Harrison Nominates New Corporate Lobbyists to Join the DNC

DNC members say they were not allowed input on the nominees, who were put forward as a slate by Chair Jaime Harrison and will almost certainly be approved.

Harrison Nominates New Corporate Lobbyists to Join the DNC
Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison delivers remarks at a voting rights event organized by the DNC at Howard University on July 08, 2021.

Tomorrow, Democratic National Committee members will vote to approve a slate of 75 nominees to serve as at-large members that have been put forward by Chair Jaime Harrison. The vote will take place in a virtual meeting that will also include votes on who will serve on the organization’s top committees including the Executive Committee and the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

Harrison’s picks for new at-large DNC members include many corporate lobbyists, consultants, and executives, including partners at firms that represent the fossil fuel industry, pharmaceutical companies, electric utilities, and defense contractors, as well as senior employees with Facebook, Pepsi, and SoftBank. The nominees will be voted on as a slate and are almost certain to be approved.

Many of these at-large nominees, who make up an influential faction of the approximately 447 voting DNC members, will select other members of the DNC committees that issue decisions on topics like whether the party groups will continue to accept donations from executives in the fossil fuel industry. 

Update, Oct. 9, 3pm ET: In the virtual DNC fall meeting held today, the motion to suspend the rules and approve Jaime Harrison’s slate of 75 at-large members was passed by DNC members by a vote of 304-59.

With a new Democratic administration in the White House and a new DNC chair in Harrison, who had experience as a state party chair in South Carolina, DNC members calling for reforms had been hoping that the new leadership would be open to changes in how the party operates. But some members say the slate of nominees is being rushed and that they were not properly notified of the process.

“This is supposed to be an election—there should be notices that go out with enough time for there to be a genuine democracy around these positions and for people to be able to run, and that just isn’t happening,” said David Atkins, a pro-transparency DNC member from California. “It’s an election in name only, but in reality we’re being presented with a slate of appointments.”

Lists of Harrison’s at-large DNC member nominees and the roster of committee appointees to be approved were published on October 6 on the website DemRulz, along with capsules on their careers and affiliations. The website is run by longtime DNC member and attorney Frank Leone, who is this year an at-large nominee and was appointed again to the Rules and Bylaws Committee. The lists of at-large nominees are not posted on the Democratic Party website or its verified social media accounts, and there exists no official party website listing all 447 DNC members.

We want the Democratic Party to serve the needs of the people, not the other way around.

Jeri Shepherd, DNC member from Colorado

Earlier this year, Democratic party leaders did not allow for any competing candidates to gather signatures ahead of the election for DNC chair. Harrison, a former corporate lobbyist and U.S. Senate candidate who was the Biden political team’s choice to lead the national party, was officially made DNC chair on January 21 in a virtual winter meeting through a process that was reported to be “near-unanimous.”

Despite calls from some DNC members for more transparency and grassroots engagement, several told Sludge that DNC leadership is continuing the top-down decision-making of his predecessor, Tom Perez. Reformist DNC members say that Harrison has not responded to their November 2020 letter proposing reforms to party rules, and that he has not opened up deliberation among DNC members and between the party’s regions. The letter, which seeks greater dialogue with party leadership in D.C., has been signed by 40 DNC members, making up over 10% of the DNC members who were elected by their state parties. 

“I’m very disappointed we have not heard anything tangible as a result of the letter. We would like to have a response. More importantly, we want the Democratic Party to serve the needs of the people, not the other way around,” said Jeri Shepherd, a DNC member from Colorado. “The DNC does itself a disservice by preferring to have most decisions made behind the scenes with a mere ratification by the DNC membership, prioritizing the consultant class in its at-large membership at the expense of geographical diversity and people with valuable experience whose absence will be felt, and making it harder for diverse voices to be heard and have influence.”

A leading pro-reform DNC member, Dr. James Zogby, was not renominated by Harrison to be an at-large member. Zogby had proposed a conflict-of-interest policy and other transparency measures during and since the DNC’s Unity Reform Commission process of 2017. Last summer, delegates to the virtual Democratic National Convention’s Rules Committee hastily rejected a reform proposal that would have barred corporate lobbyists from serving as DNC members by a vote of 122-46.

