Last week, a proposal to reduce corporate influence over the Democratic Party was hastily rejected during a virtual meeting of the Democratic National Convention Rules Committee by a vote of 105 to 45, with eight abstentions. The resolution, which would have changed the DNC Charter to permanently bar corporate PAC donations and ban corporate lobbyists from serving on the party organization, was introduced by Brent Welder, a Kansas City area attorney and delegate appointed by the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Several of the Rules Committee appointees who voted against Welder’s resolution have backgrounds in corporate lobbying. Sludge found at least ten current corporate lobbyists and one major former lobbyist—as well as three corporate consultants, four corporate lawyers, and five corporate executives—among the members who voted against the proposal.
“If you are a lobbyist for a for-profit corporation, you shouldn’t serve on the DNC,” Welder told Sludge. “I guarantee you that 99.9% of Democrats in America agree with that, and only the place you find people who disagree with it are in the leadership of DNC.”
The Convention Rules Committee’s virtual meeting was co-chaired by former Rep. Barney Frank, who serves on the board of directors of New York commercial bank Signature Bank, and Maria Cardona, a principal at Dewey Square Group, a lobbying and public relations firm that worked for the insurance industry during the debate over health care reform early in the Obama presidency.
Welder, who also proposed a resolution on ranked-choice voting, said that he was approached by the Biden campaign through an intermediary and pressured to withdraw his measures.
“I was informed before the meeting that of all the amendments put forth, the Biden campaign was most upset about those two amendments, and urged me to withdraw them, which I politely declined to do,” Welder said. “There had been about 30 amendments originally proposed, the deadline was a few days before. By time the meeting happened, it was down to eight, as people had been pressured to withdraw amendment through various means. Of all the amendments, they tried to kill them without anyone knowing who voted for or against them.”
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About two hours into the virtual meeting, which is viewable on YouTube, Welder was recognized for several minutes in the main room to speak on behalf of his resolution. “We need to neutralize the corporate influence, first within our party, that is preventing us from living up to the platform, our ideals, and being a true party of the people,” Welder said.
After Welder’s remarks, co-chair Maria Cardona opened the debate and said that members could begin voting on the proposal immediately through the portal. Cardona then turned the floor over to Illinois lobbyist Mike Kreloff, who read prepared remarks explaining that as a lobbyist who sometimes worked for corporations he thought a separate DNC commission, which he said has been running for 18 months, should be the venue for evaluating the resolutions. Jerry Goldfeder, a Biden appointee and a New York election lawyer, echoed Kreloff’s remarks and succinctly moved to table the resolution. Andrew Tuozzolo, chief of staff to New Orleans City Councilwoman Helena Moreno, immediately seconded the motion in the main speaking room, and Cardona initiated a new vote to table Welders’ resolution.
Welder then asked Frank for how long the resolution would be tabled and Frank replied that it would be tabled “until someone makes a successful motion to take it off the table,” adding that “with the expiration of the committee that wouldn’t be possible.” Welder replied, “Gotcha, that doesn’t make any sense at all.” The vote to table Welder’s resolution was then announced as 122-46.
At that point, Welder told Sludge, “The co-chairs shoved [my video call] back into the side room, where I couldn’t be heard.” Welder said that he believes his microphone had initially been left on inadvertently by the meeting co-chairs. “With other members there, protests sustained for 10-15 minutes, until the chairs first said the meeting was adjourned, but then said there would be an up or down vote on the proposal. Bernie campaign leadership had convinced them to untable it,” through an off-camera process, Welder said. Minutes before the long meeting ended, the final vote against Welder’s resolution among the committee of mostly Biden campaign appointees came in at almost two-to-one against.
While he decried the process for considering the resolution as flawed by design, Welder describes being able to raise his amendment as a “big step forward in transparency, to hold the DNC accountable for corruption that’s occurring.”
“Getting Big Money out of politics makes everything else possible,” Welder said. “A lot of people don’t realize the corruption that happens at the top ranks of the DNC, that rank and file Democrats have lots of good ideas that get railroaded by leadership.”
Sludge sought to confirm Welder’s account with DNC Communications Director Xochitl Hinojosa, a top Perez adviser going back to his stint as secretary of Labor, and DNC Secretary Jason Rae, but did not receive a response.
Below are some of the committee members with backgrounds in advancing corporate interests who voted against Welder’s resolution.
