In Race for Open Kennedy Seat, Pharma and Private Equity Execs Cut Big Checks

While candidates in the race for Joe Kennedy's seat have sworn off super PAC backing and corporate PAC money, many are still accepting large donations from powerful health care CEOs, pharma lobbyists, and private equity firms.

In Race for Open Kennedy Seat, Pharma and Private Equity Execs Cut Big Checks
Candidates Jake Auchincloss, Natalia Linos, and Dave Cavell participate in a virtual candidate forum for the Democratic House primary in MA-04

Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, which includes wealthy Boston suburbs as well as post-industrial legacy cities, has for decades elected representatives to the U.S. House who straddle a rift in the Democratic Party between its neoliberal base and its progressive left wing. Barney Frank, the district’s rabble-rousing former congressman, is well known in progressive circles for being one of the first member of Congress to come out as gay and for the eponymous Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. But Frank was also careful not to stray too far from the party line, railing against progressive policies set forth by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and making sure never to cross his more moderate constituents. After Frank’s tenure, Joe Kennedy III furthered the outspoken representative’s legacy by trading on his family name while endorsing only the safest progressive issues and, until recently, maintaining substantial investments in the fossil fuel industry. 

After four terms, Kennedy is leaving his post in MA-04 to challenge longtime progressive Senator Ed Markey, with one of his primary messages being that he is a younger candidate. But despite Kennedy’s departure, his distinctive brand of Janus-faced politicking is still well represented in the campaign finance disclosures of candidates in the nine-person scrum vying to replace him.

Couched in the language of “grassroots fundraising”, the financial front runners of the MA-04 race have lauded their progressive credentials by framing their millions in campaign cash as the result of independent donors instead of the corporate PACs and dark money groups that have come to dominate American campaign finance. The just-released fundraising numbers for the second quarter tell a different story, as high-dollar donations poured in from well-connected individuals who, taken together, belie an old-school style of money in politics, where political action committees are replaced with family connections and corporate donations pile up from dozens of top level employees at America’s largest and most predatory financial firms.

With nearly $1.4 million raised since he began his bid for the House, former Marine captain Jake Auchincloss is just a step away from the $1.6 million raised by nonprofit mogul Alan Khazei, a co-founder of CityYear and proud combatant of two failed senatorial bids. Auchincloss’s war chest, while almost entirely filled by individual donors, is rife with pharmaceutical CEOs, hospital executives, and healthcare industry lawyers who stand a vested interest in opposing Medicare for All, maintaining America’s broken healthcare industry, and ensuring massive kickbacks to the pharmaceutical and healthcare giants that call Boston home.

Some of the highest profile donors to the Auchincloss campaign include Albert Bourla, the chairman and CEO of Pfizer, who has donated $2,800; Giovanni Caforio, chairman of Bristol Myers Squibb, with $2,800; Keith Gottesdiener, CEO of Rhythm Pharmaceuticals, who chipped in $2,800; and Robert Bradway, chairman and CEO of Amgen.

While nothing on Auchincloss’s campaign site mentions lowering sky-high drug prices or holding Big Pharma accountable for their gouging of American consumers, an entire section is devoted to giving tax breaks and other legislative perks to pharmaceutical manufacturers in Massachusetts. When viewed by sector, Auchincloss has raised more than $80,000 from the health interests, and nearly $130,000 from FIRE (finance, insurance, realestate), according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with more money on the horizon as the race enters its final stretch.

The metro Boston area has long been a hospital and pharmaceutical hub, with industry giants like Partners HealthCare, Tufts, and Mass General, Novartis, Pfizer, and Sanofi holding outsized influence on local politics. Economic and social power are seated in the medical industry, with Boston’s elite “Brahmin” families sitting on hospital boards for over two hundred years, as detailed in Nelson Aldrich’s book, “Old Money”.

Auchincloss’s mother, Laurie Glimcher—the president and CEO of Boston based clinic the Dana Farber Cancer Institute—has spent time and energy whipping up funds for her son Jake from her vast rolodex of health professionals, according to a member of the Newton City Council and a source close to the Auchincloss campaign. Glimcher attended the elite Winsor prep school in Boston before earning degrees from Radcliffe and Harvard, going on to cement her ties to the Medical elite as a dean at Cornell, before turning down the position of dean of Harvard Medical School to join Dana Farber, where in 2018 she took in a whopping $1.6 million in executive compensation.

More than $15,000 has flooded into Auchincloss’s campaign from Dana Farber board members and doctors alone, Sludge found by reviewing Federal Election Commission records, and tens of thousands more was received from a coterie of medical school deans and doctors associations banking on the election of an industry-friendly candidate. In April, Auchincloss reaped cash from a Zoom fundraiser hosted by two prominent health industry lawyers with a suggested price tag of $2,800 a ticket. 

High-ranking pharmaceutical lobbyists have also joined drug company CEOs in throwing their weight behind Auchincloss. Nicholas Shipley, vice president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), donated $1,000 to the campaign, and FEC records show cash from two senior members of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), the largest biotech lobby, contributing well over $1,000. Robert Coughlin, CEO of the Boston based MassBio healthcare lobby also threw $1,000 to the campaign.

With Big Pharma and the healthcare industry firmly secured by Auchincloss, Alan Khazei, the MA-04 fundraising leader, has turned to the robber barons of finance to secure his $1.6 million bag, running a campaign premised on his work as founder of CityYear, the AmeriCorps subsidiary routinely criticized for paying its young volunteers what often amounts to poverty wages.

Khazei has received over $100,000 in donations from executives and individuals affiliated with investment leviathan Bain Capital, over $50,000 combined from individuals affiliated with private equity companies Berkshire Partners and Advent International, and another $22,400 from affiliates of Fireman Capital Partners, a consumer focused private equity fund. One of Khazei’s biggest individual donors, who gave $5,600, is Charles Ledley—co-founder of Cornwall Capital and protagonist of “The Big Short,” who in 2008 turned a $110,000 dollar investment into $120 million by betting against the U.S. mortgage market and cashing out on the suffering of millions. 

While Khazei has centered his platform on “fixing our democracy,” campaign finance reform is barely hinted at on his campaign site. His donors, taken together, represent private equity and investment firms that have lobbied against government oversight, failed to account for their role in destroying jobs through leveraged buyouts, and continue to post record profits as millions file for unemployment with no relief in sight.

Meanwhile, candidates like former Planned Parenthood vice president Jesse Mermell and president of the National Hispanic Bar Association Ben Sigel have posted significant sums in the hundreds of thousands from smaller dollar contributions. Becky Grossman, Ihssane Leckey, Dave Cavell, and Natalia Linos have hit a middle lane, combining high-dollar self funding with smaller individual donations. Grassroots fundraising from candidates like Mermell, who signed pledges rejecting fossil fuel and corporate PAC money, stands in sharp contrast to the top two frontrunners when it comes to campaign finance: it’s not only PACs and bundlers that hold tremendous sway over who is seen and who is left out, it also comes down to family networks and the industry elites who view a $2,800 campaign donation as a drop in the bucket.

Read more from Sludge:

Joe Kennedy, a Top Recipient of Hedge Fund Cash, Declined to Back Tax Fairness Act

Following Sludge Report, Kennedy’s Trust Fund Sells Its Fossil Fuel Stocks

Big Donors and PACs Dominate Campaign Funding in Nearly Every State, Report Finds