Is Ken Griffin, the billionaire owner of Citadel—a hedge fund worth more than $38 billion—really enriching democracy with all his political spending? Probably not.
Many proponents of political reform worry about the influence of big money in our democracy, but some, strangely enough, actually welcome it.
David Greising of the Better Government Association recently argued that political discourse in Illinois has benefited from the vast campaign spending of the “superrich”—and singled out Griffin’s beneficence as a counterbalance to Governor J.B. Pritzker. (Pritzker’s personal fortune was crucial in his 2018 victory over multimillionaire Bruce Rauner, who was supported heavily by Griffin; Griffin also backed Rauner heavily in 2014, when the Republican outspent incumbent Pat Quinn by two-to-one.)
Griffin has said the motivation of his political giving is “to protect the American Dream.” He backs candidates who stand for personal freedom and limited government and “care deeply about education”—where the biggest problem, he told one interviewer, is teachers unions.
But he could have other reasons for how he chooses to spread his political largesse.
A year ago, when Griffin had to testify before the House Financial Services Committee about his role in the GameStop scandal—in which Citadel executed trades for online broker Robinhood, which blocked trading after small investors orchestrated a “short squeeze” against hedge funds—it was reported that Griffin had donated $124,300 to the campaign funds of Republican committee members.
And after Maine senator Susan Collins backed off a proposal to limit the carried interest loophole—under which compensation for private equity partners can be taxed at much lower capital gains, saving some individuals tens of millions of dollars—she became the biggest recipient of money from the private equity industry in the nation. Griffin was a top donor, giving $1.5 million to a pro-Collins PAC.
Beyond that, an examination of Griffin’s political spending shows that he has consistently funded campaigns that distort issues and ignore facts, sometimes appallingly so, playing to voters’ worst instincts and contributing to the growing toxicity of our political life.
In Illinois, Griffin’s biggest role since helping elect Rauner has been funding the 2020 campaign that successfully opposed a constitutional amendment establishing a progressive income tax. “Griffin bankrolled a ruthless, oftentimes fanciful TV ad campaign against the Fair Tax to the tune of $54 million,” according to One Illinois.
That opposition campaign employed a number of apparently deceptive arguments, such as characterizing the proposal as a tax increase when it would have reduced most residents’ tax burden and taken pressure off property taxes, and claiming falsely that it would hurt small businesses.
The billionaire is now pouring millions into the gubernatorial campaign of Aurora mayor Richard Irvin, which seeks to blame violent crime on Pritzker and recent criminal justice reform (in fact, increased crime rates are a national phenomenon) while distorting Irvin’s own record addressing crime rates in Aurora.
It’s on the national stage that the impact of Griffin’s spending is most clear. He has ramped up his involvement in federal elections dramatically in recent years, according to Crain’s. In the 2020 election cycle, Griffin ranked fifth nationally among all donors to federal campaigns, according to Open Secrets, a campaign finance watchdog organization. Last year—an off-year in the election cycle—Griffin “pumped more than $28 million into the GOP,” becoming the single biggest spender in Republican politics,” Politico reported.
Griffin has been a prominent backer of some of the nation’s most divisive and demagogic politicians, as well as the Congressional Leadership Fund, a campaign group repeatedly noted for producing grossly misleading TV ads with blatant appeals to voters’ biases.
He gave a quarter-million dollars to Missouri Rising, a political action committee supporting Senator Josh Hawley, best known for the raised fist he flashed as a gesture of support to Capitol Hill insurrectionists on January 6, 2020 (an image he’s actually sold on coffee mugs).
A pugnacious Christian nationalist who views pluralism as a source of public disorder, Hawley has sponsored legislation to restrict public schools from teaching about the history of racism in America. Most recently he has distorted the record of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson in a wildly cynical effort to score political points by painting her as soft on child pornography. The White House—quite plausibly, judging from the online response—called it “QAnon signaling.”
