Corporate Lobbyists Control the Rules at the DNC

Two-thirds of DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee members are corporate lobbyists or corporate consultants, including ten at-large DNC members appointed by DNC Chair Tom Perez.

Corporate Lobbyists Control the Rules at the DNC
DNC chair Tom Perez stands on stage before the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Democrats are looking ahead to the second nominating ballot at the July Democratic National Convention, when superdelegates will be allowed to cast votes if no presidential candidate receives a majority of pledged delegates on the first ballot.

Superdelegates include 75 at-large DNC members, often prominent party figures who are put forward as a slate by DNC Chair Tom Perez and do not directly represent a state or other region. Among the 447 total voting DNC members, who make up the majority of 771 superdelegates, there are scores of corporate lobbyists and consultants—including many of the 75 at-large DNC members, who were not individually elected.

These corporate lobbyists will be allowed to vote on the second ballot under the compromise that emerged from the Unity Reform Commission meeting in 2017. The Unity Reform Commission’s proposed package of reforms was later passed by the Rules and Bylaws Committee and adopted as the 2020 convention rules in a rushed voice vote of full DNC members at the summer 2018 national party meeting.

In October 2017, Perez purged DNC committees of several members who had supported either his rival candidate for chair, then-Rep. Keith Ellison, or Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid. In their place, Perez appointed several handpicked corporate lobbyists to the committees that govern the party’s operating rules, budget, convention delegates, and other matters.

Sludge reviewed a DNC committee membership list from September 2019 and found that nearly two-thirds of the members of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee have backgrounds in corporate influence and legal defense that present possible conflicts of interest for their work on the party rules. Some individuals may not currently hold the same committee assignments, but all are current DNC members. Committee membership details are not made publicly available by the DNC.

The 32-member DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee contains the following 20 individuals: a health insurance board member co-chair, three surrogates for presidential campaigns (two for Bloomberg, one for Biden), four current corporate lobbyists, two former corporate lobbyists, six corporate consultants, and four corporate lawyers.

This article, the second in a series on DNC committees, looks at the Rules and Bylaws Committee, which is responsible for the Charter of the Democratic Party, for which it “shall receive and consider all recommendations for adoption and amendments.”

Here are the rules-making DNC members—many of them unelected—whose voting power raises ethics questions, as the Rules and Bylaws Committee continues to block proposed changes for stronger conflict of interest policies.

James Roosevelt III—at-large DNC member and DNC Executive Committee member

The standing Rules and Bylaws Committee has been co-chaired since 1995 by attorney James Roosevelt III, a former board member of the health insurance company trade association America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) who currently chairs AHIP’s Policy and Regulatory Committee. At the beginning of the Obamacare health care reform debate, Roosevelt—then a board member of AHIP—defended the group’s alternative proposal that sought to subsidize the existing employer-based healthcare system and opposed a Medicare-like public option. AHIP, which represents insurers including Kaiser Permanente, Anthem, and Humana, is a founding member of the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a health care industry coalition and “dark money” non-profit created last year to defeat single-payer Medicare for All. AHIP spent $9.5 million on lobbying the federal government last year.

In 2016, Roosevelt lobbied in Massachusetts for the client Tufts Associated Health Maintenance Organization on issues related to health insurance.

Harold Ickes—at-large DNC member

Ickes worked in Bill Clinton’s administration and on Clinton’s 1996 campaign, helping to engineer the Democratic Party’s use of “soft money” with thinly veiled outside-funded issue ads that supported Clinton’s campaign. Ickes was fired by Clinton following his 1996 re-election when his role in the campaign’s controversial fundraising tactics was exposed. Since the late 90s, Ickes has been a powerful lobbyist in Washington D.C. and New York City, founding his own firm, The Ickes and Enright Group, in 1997. At the federal level, Ickes has lobbied for a wide range of labor and corporate interests, including Deloitte Consulting, Verizon, Nuclear Development LLC, Northwell Health, New York Software Industry Association, and United Airlines. In New York City, Ickes has lobbied for JP Morgan Chase, Mastercard, Verizon, and dozens more clients. Ickes’ most recent federal lobbying was in 2018 for Michigan Potash Company, a mining company that has sought to extract potash in Osceola County despite legal challenges from state environmental groups that contend the operation could pollute drinking water sources.

Ickes has helped to create several super PACs and outside spending groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums to influence elections. Most notably, Ickes has been president of Priorities USA Action, one of the largest Democratic super PACs. So far this election cycle, the group has taken large donations from multiple hedge fund executives, and it has more than $18 million on hand to spend on 2020 races. Ickes was a member of the Priorities USA board as of 2017, according to tax documents reviewed by Sludge. He has been a board member at the Center for American Progress’ 501(c)(4) wing, Center for American Progress Action Fund, since 2013, according to tax documents. 

