July 23, 2018: This story has been corrected.
Media mogul Oprah Winfrey is worth nearly $3 billion.
Basketball legend-turned-businessman Michael Jordan’s net worth is a reported $1.65 billion.
Businessman and philanthropist Robert Smith is worth more than both of them with an estimated net value of $4 billion-plus.
All three black billionaires are known as generous philanthropists, but not big political givers — they are rarely mentioned in the same breath as political megadonors Charles and David Koch, George Soros and Tom Steyer.
Winfrey, Jordan and Smith aren’t anomalies, either. The nation’s wealthiest African-Americans are decidedly reluctant campaign contributors, almost completely ceding the rarefied rank of “political megadonor” to older, white men, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission and Center for Responsive Politics data.
Since 2010, when the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. FEC and opened floodgates to unlimited spending in elections, minority donors have been all but absent from every federal election’s top 100 political spenders list, the analysis found.
Critics of the nation’s campaign money system say lawmakers are increasingly beholden to a very small pool of aging white donors who don’t reflect a country that’s becoming younger, blacker and browner.
The success of Democrats’ mission to retake control of the U.S. House and Senate in the 2018 midterm elections depends heavily on convincing people of color to vote in a post-Barack Obama era. Democrats recently announced a new campaign aimed at turning out nonwhite voters. In addition, a new cluster of left-leaning super PACs and grassroots political groups — with names such as BlackPAC, Black Economic Alliance and Asian American Victory Fund — have sprung up in support. Some of these groups depend heavily on funding from white donors.
Quentin James, founder of The Collective PAC, whose mission is to help elect African-American candidates to office, said black donors don’t prioritize political giving, thwarting their impact on the political process.
“We’ve been told the biggest lie in politics, which is that the only thing that matters is your vote,” James said, citing the ramifications of the Citizens United decision. “If our community wants to be fully taken into account in this political system, our dollars have to matter as much as our votes.”
Take billionaire and Las Vegas Sands Corp. owner Sheldon Adelson, a fervent advocate for Israel.
Adelson, together with his wife, Miriam Adelson, contributed almost $82.6 million to mostly Republican or conservative political causes during 2015 and 2016 alone. Trump initially painted Adelson as a political puppet master, but Adelson subsequently became a top Trump backer anyway.
Adelson’s reward? Trump heeded his calls to ditch the United States’ nuclear agreement with Iran and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
There’s no black analogue to Adelson. Not even close.
Two Latinos appeared among the top 100 political donors for the 2015-2016 election cycle: MBF Healthcare Partners founder and chairman Miguel Fernandez, who gave mainly to Republicans and conservatives, and Texas-born, Chihuahua state cabinet member Alejandra de la Vega Foster, whose name appears alongside her husband, crude oil refiner Paul L. Foster, giving only to Republicans.
Haim Saban, a Democrat-supporting Israeli-American born in Egypt, and Hushang Ansary and his wife Shahla, a Republican-backing Iranian-American, also made the list, as did Iranian-born Tom Rastin, who supports Democrats.
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that if someone is politically motivated, wealthy and not white, that person better play the political money game “the way the white boys are playing it.”
And that means spending huge amounts of money, as the law now allows, he said.
The laws are “written the way they are to take care of boys they’re supposed to take care of,” Steele said. “The problem is they can’t say, ‘Whites Only.’”
Why black Americans don’t give big to politics
The nation’s top black billionaires and many millionaires tend to be generous with their money — just not in a direct political sense. They may give heavily to charitable causes, churches or issue-driven groups that don’t engage in elections — even if they’re politically active in other ways, according to research.
Using celebrity instead of money to affect politics is a common practice among the famous, Steele said.
”It’s not the same as writing a $2.5 million check, but that celebrity could be worth $2.5 million [in] fundraising,” he said.
For example, Winfrey, who endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, gave $21 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which now boasts an exhibit in her honor. Smith and Michael Jordan also donated to the museum, giving $20 million and $5 million respectively.
Their federal elections giving since Obama’s first run for the presidency totals more than $616,000, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.
That’s not nothing. But consider that investor and Democratic super donor Donald Sussman, who is white, contributed $2 million to the Emily’s List Women Vote! super PAC — in May alone.
Estee Portnoy, a spokeswoman for Michael Jordan, said the six-time NBA champion has given plenty to politics.
