MADE OF MONEY
Billions of dollars in campaign cash have changed hands in Pennsylvania over the past two decades. Who’s giving, and who’s getting?
The leaders of the largest fulltime Legislature in the country and the two men running for governor — 10 individuals — have accepted a grand total of more than $ 132 million in political contributions since the clocks ticked over to the year 2000, according to a Caucus analysis of state records. Add in the last two governors — Repub
lican Tom Corbett and Democrat Ed Rendell — and the total more than doubles, to nearly $ 300 mil
Pennsylvania has no limits on campaign donations. If you want to hand a candidate a million dollars — as the pro- school- choice Students First PAC did for Republican gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner in March — nothing but your checking account balance is stopping you.
That was the largest single donation among active politicians ( not counting the money Wagner and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf gave their own campaigns), although the Republican Governor’s Association gave seven donations of equal or greater value to Corbett in 2009. That support helped ensure GOP control of state government during the last redistricting process.
Top of the ticket
More than 280 donations to state
leaders in the last 19 years were for $ 100,000 or more. That includes four $ 500,000 checks given to Wolf by a pair of public employees unions, two each from the Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Those two unions are Wolf’s biggest PAC supporters, with the SEIU donating just over $ 2 million and AFSCME giving about $ 1.7 million. The unions represent tens of thousands of state employees, as well as health care and local government workers.
“Gov. Wolf ’ s mission has always been to help the people of Pennsylvania by expanding access to health care, investing in education and workforce development, and protecting our seniors,” Wolf campaign spokeswoman Beth Melena said.
The other three interest groups that round out Wolf ’ s top five donors are the Pennsylvania State Education Association ($ 1.6 mil
lion), a Philadelphia- based PAC called Fairness PA ($ 1.6 million) and the Committee for a Better Tomorrow ($ 1.3 million), which represents the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers’ Association.
Formed in 2015, Fairness PA is a relative newcomer to this rarefied air of Pennsylvania’s political funders. Its money comes from unions, lawyers and even an heir to the Rockefeller fortune, Alida Messinger, of St. Paul, Minnesota, who donated $ 150,000 in 2016.
The group has no website, and its address is a Philadelphia post office box used by another PAC, New Leaders PA, which registered with the state on April 9. The two PACS are not related, said Adam Bonin, treasurer of Fairness PA and a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in election law.
“Fairness PA is a statewide coalition of business leaders, labor organizations, progressive organizations, professionals and other individuals committed to electing Democrats across Pennsylvania to executive, legislative and judicial offices. We’ve been able to engage a broad coalition because there is so much at stake,” Bonin said.
He did not respond to questions about how that mission differs from the state Democratic Party’s. The Wolf campaign didn’t address questions about whether it approached Fairness PA for donations, or what, if any, issues were discussed with those associated with the PAC.
Asked why the PAC backs Wolf, Melena said: “Fairness PA is a statewide political action committee comprised of hardworking Pennsylvanians, including progressive organizations like Planned Parenthood and business, legal, community and labor leaders who share Governor Wolf ’ s vision for a better and more fair Pennsylvania.”
Both he and Wagner are their own biggest supporters. Wolf gave himself a head start in a crowded 2014 Democratic primary field with more than $ 10 million of his own money. Wagner did the same this year in his four- way primary with about $ 8 million, a number that has since swelled by another million.
Where Wolf has a short list of million- dollar donors, Wagner has just one: the Students First PAC, a committee that backs candidates who support school choice.
“Scott welcomes support from anyone that supports his agenda, which includes investing an additional $ 1 billion per year in students and teachers without raising taxes,” Wagner campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said.
Wagner’s education plan would furnish that money by “tightening our belts and cutting corporate welfare,” as well as privatizing the state’s liquor store system, according to a summary of the plan posted on his campaign website.
Wagner’s next- highest donors are the Republican Governor’s Association and York Building Products Co. PAC, both of which donated $ 250,000. The RGA’S sup- port this cycle, which will again determine who sits in the governor’s mansion during the next redistricting process, is a fraction of the $ 12 million it gave Corbett in his two campaigns.
Supporters for House and Senate
leaders don’t break down quite as neatly along partisan lines as the governor’s candidates.
Unions, for instance, are two of Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati’s top five PAC donors. The Keystone Mountain Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters donated $ 235,000 to him, and the Operating Engineers Local 66 gave another $ 200,000. Among his supporters, they’re topped only by the Philadelphia trial lawyers’ PAC ($ 276,000) and the PA Future Fund ($ 440,000), a committee helmed by longtime GOP fundraiser Bob Asher.
Scarnati, through the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, did not respond to emailed questions.
The Pennsylvania GOP estab
lishment has for years resisted the national party’s increasing antipathy toward organized labor. That was on display during Corbett’s term, when they controlled every branch of state government. Corbett won election in 2010, one of a raft of Republicans swept into office by the GOP wave in President Barack Obama’s first midterm election — a result Obama called a “shellacking” in a post- election news conference.
The tea party movement that year received much of its financial backing from groups such as the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, which supports libertarian, anti- union politicians in state- level races around the country. Republicans, emboldened by new majorities in statehouses around the country, began enacting laws designed to weaken existing unions and make it harder to form new ones.
Except in Pennsylvania. Legislation banning mandatory union membership in workplaces — known to supporters as right- towork legislation — and privatizing the state’s unionized liquor store system never made it to Corbett’s desk, stalling in either the GOP- controlled House or Scarnati’s Senate.
The inaction disappointed conservatives but spared the state the upheaval seen in places such as Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda drew massive protests from public- sector unions and a recall challenge that forced him to campaign to keep the office he’d just won. Protesters filled the state capitol, slowing the business of governing while drawing national media attention.
The relationship between Senate Republican incumbents and organized labor, particularly in the southeast part of the state, can make it difficult for Democratic challengers to break through, said David Marshall, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. Elsewhere in the state, the relationship falls along more traditional lines; all five of Senate Majority Leader Jay Costa’s top supporters are unions.
“You shouldn’t just assume their support because you’re a Democrat. They’re not an arm of the Democratic Party,” Marshall said. “If we want their support, we have to speak to their needs, speak to their interests.”
On the other side of the spectrum, school choice advocates find friends on both sides of the aisle in Pennsylvania. What’s generally thought of as a Republican cause nationally — championed most prominently by President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy Devos — enjoys Democratic support in some corners of the Capitol.
Sen. Anthony Williams’ largest contributor is the same as Scott Wagner’s. The Students First PAC has given Williams $ 455,000, while other, similarly minded PACS have donated tens of thousands of dol
lars more to the Philadelphia Democrat.
Williams said his support for school choice grew from conversations with constituents upset about the seemingly arbitrary nature of how their children were assigned a school and the lack of recourse if they were unhappy about the decision. He also was founder and a board member of the Hardy Wil
liams Academy, a charter school named after his father, Sen. Hardy Williams, and served on the board of directors of Universal Companies, which operates charter schools.
“I was an African- American from an urban community who spoke vocally about ( school) choice,” Williams said. “Today, it’s not uncommon for other AfricanAmericans in other communities to be openly supportive of options for education.”
His position contrasts starkly with his fellow Democratic leaders, each of whom took more money from the teachers union than any other PAC. The PSEA gave $ 257,000 to Costa, D- Allegheny County; $ 283,000 to House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, another Allegheny County Democrat; and $ 157,000 to House Minority Whip Mike Hanna, D- Clinton County.