Patriotism, Power, Photo Op: What Do Jewish Donors Really Think About Money in Politics?
A new documentary on HBO by Alexandra Pelosi, the daughter of Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, explores the influence of money in politics by interviewing some of the biggest donors in the game. Of the more than dozen big-time donors interviewed, over half are Jewish.
Perhaps due to the fact that she is the daughter of a prominent and divisive Democratic politician, Pelosi’s documentary “Meet the Donors” emphasizes Democratic (and Jewish) donors while heavyweight GOP bankrollers are far and few between, including prominent Jewish Republicans like Sheldon Adelson and Sam Fox.
But Pelosi’s documentary captures the thoughts of some of the biggest Jewish donors in politics today. So what did they have to say?
Media mogul and Democratic mega-donor Haim Saban had no intention of telling Pelosi how much money he has given the Clintons over the years. Why?
“It’s my freakin’ private business,” he said.
Not exactly starting off on the most transparent note, Saban then adds that Pelosi would have to look it up in the public record because he could not remember.
If he had to guess? “Anywhere between $100,000 and $10 million.”
The future was just as foggy for Saban. He couldn’t tell Pelosi how much he will spend in support of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton because he said he didn’t know. Spending depends on the campaign needs as they arise, he said.
It’ll probably be in the multi-millions, he admitted.
According to the documentary, which cited transparency website Open Secrets, Haim and Cheryl Saban have donated nearly $11 million to support Democratic candidates. The site today puts that number over $12 million.
Despite such large financial contributions, Saban denies his money gets him any influence. Instead, it is about supporting candidates who share his world-view.
“I don’t expect politicians to see the world the way I want them to see it. The way Hillary Clinton sees the world, meaning being basically a liberal on social issues and a hawk on national security, is the way–she sees the world and I agree,” he said.
The interview became heated as Pelosi challenged Saban as to whether he truly thought his money didn’t increase his influence among U.S. politicians.
“Listen well to what I’m saying again. The reason I give money to politicians within the limitations of the law is to allow them to put their message across to the people. To put their message across costs money. Is it the ideal system? No. Is it the law of the land? Yes. What do you want from me? It’s pretty simple, pretty simple,” he said.
Bernard Schwartz estimates he’s given between $4 and $5 million in donations to Democratic candidates over his lifetime. He told Pelosi that he expects to invest over $1 million in the 2016 election.
Schwartz said he considers his donations to be an investment in the Democratic party. As one of the biggest donors to pro-Clinton super PACs, this includes his investment in Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“The reason why I favor Hillary Clinton is not because I agree with any of the things she says, there are some things I disagree with,” Schwartz said. “But I think she has the personality to be a leader and that’s what we need in the White House.”
The documentary also shows a 1998 photo signed by Clinton of her and Schwartz together, with the note: “To Bernard Schwartz, with gratitude to your support and friendship.”
Schwartz argued that his political donations didn’t buy him anything special or put any politicians in his pocket. Instead, he saw his contributions as an act of patriotism.
“Absolutely [I think it is patriotic]. There are people in Iraq, young men and women, who are giving more than just money,” he said.
Dr. Bruce Charash
Dr. Bruce Charash, who spoke with Pelosi while standing in line at a fundraiser for a picture with President Barack Obama, agreed that his donations hadn’t put any politicians in his debt.
“I have been giving money to politics for quite a while,” he said. “What it got me was a great seat at the dinner and early place at the line, and a chance to shake hands with the President of the United States.”
However, that doesn’t mean Charash doesn’t think joining the small class of big-money donors is without its perks. By hanging his picture with Obama on his wall, people might begin to wonder just how connected he is, Charash said.
“Power is what you have and power is what people think you have. The more pictures with powerful people, the more powerful people think you are,” he said. “If I have a picture with me and President Obama on my wall, you’ll begin to ask: How much influence do I have over the president? Does President Obama know me? Are we on a first name basis?” he said.
When Pelosi pushed back, arguing that most people would not assume the picture was anything more than a photo op, Charash took it a step further.
“I have a photo of Hillary Clinton holding my former dog Cap in my apartment, how well do I know her?” he said. “How hard would it be for me to reach Hillary Clinton right now? How hard would it be for me to have a meeting with her? Or how easy?”
When asked about whether money and influence are connected in politics today, Charash just smiled.
“That’s a good question. Are they?”
The Pritzker family is an undeniable force in Chicago, but it is also a major player in the world of political donations. Pelosi caught up with J.B. Pritzker about the “parade of candidates” that come knocking during an election year.
The Pritzkers are by no means united on whom they support, he said. In 2008, J.B. Pritzker backed Hillary Clinton, his sister Penny Pritzker backed Barack Obama, and his brother Anthony Pritzker even backed Republican candidate Sen. John McCain.