Corporate Lobbyists on Convention Rules
Maria Cardona, an at-large DNC member, is a principal at lobbying firm Dewey Square Group, whose past lobbying clients include AT&T (on “telecom liability issues”), multiple medical companies, and Countrywide financial corporation, the implosion of which triggered the subprime mortgage crisis. In 2016, The Intercept reported that consultants with Dewey Square Group lobbied against Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform package. In advocacy efforts for insurance industry clients such as the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, Dewey Square Group placed letters to the editor in newspapers “under names of elderly Massachusetts residents without their knowledge or consent.”
Committee co-chair Barney Frank, who had received over $1 million in payments from Signature Bank as of May 2018 when he agreed that the Trump administration’s deregulation of banks did not pose a major threat, did not appear to vote on Welder’s resolution, as no roll call vote was recorded for him.
Harold Ickes, an at-large DNC member, is a powerful lobbyist and party insider whose past clients have included Deloitte Consulting, Verizon, Northwell Health, JP Morgan Chase, Mastercard, and United Airlines. Ickes was appointed to the regular rules committee by Chair Tom Perez in an October 2017 “purge” of DNC leaders who had favored greater reforms for party transparency or backed Perez’s rival Rep. Keith Ellison for chair.
Joe Donnelly, a former U.S. senator from Indiana, is a partner at prominent lobbying firm Akin Gump, joining last April to “advise clients in the financial services, defense and health care industries, among others, on a host of policy matters.” Donnelly is not allowed to register as a lobbyist under Senate “cooling off” rules until January 2021.
Steve Dettelbach, an attorney, is a partner at lobbying firm Baker & Hostetler, where he is co-leader of the White Collar, Investigations and Securities Enforcement and Litigation team.
Mark Siegel is a partner at lobbying firm Locke Lord Strategies, where he has represented Pakistan in the United States. Siegel’s previous lobbying clients with the firm include America’s Mutual Banks (2014 and before), America’s Mutual Holding Companies (2014 and before), the Financial Planning Coalition (2013 and before), and the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Charlie Baker, president and co-founder of lobbying firm Dewey Square Group, was among Tom Perez’s 25 party leaders nominated to the Convention Rules Committee. In 2015, Baker was named chief administrative officer of Hillary for America. In 2016, journalist Lee Fang reported in The Intercept that Baker had been registered in 2009 to lobby for the Medicines Company, a drug firm, and for Citizen Financial Group to help the bank lobby on Dodd-Frank in 2010.
John Podesta, a party insider and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, founded the Podesta Group lobbying firm, which through 2017 lobbied for hundreds of major corporations, including a coalition of major American coal companies that from 2009 to 2012 fought against President Obama’s Clean Power plan. Podesta founded the Center for American Progress (CAP) in October 2003, a think tank whose corporate donors have included Comcast, Walmart, General Motors, Pacific Gas and Electric, General Electric, Boeing and Lockheed. Over the past several years, CAP has advanced increasingly neoliberal policies and rejected a single-payer health care system in favor of a public option plan, with senior staffers leading attacks on Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan during last year’s Democraic presidential primary.
Leticia Van de Putte, a former Texas state senator, is a lobbyist who co-founded the bipartisan external relations firm Andrade-Van de Putte & Associates, which a San Antonio Express News column last year described as “connecting business clients with government officials.” One set of photos in the company’s website gallery is labeled at an event with the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and Councilmember Rebecca Viagran.
Michael Stratton is the senior policy director at Denver, Colorado-based law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck, whose hundreds of corporate lobbying clients include dozens of oil, gas, and natural resources companies. Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck is the second largest lobbying firm at the federal level.
Mike Kreloff, who delivered the first prepared statement against Welder’s resolution, is a Springfield, Illinois lobbyist whose recent clients include the Chicago-based clean energy company Elevate Energy and the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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Corporate Lawyers on the Convention Rules Committee
Kate Cook is a partner at Boston-based litigation firm Sugarman Roberts and former chief legal counsel to Gov. Deval Patrick. The firm’s services include environmental and energy law and business disputes.
Marcel Groen, former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, is a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP, a politically-connected Philadelphia law firm whose corporate clients include Oaktree Capital, Biomed America, life sciences company Novasep Holding SAS, and PuraCap Pharmaceutical, LLC.
Joseph Smallhoover, one of eight DNC members elected by Democrats Abroad, is an attorney whose boutique firm serves U.S. business clients in industries including mining, health products, speciality plastics, and “Counsel to a major US based pharmaceutical company in connection with its acquisition of rights to various molecules and their marketing in Europe.”
