Executives Display Diverse Electoral Loyalties
By: Wall Street Journal
By GEORGE ANDERS
Political-campaign financing is supposed to pit rival interest groups against one another. But in this year’s wide-open presidential race, some interesting tugs-of-war are going on within individual companies.
Consider Time Warner Inc., whose chairman, Richard Parsons, has sent money to Republican Sen. John McCain’s campaign, while Chief Executive Jeffrey Bewkes last year helped fund Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd, who has since dropped out of the race. At the same time, other top officials at the media conglomerate’s cable-television units have been backing Democratic contenders Sen. Hillary Clinton or former Sen. John Edwards.
Is there a discernable Time Warner point of view on the election? No way.
Playing the field even more broadly is Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the former employer of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as well as other major figures in both political parties. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington has tallied campaign donations as of Oct. 31, the most recent data available, and has posted the results on its Web site, www.opensecrets.org.
With individual donations limited to $2,300 a candidate for the primaries and another $2,300 for the general election, it would be tough for a few executives to play kingmaker. But Goldman’s investment bankers have been hard at work, giving a total of more than $1 million to various candidates, according to the center. Goldman employees rank among the top five funding sources for all three of the leading Democratic candidates: Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama.
This generosity extends to Republicans, too. Goldman employees show up as top-five donors for two Republican contenders: Mr. McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
One Goldman managing director, Dean Backer, has written checks for Mrs. Clinton, Messrs. Obama, Edwards and Dodd, and another Democratic contender: Sen. Joseph Biden, who also has dropped out of the race. That’s the political equivalent of investing in a Democratic Party index fund. Even if some commitments fizzle, the overall portfolio will participate in whatever happens next. Mr. Backer didn’t return calls seeking comment; a Goldman spokesman declined to comment.
At Comcast Corp., the diversified approach has its appeal, too. Company founder Ralph Roberts, still a director at age 87, has donated to the campaigns of Mr. McCain, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Biden. His wife Suzanne, who hosts “Seeking Solutions With Suzanne,” a Comcast show aimed at older viewers, has funded Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama. Their son Brian, Comcast’s CEO, has backed Mrs. Clinton.
“We give to both sides,” says Comcast spokeswoman D’Arcy Rudnay. “You have to. There are lots of people here behind different candidates.” Ms. Rudnay sees that as a sign of Comcast’s diverse culture.
So what’s going on? A jaded interpretation would be that many corporate executives aren’t deeply committed to any candidate. Instead, they just want to befriend or mollify whoever wins the presidency in November’s election.
Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, has been making that argument for years. “The ideology of business is pragmatism,” he says. “Executives wouldn’t be successful people if they didn’t function that way.”
Mr. Sabato notes the biggest presidential fund-raisers so far have been two Democrats: Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. Business backers may think of themselves as siding with Republicans most of the time, he says. But if executives think a Democratic victory is likely in 2008, he adds, they have started writing checks accordingly.
A different interpretation comes from executives and spokesmen at companies that have long been politically active. Both parties’ political races are surprisingly up for grabs, they say. Donations by big companies’ employees, even at the highest levels, simply reflect the same divided loyalties of the general public, they add.
At Cisco Systems Inc., for example, CEO John Chambers has supported Mr. McCain. Cisco’s former chairman, John Morgridge, has given money to Mr. Obama’s campaign. Executive Vice President Susan Bostrom is a Clinton backer. And Charles Giancarlo, who recently departed as executive vice president of the computer-networking company, helped fund the campaigns of Mrs. Clinton and Republican Rudy Giuliani.
Cisco employees privately say the scattershot political giving of their bosses is a lively topic of conversation within the company. A Cisco spokeswoman says the company regards employees’ political contributions as a personal matter and can’t comment further about them. Similarly, Time Warner spokesman Ed Adler says employees’ political choices are their own business. “I don’t think this is a culture where people discuss who they support. Most meetings here are simply about business.”
Half a century ago, big companies like DuPont set a pattern of giving to both political parties. Some called it a way to promote democracy; others saw it as a way to gain influence no matter who won. Either analysis made it seem as if big business played a powerful, well-thought-out role in politics, behind the scenes.
It’s possible that corporate executives’ donations this year will assume a more coordinated role in shaping events. But so far, it looks as though business leaders — like other American voters — are still in the early stages of figuring out how they feel about this year’s candidates.
Write to George Anders at email@example.com
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