“At least half the time…I send [candidates] out of the room because they don’t deserve support if they’re not sincere and they’re not truly going to be supportive of the issues I care about,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker still supports Clinton, and he still believes she was the best candidate in 2008.
During Obama’s second term, his sister Penny was named as secretary of commerce.
Did her contributions play a role in her appointment?
“She supported him from the beginning and that definitely played a big role in it,” he said.
Not just one Pritzker family member made it into the documentary. Ian Simmons, a Democratic donor and the husband of philanthropist Liesel Pritzker Simmons, emphasized the problem of money in politics wasn’t the individual millionaires and billionaires making donations.
“The story of money in politics isn’t just about individuals writing checks to politicians. It’s also about special interests money, in campaigns and in DC,” he said. “Special interests spend over $3 billion every year on direct lobbying, they spend another $3-6 billion on trying to influence federal legislation.”
And why do lobbyists and special interests keep throwing around so much money?
“Terrific return on investment,” he said.
Democratic donor Morris Pearl’s hope is that one day money will be out of politics. And he’s willing to use his millions to make it happen.
Pearl, who was headed to meet with politicians about peace in the Middle East during his interview, is chair of a new group of 200 wealthy Americans called Patriotic Millionaires that seeks to decrease income inequality and reform campaign finance.
“I think I have more access because I’m a donor,” he said. “The thing is I can call any of the Democratic congressmen or most of the senators and say I want a meeting or I want a call…and get my calls returned or a meeting inside.”
Pearl said that even donors offers only a few thousand dollars can get a lot of access, if not influence. But it is access that most Americans don’t get.
“If you’re the kind of person who can spend $20,000…a year on politics, you can meet with anybody you want.”
Rather than outright corruption, Pearl said he sees money as making it hard for politicians to hear from the other, less-monied side.
“You don’t get poor people traveling to Washington and putting on fancy suits and meeting with their congressman. You get rich people, or people hired by rich people, even,” he said.
Grocery-chain mogul John Catsimatidis is Greek and half-Jewish (you can ask his rabbi) — and more importantly, he is the only Jewish donor interviewed who gave money to the Republicans.
The documentary pans past photos of Catsimatidis with former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but also photos of him and Bill Clinton. I threw a surprise birthday for Bill in my apartment, while he was still president, he told Pelosi.
As for who he’s supporting for president, it appears he’s playing the field.
“Well in the Democratic party, I’m supporting Hillary Clinton,” Catsimatidis said. “I will support Republican candidates [too].”
Catsimatidis, who launched a failed bid for mayor of New York in 2013, said his childhood growing up on 135th Street in Harlem inspired him to become big enough to make a difference.
“I remember my mother-in-law said to me at one point, ‘John, you want to pee with the large dogs,’” he said. “And I laughed and the truth is, if you can’t get up to a certain level in your life, in our country, in the world, then you’re not gonna make a difference.”
Catsimatidis estimates he’s given around $100 million in political donations to both parties, and that he aims to spend a few million — or “nothing” as he put it — in this election.
He argued that getting meetings or phone calls with politicians was about status, not money. And after $100 million in donations, he certainly had status.
“Spending time with the President of the United States…I got to pee with the large dogs,” he said.
Democratic donor and environmental activist Tom Steyer, whose father was Jewish, worked in 2014 to put around $74 million in the pockets of candidates committed to fighting climate change through his NextGen PAC.
Steyer told Pelosi that she probably wasn’t speaking with donors looking to influence politics because those donors stay anonymous.
“Big money in politics is dark money, money you can’t trace, where it isn’t disclosed and it shows up in the political system anonymously,” he said. “And that’s not me, and that’s probably not the bulk of the people you called who see the system differently and see a real value to transparency and awareness.”
A self-described ideological donor, Steyer said he and donors like him are working on behalf of American values, not in their own self-interest.
When asked how donors like him match up to the infamous Koch brothers, Charles and David, who are behemoth conservative bankrollers, Steyer said he was David to the Koch’s Goliath.
“I can’t imagine something more different,” he said.
Though Pelosi didn’t get Democratic mega-donor George Soros on camera, she did get his son Jonathan Soros — who started a super PAC called Friends of Democracy that aims to get money like his father’s out of politics.
Soros said that while people on the left argue his father is “fighting for all that’s good and right,” he said that on the right many people believe the Koch brothers are doing the same.
“There is really no difference,” Soros said.
He said that the issue with money in politics is not the intent or true beliefs behind a political donation, but the fact that big political contributions are undemocratic in how they affect elections.
Even if it isn’t necessarily true that money buys influence in politics, Soros said the perception that it does is now part of the American psyche. There needs to be an alternative path so that candidates can run a viable campaign without going after rich people, he said.
Soros said he is part of a growing movement of people working hard to get money out of politics, though he admitted it is growing more slowly than he would like.
“We need our democracy to be more than an argument amongst rich people,” he said.