Harrison’s at-large nominees with corporate ties include the following individuals who would be joining the DNC for the first time:

Lacy M. Johnson—partner in Taft’s Public Affairs Strategies Group and partner-in-charge of the firm’s Washington, DC office

The firm’s ​lobbying clients this year, according to Senate disclosure records, include trade association the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), Facebook, defense contractor General Atomics, Koch Companies Public Sector, and defense company RAF Technologies. Taft Advisors’ previous lobbying registrations were during the Obama years and halted in 2015, indicating the firm increases its lobbying activity under Democratic administrations. Johnson was hired earlier this year specifically to build out the firm’s lobbying group. 

Marcus Sebastian Mason—lobbyist and senior partner at government affairs firm The Madison Group

This year, Mason is registered to lobby the federal government for clients including DoorDash, Fox Corp., Google, student loan company Navient, private equity firms Cerberus and Carlyle Group, biotech company Nano Cures, and Walgreens, according to Senate records. More of his lobbying clients include BNSF Railways, Intuit, and loan company Opportunity Financial, and previously, Avanir Pharmaceuticals and electric utility company Energy Future Holdings. The Madison Group counts many more federal lobbying clients, including the ​International Association of Plastics Distribution. He will be appointed to the DNC Budget and Finance Committee. Mason is also on the leadership team of the Washington Government Relations Group, a volunteer association that supports African-American lobbyists, and a board member of the Congressional Black Caucus’ PAC.

Edward “Smitty” Smith—managing partner, D.C. office of law firm DLA Piper

This year, Smith’s firm has lobbied for numerous corporate clients including Comcast, Genentech, health insurance company Independence Blue Cross, the Independent Fuel Terminal Operators Association, and military contractor L3Harris. The firm is also registered to lobby for Canadian gasoline exporting company Irving Oil. 

Gary F. Locke—former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and governor of Washington, board member of the Bipartisan Policy Center

Locke is a board member of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C. think tank and lobbying organization that is funded by dozens of corporations including some in the fossil fuel industry like AFPM, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell. Before his 2009 confirmation to the Obama administration, Locke was a director at Seattle-based insurance company Safeco. He is also a board member at merchant banking firm Ridge Lane and a consultant and advisor for lobbying firm Davis Wright Tremaine. Locke will join the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

Other at-large nominees appointed to party committees include the following:

Kenny Thompson, Jr.—vice president of external affairs, North America at PepsiCo

Pepsi remains a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, contributing over $500,000 in member dues last year, as the powerful business lobbying group leads a multifaceted campaign against the Democratic reconciliation package currently in Congress. The company was pressured by advocacy groups including Greenpeace and Public Citizen in a 2017 campaign to drop its membership in the Chamber, which is the top-spending federal lobbying group. Thompson will be appointed to the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

Nicole Isaac—director of international strategic response at Facebook

Before starting at Facebook in February, according to LinkedIn, Isaac was the director of North America policy at LinkedIn, working at the company for about six years. Advocacy groups with funding from Facebook have lobbied this year against tech industry antitrust legislation being developed by House committees. Based in D.C., Isaac will be appointed to the 11-member Budget and Finance Committee.

Tonya Williams—​​head of external engagement & corporate responsibility, SoftBank Group International

A former director of legislative affairs for Vice President Biden, Williams joined the multinational Softbank in April, according to LinkedIn. Williams will be appointed to the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

At least 21 of the 75 at-large nominees report D.C. as their region. DNC member Atkins says, “It’s very D.C.-heavy, there’s under-representation from the West and the South. The problem is that if the DNC is going to be about a 50-state organizing strategy, we need to pick up seats there.” 

Atkins says the goal of the group of DNC reformers is to democratize the organization. “Elected DNC members got elected because they’ve been effective at local and state level in state parties—they have wisdom and skill sets applicable to their areas that could be made use of.” 

Jeri Shepherd from Colorado adds, “​​Last term, we had a DREAMer as an at-large member; we also had a Black trans woman as an at-large member; we no longer have either of them as part of our body. We lost one of the most prominent Arab Americans, Dr. James Zogby, who has been a leader in the Arab American communities for decades. We also no longer have on our body the chair of the Environmental Council, Michaelle Deatrick. We as a body lose out by losing their perspectives in our deliberations and decision-making.” 