In Florida, Griffin has become a “political heavyweight,” according to Crain’s—and Governor Ron DeSantis’s biggest supporter, with over $10 million in donations to the Republican to date. DeSantis “is giving Donald Trump a run for his money as the most divisive politician in America,” according to veteran political correspondent Thomas B. Edsall in the New York Times.
DeSantis has outflanked Trump on the right wing by embracing vaccine skepticism, and recently made news for ridiculing a group of high school students—one of whom had an immunocompromised parent—for wearing masks at one of his press conferences. Early in the COVID pandemic, he barred school districts from imposing mask mandates.
DeSantis has also reduced voter access, signed bills restricting the teaching of racial history and LGBTQ+ issues, passed a law that a federal judge blocked because it could criminalize peaceful protest, and has backed an abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest.
This year DeSantis took the unprecedented step of intervening in the Republican legislature’s congressional redistricting process, threatening to veto his own party’s map. His goal: eliminating two seats currently held by African Americans, and ultimately challenging the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court.
But it may be Griffin’s support of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC backed by House Republican leadership, that has done the most to promote a toxic political culture. Griffin donated $10 million to CLF in the 2020 election cycle, up from $4.5 million in the previous two-year cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records. And he gave $11.5 million last year alone, with the current cycle just getting underway.
According to the Guardian, CLF “[uses] inflammatory tactics to paint political opponents as unsafe or untrustworthy” and “has a particular reputation for running what critics see as sometimes race-baiting attack ads.” In 2018 the Guardian included three CLF ads among the five “most bigoted and divisive political ads” of the year.
Reviewing a selection of three years of CLF ads, Politifact determined that more than half were “false” or “mostly false.” Just 13 percent were “mostly true” and zero were completely accurate.
A CLF ad attacking the patriotism of Jon Ossoff in a Georgia special election for the House of Representatives in 2017, which Ossoff narrowly lost, was called “a slander” by Atlanta Journal-Constitution political columnist Jim Galloway. (Ossoff was elected to the Senate in 2020.) Another CLF ad depicted Ossoff as “an ally of hoodie-wearing vandals,” the New Yorker reported. Yet another falsely stated that Ossoff had raised more money from the Bay Area than from Georgia, according to Politifact.
Another 2018 CLF production made the New York Times list of “the most inflammatory ads of the midterms.” That one attacked a young Black attorney named Antonio Delgado, a Harvard Law grad and Rhodes scholar, by taking lines out of context from his short-lived rap career years earlier.
CLF pulled another attack ad accusing California congressional candidate Gil Cisneros with sexual harassment after the alleged accuser said, “The Congressional Leadership Fund lied.”
Judging by Politifact’s reviews, CLF didn’t improve its record in 2020—no problem for Griffin, who doubled his support over the previous cycle.
One CLF ad characterized State Representative Jon Hoadley, the first openly gay person to run for Congress in Michigan, as “creepy” by completely mischaracterizing statements from past blog posts. Politifact called the ad “inaccurate and misleading.” The LGBTQ Victory Fund accused CLF of using “the ugliest of anti-gay stereotypes” as part of “the most homophobic campaign in America.”
Although fact-checkers consistently find that Republican ads contain more lies and distortions, Democratic campaign groups are certainly not without their faults. Take Rahm Emanuel’s 2015 campaign—which repeatedly distorted and falsified challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s record—with funding from Ken Griffin. On either side of the aisle, it’s clear that big media campaigns fueled by big money are not designed to inform voters but rather to misinform and manipulate them.
It’s hard to argue that Griffin is really uplifting democratic discourse when he funds such dishonest and sometimes slanderous attack ads. For many advocates of reform, it underscores the need for real campaign finance reform—and maybe a wealth tax, for good measure.
Curtis Black is a longtime journalist and a researcher for Good Government Illinois.
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via Chicago Reader
May 4, 2022 at 07:05PM