Harris Donor's Past Raises Money-Influence Questions
“My whole life,” Kamala Harris told a crowd gathered in Oakland, Calif., for her presidential announcement, “I’ve only had one client: the people.”
The California progressive will soon deliver some iteration of that same message at a swank fundraiser hosted by Angelo Tsakopoulos, a multimillionaire with ties to corrupt politicians, a longtime patron of the Clinton family, a man who once bragged that staying in the Lincoln Bedroom was his proudest moment.
Harris will leave the campaign trail to headline the April 1 fundraiser hosted by Tsakopoulos in Sacramento. The lieutenant governor and daughter of the real estate developer, Eleni Kounalakis, will also attend.
The dinner runs between $1,000 and $2,800 a plate, according to the Sacramento Bee. And the meal raises an awkward question: Are wealthy donors with questionable pasts a political liability in an increasingly progressive Democratic presidential primary? Does it matter?
Dane Strother says it does not.
“Voters assume that candidates have influencers, and they do. I don’t care where you are getting your money. This is all complete inside ball. There aren’t 15 undecided voters out there who care about a candidate holding a fundraiser,” said the veteran Democratic operative.
Fred Wertheimer says it does.
“The country understands that big money in American politics is undermining their interests. So to the extent they see candidates relying more and more on small donations and less and less on big money flowing into the system, that provides a way to recognize the candidate trying to move away from Washington influence money,” said the man considered the dean of campaign finance reform.
The public certainly thinks money in politics is a problem.
More specifically, according to polling from last May by the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of Americans said it was important that “people who give a lot of money to elected officials do not have more influence than others.” An equally overwhelming majority, 72 percent, thinks that’s not currently the case. They believe money buys political influence.
Sensing that this might make recapturing the White House more difficult, the Democratic National Committee has made participation in its primary debates conditional on building grassroots support. To earn a spot on stage, candidates have to rake in donations from no fewer than 65,000 small-dollar donors.
Some Harris competitors, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have taken it a step farther. The Massachusetts Democrat has turned her back on the moneyed class. She won’t do the private dinners with deep-pocketed donors, the selfies with wealthy patrons, or the thank-you-calls with wealthy elites. But even Warren, economic populist that she is, says all bets are off after the primary. The candidate will welcome the big donors with open arms if she makes it to the general election.
Harris has skipped that primary posturing. She is digging for donor gold in the Golden State right now. Of course, even if she finds some, a single donor won’t be enough. The influencers that will surround the senator in Sacramento can only give a maximum of $5,600 — half for the primary, the other half held in reserve for the general.
And running for president is expensive. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Hillary Clinton raised more than half-a-billion dollars, $563 million to be exact, in her failed presidential bid, making it unlikely that any individual donor could buy much influence with a single direct donation. Indirect donations, however, are different. Priorities USA, the pro-Clinton super PAC, spent almost $200 million on the candidate’s behalf.
Parallel spending is what worries good-government types like Wertheimer.
“There are ways for huge contributions to benefit candidates that eviscerate the contribution limits,” he told RealClearPolitics.
This is why, he continued, “I don’t limit the discussion to the individual who gives $5,600 because that same individual can give half a million or a whole million to a super PAC that is only supporting one candidate.”
Harris swore off super PAC money publicly last year. But her hiring habits have some on high alert. She recruited Marc Elias, a maestro of campaign finance law, as her general counsel. And it was Elias, hacked DNC emails released by WikiLeaks show, who taught Hillary Clinton staffers how to coordinate with pro-Clinton super PACs to solicit unlimited donations.
“I am not crazy about Sen. Harris rubbing elbows with big-dollar donors,” Paul S. Ryan, vice president of the progressive group Common Cause, told RealClearPolitics. “But I won’t be alarmed until the big donors start cutting big checks. They can’t do that at this event if it’s just the Harris campaign. There are ways to do that, though, and the Harris lawyer, Marc Elias, knows exactly what those ways are.”
The concern is that, while the dinner will be on the up-and-up, the connections made will extend past campaign donations. It is not unusual for donors to max out their contributions to a candidate and then, with a wink-and-a-nod, open the financial floodgates to a super PAC.
The Harris campaign did not return requests for comment from RCP. But while details about the upcoming fundraiser weren’t made available, the controversial history of Angelo Tsakopoulos is well known.
A first generation Greek-American, Tsakopoulos made his money as a real estate developer in the Sacramento Valley in the 1980s. He cut his political teeth in the process, and got caught up in more than one scandal.
For instance, in 1988 the Los Angeles Times reported that a Sacramento County supervisor was indicted for accepting $250,000 in loans from a wealthy developer and then voting in his patron’s interest. Who signed the loan checks? Tsakopoulos.
The developer would later become an early backer of a little-known Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton and, again, stir up plenty of controversy.
In 1994, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Tsakopoulos hosted a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Clinton. Three years later, the San Jose Mercury News would note, after donating $165,000 to the Democratic National Convention, he stayed overnight in the White House.
It was more of a friendship with the president, Tsakopoulos told the paper, than “Give me the money and I'll let you stay here.” Allegations that he essentially rented the Lincoln Bedroom, he insisted, were “just nonsense.”
Less easily overlooked was a Tsakopoulos promotion to a presidential advisory board on trade that same year. The gig wasn’t overly prestigious but what it lacked in flash it made up for with executive access, as the Associated Press reported at the time. Board members gathered every few months in Washington, received confidential briefings from Commerce Department officials, and — on occasion — met with Clinton himself.
Tsakopoulos had learned the value of such access in 1995, the Los Angeles Times reported. One of his many land development projects was held up that year: a problem with federal regulators. Tsakopoulos wanted to turn protected wetlands into fertile vineyards but couldn’t get the requisite permits. He built anyway. Legal headaches followed.
"I told the president,” Tsakopoulos would tell the Times after an intimate gathering at the White House, “how the bureaucrats are going wild.”
The Environmental Protections Agency backed off, the paper reported. Major fines and criminal sanctions were not pursued. The reason for the sudden reversal? According to one EPA regulator, “Mr. Tsakopoulos has a direct line to the White House.”
A recurring pay-to-play racket is what concerns John Pudner, executive director of the conservative-leaning campaign finance group Take Back Our Republic. He doesn’t worry about seeing the Lincoln Bedroom turned into an Airbnb. He is more concerned with wealthy donors pulling strings to reduce regulations. That, he told RCP, is a corrupt return on investment, “an exchange of 20 to one.”
Observers note that the influence of the Tsakopoulos family has not waned, and ties to the Clinton family have not frayed.
Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, who took over her father’s business, bundled contributions for the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008. For bundling more than $100,000 in donations for the candidate, the nonpartisan group Public Citizen notes, Kounalakis was named “a Hillraiser.”
A year later, under the watch of then Secretary of State Clinton, Kounalakis was sworn in (pictured; her father holds the Bible) as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary.
Kounalakis, now the lieutenant governor of California, will attend the Harris dinner alongside her father. The two know the senator well. Tsakopoulos has been Harris’ patron her whole political life. Harris, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has taken more than $20,000 from the controversial developer since she first ran for California attorney general.
Primary voters will soon decide whether that is a problem.