Noting that Colorado does not have any at-large nominees even as the formerly Republican state has trended Democratic, Shepherd tells Sludge she’ll be voting no on the at-large slate.

DNC communications staff and other DNC officials did not respond to email inquiries for this story about the rules for the election, which will be viewable on YouTube according to DemRulz. 

The DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee has not published the election rules online; an email obtained by Sludge from pro-transparency DNC member Michael Kapp of California to the DNC Western States Caucus flags issues with the election process: “The rules around this election, as passed by the Rules and Bylaws Committee, was only released to DNC Members 30 minutes after the Chair announced his appointments, at almost 10:30pm ET last Saturday [Oct. 2]. Even if there was a procedure for rank-and-file DNC Members to nominate slates or individuals for election (as opposed to providing suggestions to be considered for the Chair’s appointments), I don’t believe 90 minutes offered in the middle of the night of a weekend is sufficient time for non-Chair nominations to be made.”

Referring to Ellie Pérez, a former DNC member from Arizona, Kapp’s email continued, “I am particularly saddened that the Youth Council’s Secretary — the first DREAMer on the DNC, and a member of our Western States Caucus — was not included on this proposed slate. Her voice was an important one, and this organization is worse off for her exclusion.” Kapp’s email said he also plans to vote no on the proposed slate. 

During the meeting, members will also consider proposed amendments to the DNC Charter and Bylaws, including having the chair of the Budget & Finance Committee sit on the Executive Committee and what is described on the agenda as clarifying the process for considering resolutions. In 2019, the DNC voted to ratify the Resolutions Committee’s recommendation against allowing a climate-focused presidential candidate debate sought by all the campaigns.

Some of the current DNC members with corporate ties who Harrison included in his slate include the following:

  • Minyon Moore, a principal at corporate consultancy Dewey Square Group, who was renominated to be one of 11 at-large DNC members on the Executive Committee, which appoints the co-chairs and the majority of members on the DNC’s four standing committees;
  • James Roosevelt, Jr., the at-large member who co-chairs the powerful Rules and Bylaws Committee, who is also the chair of the Policy and Regulatory Committee for America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) and a former AHIP board member. According to reports from The Intercept, Roosevelt helped UMass Amherst students craft a smear campaign against former Holyoke, Massachusetts mayor Alex Morse as he was mounting a primary campaign against Rep. Richard Neal; 
  • Harold Ickes, a prominent former lobbyist with The Ickes & Enright Group, the government affairs firm with lobbying clients this year including Northwell Health and the Greater New York Hospital Association;
  • Maria Cardona, a principal at Dewey Square Group and a Rules and Bylaws Committee member;
  • Donna Brazile, a former DNC chair and a corporate consultant;
  • Rev. Leah Daughtry, a Rules and Bylaws committee member and a corporate advisor;
  • Joanne Dowdell, a senior vice president of global government affairs at News Corp;
  • Lottie Shackelford, a Resolutions Committee member and corporate consultant;
  • Christopher Lowe, a DNC Budget and Finance Committee member and a partner in investment management firm SteelRiver.

Other at-large nominees include California fundraiser and political consultant Kristin Bertolina Faust; longtime district staffer of Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, Bonnie Wu; and Democratic megadonor Deborah Simon of Indianapolis. Jay Jacobs, chair of the crisis-ridden New York State Democratic Party, was appointed by the chair to sit on the national party’s Credentials Committee.

Additional signatories to the reformers’ letter confirmed to Sludge they had not received a response from Harrison on their proposal that members be able to conduct individual reviews of at-large nominees or access information on the effectiveness of party expenditures.

Update, Oct. 8, 8pm ET: SteelRiver Infrastructure Partners, where Christopher Lowe is a partner, sold its investments in natural gas utilities to Essential Utilities in March 2020.

Read more DNC coverage:

Biden to Pick Former Corporate Lobbyist Jaime Harrison for DNC Chair

Lawyer Celebrated as Democracy ‘Hero’ Gutted Campaign Finance Laws

DNC’s Flip-Flop on Fossil Fuel Subsidies Follows Deep Ties To the Industry

Corporate Lobbyists Vote to Keep Corporate Lobbyists in the DNC