any future executive branch nominations of corporate lobbyists or corporate executives.

“Joe Biden says this is ‘Scranton versus Park Avenue’ but then he’s raising hundreds of millions of dollars from the Park Avenue types,” said Tyson Brody, a former research director for Sen. Bernie Sanders who is supporting Biden this fall but wants to see less influence for wealthy donors.

Progressives have mostly set aside their differences with Biden to focus on the shared goal of defeating Trump, including over campaign finance. But should he win, Biden is expected to face pressure from the left on a range of issues, including climate change, expansion of the Supreme Court and elimination of the Electoral College.

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“Joe Biden is running against the most corrupt and dishonest president in our history, and has done so while maintaining a standard of transparency and integrity that is far above how his opponent has conducted himself this campaign,” said T.J. Ducklo, a spokesman for Biden.

For Biden, six-figure donors have been critical in delivering him a surprise financial advantage over Trump. The Democratic challenger entered October with $180 million more in the bank than Trump combined with their political parties — coincidentally almost the same amount that $100,000-plus contributors have given him.

Yet as Biden has vacuumed up giant checks, his campaign has quietly curtailed some of the transparency measures that he had pioneered in the primaries, when he became the first candidate to open up big-money fundraisers to the press. To further loosen some donor wallets, the Biden campaign has been holding closed-door events with some of the candidate’s top policy advisers, offering access to potential key decision-makers in a Biden administration.

And Biden has broken with the precedent of the past four Democratic presidential nominees and declined to reveal the identities of some of the most important money-raisers in the general election: those bundlers who gather checks on behalf of the campaign.

“It’s troubling that the public is in the dark about these people because they are often promoted to ambassadorships, or other prominent positions in the administration or receive government contracts,” said Michael Beckel, an investigator and research director for Issue One, a group that pushes for campaign-finance transparency.

After being contacted this week by The New York Times, the Biden campaign said it would disclose its bundlers by the end of the month.

Biden is still disclosing more about who is funding his campaign and how much access those donors are getting than Trump, who has kept his fundraisers with big contributors entirely behind closed doors, including some events held at his own businesses where he simultaneously profits.

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Trump began by self-funding his 2016 campaign during the primaries, vowing to be independent and decrying the influence of major contributors. Instead, he has relied entirely on the largesse of others in his reelection. And he has declined to name his bundlers in 2016 and 2020.

Many campaign reformers see Biden as a stark improvement over Trump but hoped he would clear a higher bar.

“Transparency is key for accountability,” Beckel said.

Biden’s campaign does carefully tally what bundlers raise, and there are various tiers for Biden’s bundlers to achieve; the highest level (a “Biden Victory Partner”) is set at $2.5 million, according to an internal campaign document and people familiar with the process.

The other levels: $50,000 (“Protector”), $100,000 (“Unifier”), $250,000 (“Scranton Circle”), $500,000 (“Philly Founder”), and $1 million (“Delaware League”). Each level on Biden’s national finance committee gets added perks, such as exclusive staff briefings and the promise of a post-election event.

Biden has disclosed his bundlers only once, burying the announcement on the Friday after Christmas 2019 during the primary season. He revealed 235 people who had raised at least $25,000. Biden has raised more than $1.2 billion since then without additional disclosure.

Four years ago, by contrast, Clinton regularly released her list of $100,000 bundlers.

Biden officials note that their candidate has actually raised more online from grass-roots supporters in recent months than from big donors, and that virtual events have reduced the level of access for six-figure checks down to a Zoom screenshot.

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