Political campaigns in this state are almost always funded by private money. Figuring out where exactly the cash is coming from, however, can be difficult.
Unlike federal elections statutes, which require major contributors to list the businesses they might represent, Vermont mandates no such disclosures. So VPR decided to dig in to the numbers.
The bulk of the campaign contributions in Vermont races have gone to one candidate: two-term Gov. Peter Shumlin. And a new VPR analysis of campaign finance documents shows the outsized role that businesses have played in funding the governor’s campaigns.
We already knew that Peter Shumlin raised at least $1.2 million in each of his first two gubernatorial campaigns. And we also know that his latest campaign finance report showed that his campaign is sitting on about $1.1 million.
What VPR’s analysis shows is that at least 42 percent of the governor’s current war chest comes from businesses, or the men and women who run them.
Sheila Krumholz is executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., based organization that calls for more disclosure of campaign contributions. Krumholz says it’s worth paying attention to the sources of the Democratic governor’s campaign money.
“Particularly if most of the money is coming from a small group of elite interests, it’s really imperative for people to know who’s bankrolling their politicians and their parties, and what if anything those donors stand to gain from it,” Krumholz says.
Of the approximately $1.1 million Shumlin has taken in over the last two years, $117,400 dollars came from the real estate and construction sector. That’s familiar territory for the governor, since it’s a sector in which where he amassed much of his own $10 million net worth prior to taking office.
Representatives of the energy industry gave a total $40,100; the beverage industry accounts for $38,500; the health care sector chipped in another $34,500; and telecommunications interests provided $25,000.
VPR doesn’t have any direct evidence showing that contributions from these businesses won them any undue influence over the governor, or his public policy decisions.
Dale Eisman is director of communications for Common Cause, a national organization that advocates for the reform of campaign finance laws. Eisman says even the best-intentioned politicians can’t help being influenced by well-heeled interests that provide the money needed to run a successful campaign.
“There’s a natural human impulse that when somebody does nice for you, you want to do something nice for them in return,” Eisman says.
Shumlin, through his campaign’s finance director, Erika Wolffing, declined a request for an interview on the subject. As for whether businesses that contribute get any favors for their money, Wolffing says the answer is a “an unequivocal ‘no.’”
Krumholz says not to believe it.
“It is Pollyannaish … to think that money plays no part in determining the flow of who wins and loses in politics and also which policies win and lose,” she says.
And Krumholz says the businesses writing the checks tend to know as much.
“This isn’t about charity, this is not altruism,” Krumholz says. “This is business for them.”
VPR’s analysis covers the last nine campaign finance reports, and involved background research on donors who have given $1,000 or more over that 25-month period. The research reveals the roles that specific companies or businessmen have played in funding Shumlin’s war chest. And the companies providing the most robust support are sometimes those with direct public policy interests in state government.
The case of ClearChoiceMD offers one example in which campaign disclosures don’t readily depict the scope of financial support emanating from a single corporate entity.
The New Hampshire-based company is seeking to open a total of five urgent care centers across the state; locations in St. Albans and Berlin are already up and running.
ClearChoiceMD LLC gave Shumlin $2,000 in late May. But contributions have also come in form Marcus Hampers, Michael Porembeski and Tracy Hauck – ClearChoice’s owner, chief operating officer and business manager, respectively. Shumlin also got a $2,000 donation from the Hampers Family Trust, as well as $2,000 from another member of the Hampers family. All told, ClearChoiceMD, members of its staff, its president and his family members sent $12,000 to Shumlin for Governor between May 19 and July 8 of this year.
Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros, who run the business behind a massive development project in the Northeast Kingdom, have, through various limited liability companies or family members, given $14,000 to Shumlin over the past two years.
The beverage distribution firm Baker Distributing and its principals have given $12,000 to the Shumlin cause since July of 2012. And the family of Burlington developer Robert Miller has, via three LLCs and four individuals, contributed $16,000 to Shumlin since August of 2012.
“And that is not money that most Americans have lying around,” Krumholz says.
VPR’s campaign finance analysis shows that vast majority of Shumlin’s current war chest – 95 percent – arrived in donations of larger than $100. The average size of those 994 donations is $1,073 – the average donation from businesses was $1,539.
Shumlin took in more than $94,000 from political action committees, $47,000 from organized labor, and much smaller amounts from Vermont lobbyists, tobacco companies and a Las Vegas casino. And more than 63 percent of Shumlin’s campaign money came from outside Vermont.