Ickes was specifically appointed by Perez to the Rules and Bylaws Committee in an October 2017 purge of DNC committee members who had supported Perez’s challenger or Bernie Sanders presidential bid.

Barry J. Goodman—DNC member from Michigan

Founding partner of personal injury law firm Goodman Acker. Goodman, who bundled $105,727 for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, is backing Biden in the Democratic primary. Goodman gave Biden the maximum of $2,800 in contributions, co-hosted fundraisers, and bundled at least $25,000 in contributions for Biden from other individuals, according to the Biden campaign’s list of bundlers.

Michael Nutter—at-large DNC member

Former Mayor of Philadelphia, Nutter was selected by Mike Bloomberg in December 2019 to serve as his presidential campaign’s national political chair.

Alexandra Rooker—DNC member from California

Previously a lobbyist for the Communications Workers of America, Rooker was hired as a senior adviser to the Bloomberg campaign in January 2020 and later that month was nominated by Tom Perez to the Convention Rules Committee. Rooker is a vice chair of the California Democratic Party.

Jeff Berman—at-large DNC member

Berman used to be a lobbyist with Bryan Cave LLP, with clients including FedEx, Union Pacific railroads, private prison company GEO Group, and oil pipeline company Transcanada. For Transcanada, Berman reported lobbying on “submission for a presidential permit for Keystone XL pipeline.” He was also formerly national delegate director for the Obama presidential campaign in 2008. In May 2019, he was hired by Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign as senior adviser for delegate strategy.

Maria Cardona—at-large DNC member

Cardona is a principal at lobbying and public relations firm Dewey Square Group. Cardona’s past lobbying clients include AT&T, for which she lobbied Congress on FISA Amendments and “telecom liability issues,” Countrywide, and multiple medical companies. In a December 2019 op-ed published at The Hill and noted on Twitter by reporter Kevin Gostzola, Cardona underscored right-wing attacks on leading presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as “radical socialists” and wrote that Joe Biden was the most electable candidate. Cardona was one of Perez’s nominees to the Convention Rules Committee.

Donald Lionel Fowler—at-large DNC member

Fowler served as DNC Chair from 1995-1997 and was among the party leaders opposing the proposed superdelegate voting changes coming out of the Unity Reform Commission. Based in South Carolina, his lobbying and consulting firm Fowler Communications has not had a public website since 2004, according to a review of archived versions, and does not maintain a LinkedIn presence. Fowler’s past lobbying clients, from 2006-2012, include AT&T, a coalition of tech CEOs called TechNet, South Carolina Medical Association, and multiple construction companies. Fowler was quoted in Politico on Jan. 31 as one of the influential DNC members engaging in “casual conversation” to reverse the superdelegate voting restrictions, which he opposed in August 2018, acquiescing in a dramatic moment to call for approval of the Unity Reform Commission changes by acclimation.

Dennis Speight—DNC member from Texas

Speight is currently registered in Texas as a lobbyist as director of political affairs for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and its PAC.

Kathleen Sullivan—DNC member from New Hampshire

A former New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair from 1999-2007, Sullivan retired in 2018 as a partner at Wadleigh, Starr & Peters, whose services include business and finance law. In 2008, Sullivan was co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire presidential primary campaign. (See correction below.—ed.)

Donna Brazile—at-large DNC member

Brazile was interim DNC chair in 2011 and again in 2016-2017, as well as a former CNN contributor. Last year, she announced she was joining Fox News as a contributor. In November 2017, an excerpt in Politico from her book detailed what she discovered about hidden DNC financial arrangements in 2016: “The agreement—signed by Amy Dacey, the former CEO of the DNC, and [Clinton campaign manager] Robby Mook with a copy to Marc Elias—specified that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised.” Questions shortly emerged after the Politico excerpt about what facts Brazile knew about the fundraising arrangement at which points.

Scott Brennan—DNC member from Iowa 

Brennan is a senior shareholder of the Davis Brown Law Firm in the Litigation Division, based in Des Moines, where his practice areas include government relations.

Rev. Leah Daughtry—at-large DNC member

Rev. Daughtry was the CEO of the 2008 and 2016 Democratic National Convention Committees, and the chief of staff to former DNC Chair Howard Dean. As a current consultant and project manager with her company On These Things, LLC, Rev. Daughtry secured a $200,000 pledge from AT&T in Jan. 2018 for a Charleston, South Carolina area high school graduation support program. Daughtry is also a senior adviser for Ichor Strategies, a corporate public relations firm founded in 2015 by Hillary Clinton campaign alumni.

Christopher Lu—at-large DNC member

Formerly of the white shoe firm Sidley Austin, Lu was the legislative director for Barack Obama’s Senate office, executive director of the Obama-Biden Transition Project, deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor, and White House cabinet secretary under President Obama. Lu is currently a senior strategy advisor at tech and media company FiscalNote, which develops legislative forecasting systems and in 2018 acquired political media outlet CQ Roll Call. In a recent tweet, Lu said he strongly opposes any potential rules changes being discussed by some DNC members on superdelegate voting at the convention. He is a board member of the American Sustainable Business Council.