Corporate Executives and Consultants on the Convention Rules Committee
Daniel Halpern, a restaurant executive and co-chair of the DNC Budget and Finance Committee, voted no. Earlier this year, multiple DNC members told Sludge that the committee was not meeting its responsibility to distribute regular written reports to DNC members on the efficacy of the chair’s expenditures. Halpern is a past chairman of the Georgia Restaurant Association, a business group that in 2014 opposed a minimum wage increase to $10.10 in Georgia.
Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton from 1996-1998 and a co-chair with Alan Simpson of President Obama’s deficit-reduction commission in 2010, co-founded the investment banking firm Bowles Hollowell Conner, which was active in private equity before its acquisition in 1998 by a bank holding company that later became part of Wachovia. A board member of the bipartisan policy organization Committee For a Responsible Federal Budget, Bowles went on to found Campaign to Fix the Debt, funded by Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, which has been criticized as an advocacy group that advances corporate tax cuts and for slashing spending on social services. Fix The Debt “are spending millions, but they are protecting billions in defense contracts and tax giveaways that would otherwise be on the chopping block,” said Kevin Connor of the watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative in The New York Times.
Chris Tapio is the president of Townsend Calkin Tapio Public Affairs, a Sacramento-based firm whose “Successes” page lists ExxonMobil, California Association of Health Plans, Kaiser Permanente, California Hospital Association, Chevron, Visa, PG&E, and California Association of Health Facilities (CAHF). In 2016, he was described by California’s Capitol Weekly: “A 20-year veteran of capitol politics, strategist Chris Tapio is best known as a consultant and adviser to the moderate Democrats in the Legislature… busy working to connect newly-elected legislators with like-minded supporters in the business community…”.
Rules of Order, Unfollowed
A similar experience was reported by Jennifer Ann Leister, a Bernie Sanders campaign delegate and member of the Virginia Democratic Central Committee, who was nominated in June to the Convention Credentials Committee. The Credentials committee voted last week on several measures regarding the seating of convention delegates, such as those from states including Iowa, and delegates elected from Puerto Rico, after Mayor Mike Bloomberg discontinued his campaign.
Regarding the virtual meeting’s main room proceedings (viewable on YouTube), Leister told Sludge, “We were in a separate room where we couldn’t interact with speakers, the chat feature was turned off, and Robert’s Rules of Order were not being followed,” even though the committee’s Rules of Procedure documented stated, “Chairs of the Credentials Committee shall rely on Robert’s Rules of Order.”
“People were shouting but speakers couldn’t hear us,” Leister said. “It was interesting to see the difference between 2016 and 2020, because in 2016 everything was very public regarding who are the delegates and who’s on the committees. The Biden and Sanders campaigns were doing their best to arrange things so that it would be non-confrontational and I respect that—I do not understand why we weren’t allowed to ask questions about what we were voting on and have them answered.”
DNC-approved portions of the Convention Committee meetings are available to view on YouTube, but not the entire meeting proceedings with all 150+ committee members. What was video-captured and is shown on the DNC’s YouTube channel is just the “closed door” room of chosen speakers, not the separate side room of the majority of delegates on the 2020 committees. Under the opaque process of the virtual meetings, which was not detailed to all committee members ahead of time, the side rooms with the hundred-plus delegates—including those appointed by Bernie Sanders’ former presidential campaign, present under an April 30 deal negotiated with the Biden campaign—were not permitted to speak directly to main room presenters or raise issues during proceedings.
In October 2017, the DNC approved a resolution banning corporate PAC donations from contributors whose work conflicts with the party’s platform, but in the years since, party leadership refused efforts by reform-minded national DNC members to strengthen the ban to encompass all corporate PAC money and formalize the rule in the party charter. Tom Perez’s narrow win over then-Rep. Keith Ellison for DNC chair in February 2017 was widely seen as a victory for establishment party figures comfortable with the revolving door and a reliance on big money corporate fundraising.
The Convention Rules Committee is one of three DNC “standing committees” that form in the run-up to the national convention every four years, along with a Credentials Committee and Platform Committee, and which are composed primarily of delegates appointed by the presidential nominee—this year, the campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden. These temporary bodies are different from the DNC’s Charter call for standing committees on Credentials, Resolutions, Rules and Bylaws, and Budget and Finance, which are smaller in size, and some of which meet annually.
The convention committees that met last week, including the Platform Committee that voted against endorsing a single-payer health care system by 125 to 36 (with three abstentions), are now dissolved after their one virtual meeting. DNC officials emailed by Sludge did not respond to a request for updated lists of members of DNC committees, which are not posted publicly on the DNC’s website or any official social media accounts.