Frank Leone—DNC member from Virginia

The member behind the DemRulz website, Leone is an attorney at Hollingsworth, LLP; where his “litigation practice encompasses environmental law, and defense of toxic tort, consumer product, asbestos, and pharmaceutical products liability claims,” according to the company’s website. The law firm advertises its “worldwide defense of DDT in the 1970s” and offers toxic torts defense. Leone was also Virginia state counsel for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. On Twitter, he has praised Joe Biden for President.

David T. McDonald—DNC member from Washington and a Convention Credentials Committee nominee 

McDonald is an attorney and partner at lobbying and law firm K&L Gates, where he leads the company’s global intellectual property practice. “K&L Gates’ intellectual property litigation practice counsels clients in the various aspects of IP litigation, including the protection of emerging communications technologies, novel drug therapies, iconic brands, trade secrets, copyrights, and other proprietary information,” according to the firm’s website. K&L Gates’ lobbying clients come from a wide range of industries and include the Consumer Technology Association, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Charles Scwab, and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.

Editor’s note: our DNC member investigative series took hundreds of hours of research to produce. For many DNC committees, this is the first time this information has been fully reported.

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As covered previously, more DNC members on the Rules and Bylaws Committee have current ties that present potential conflicts of interest: Susan Swecker, a DNC member from Virginia, is a lobbyist with Dividing Waters Public Affairs; Minyon Moore, an at-large DNC member, is a principal at public affairs and lobbying firm Dewey Square Group; Emmy Ruiz, a political strategist, is a partner at NEWCO Strategies, which is advising the Pete Buttigieg presidential campaign; and DNC Secretary Jason Rae is a partner at Nation Consulting, a Milwaukee-based firm. 

At the final meeting of the DNC’s 2017 Unity Reform Commission, two members, Nomiki Konst and Dr. James Zogby, proposed “a conflict of interest policy which would require any DNC member who had a financial interest in the DNC to recuse themselves from voting on any matter affecting their financial interest.” The proposal was voted down by the 21-member commission, reportedly 9-6, with the Clinton/Perez appointees outvoting the Sanders appointees. Also at the meeting, Zogby’s proposal for a new, democratically-elected body to oversee the DNC’s budget and expenses was not advanced, with the commission settling on reaffirming the status quo responsibilities of the Budget and Finance Committee, even though that body is largely composed of at-large members appointed by the DNC chairperson.

In July 2019, the Rules and Bylaws Committee again voted down Zogby’s proposal for an independently-elected financial review board, in a voice vote with no recorded roll call. On Jan. 29, BuzzFeed News reported that two members of the DNC Budget and Finance Committee advanced and approved a generous exit package for Perez and two of his top deputies, without fully informing the Executive Committee, before Perez then said he would withdraw the three staff from the agreement and denied having prior knowledge.

“I wanted three things: accountability, transparency, and democracy,” Zogby told Sludge of the Unity Reform Commission’s outcomes. “We have none of the three. We’re reduced to props at meetings, to fill a room and clap at speeches.”

Asked if there were contested votes or debates among DNC members, Zogby replied, “The only time we had a contested vote was for chair last time, because of the 2016 primary. The chair appoints the at-large members, and two-thirds of the committees are composed of at-large. What’s called a vote is essentially a ratification.”

With lingering concerns about a fair process of decision making by the DNC chair, Democrats took note last month when some DNC members shared with Politico text chats about re-opening decisions on superdelegate voting rules. That same day, the DNC announced it was dropping the individual donor threshold requirement for candidates to appear in debates, enabling self-funding candidate Mike Bloomberg to make the Feb. 19 debate stage in Las Vegas. Perez’s debate decision did not involve any process of committee approval or DNC member notice. The weekend prior, at a DNC Executive Committee meeting, Perez nominated Alexandra Rooker, a Bloomberg campaign senior adviser, to be a vice chair of the Convention Rules Committee, which will be filled-out by candidates in proportion to their delegate share.

Former DNC member and Unity Reform Commission member Nomiki Konst told Sludge that she believes the key reform for the DNC is a strong ethics policy that would “ban anybody with a conflict of interest, including lobbyists and presidential candidate campaign staff, from being voting DNC members.”

“Any DNC members who are not democratically elected are at the heart of slate appointment, and that’s who is blocking reforms,” Konst says. If a stronger ethics policy was brought out of the Rules and Bylaws Committee to a full vote, she predicts, “The full body of national DNC members would pass banning conflicts of interest.”

Correction: this story previously linked to a lobbying record for Kathleen M. Sullivan of law firm Baker & Hostetler, who is different from Kathleen N. Sullivan, attorney and former New Hampshire Party Democratic Chair, who was not a federal lobbyist.

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