“He has donated to the campaigns of a number of candidates for political office over the years, including Barack Obama, Bill Bradley and Harvey Gantt, and will continue to do so,” she said in an email, highlighting his 2000 commercial endorsing former basketball star-turned-U.S. senator Bill Bradley’s presidential bid and noting that he hosted a 2012 fundraiser for Obama. Gantt, the first African-American mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, twice ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in the 1990s.
Years ago, Jordan was quoted as saying “Republicans buy sneakers too,” a quote that has repeatedly surfaced as evidence he avoids getting enmeshed in politics. Spokespeople for Jordan have previously denied that he ever said it, and Portnoy, too, said Jordan “never made the statement.”
Winfrey’s spokeswoman, Nicole Nichols, said Winfrey was not available for an interview or comment. Alan Fleischmann, a spokesman for Robert Smith, said he wasn’t “able to participate in this story.”
The Center for Public Integrity contacted more than 50 other black, Latino and Asian celebrities and high-net-worth individuals — LeBron James, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, Denzel Washington and Tracee Ellis Ross among them — who’ve been politically outspoken but made few, if any political contributions, to ask why.
Many of their representatives did not respond, and others who did said their clients were unavailable to comment.
George Takei, another Obama supporter who recently called President Donald Trump’s immigration stances “a chilling low,” has given $43,750 since 2007, including contributions to Obama’s and Clinton’s campaigns and to congressional candidates. He regularly offers up pointed political fare to his nearly 2.9 million Twitter followers. His husband and manager, Brad Takei, said George Takei wasn’t available to comment.
Model and TV personality Chrissy Teigen is one of Trump’s most famous Twitter critics, but federal records don’t reflect any political contributions from her. Teigen was unavailable for comment, publicist Britney Ross said.
Teigen’s husband, musician John Legend, has so far contributed nearly $32,000 during the 2017-2018 election cycle to liberal groups and some Democratic congressional candidates.
Legend — given name John Stephens — sang “If You’re Out There” at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and he was heavily featured in Will.I.Am’s “Yes We Can”, a song supporting Obama. He gave $4,600 that year to Obama for America. Legend’s representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Kanye West, who first signed Legend to his music label, has proclaimed he would’ve voted for Trump — if he voted at all — in 2016. West visited the president at Trump Tower in New York City late last year and has been posting pictures of himself wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
In the past, he’s contributed to the Clinton and Obama campaigns, as well as the DNC in 2014 — but he has yet to give to Trump or any Republican party committees.
An unidentified woman answering West’s cell phone declined to comment.
The power of ‘bundlers’
Instead of personally pumping massive amounts of money into political committees, some wealthy minorities leverage their celebrity and participate in politics by becoming money “bundlers.”
These bundlers help candidates, parties and super PACs raise money from other wealthy people willing to write five-, six- or seven-figure checks.
Bundlers are often contacted by the Democratic or Republican parties, or a particular political candidate, to host a fundraising event. The host will gather all the money raised from the event and then present the party or the campaign with a “bundle” of checks.
“Bundling allows a way for many minority donors to get in the game and to develop relationships with other major financial political players they might not otherwise have,” Steele said.
Henry Muñoz is the cofounder of Latino Victory Project and owner of one of the largest minority-run architectural firms in the country. He and his co-founder, actress Eva Longoria, were among the top fundraisers for Obama’s 2012 campaign, bundling a combined total of at least $1.9 million.
Longoria was also a bundler and supporter of Clinton, saying “I’m with her,” in a speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Longoria couldn’t be reached for comment.
But Longoria, in addition to her bundling work, has spent $316,935 on federal politics since the 2011-2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics data.
Muñoz alone has personally shelled out $642,274 since Obama’s first run for office, according to records.
One of their most notable Latino Victory Project supporters is “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment. Miranda has given the group $30,000 since October 2017, according to FEC filings, and he has been promoting the Latino Victory Fund and BlackPAC on his wildly popular social media accounts.
Muñoz points to a song from Miranda’s acclaimed musical called “The Room Where It Happens,” as an example of why people of color should give politically. The song is about the 1790 dinner table meeting among the founding fathers where they talk about how to move the nation forward.
Muñoz, who is also the national finance committee chairman for the Democratic National Committee, said he’s pleased with any donor who is able to write checks in any amount, but he wants to make sure that people, especially Latinos, understand the importance of giving dollars in addition to casting ballots at the polls.
“It’s important for people to realize that when you invest in an institution, it gives you a voice,” he said.
Steve Phillips organized the largest independent voter mobilization efforts in support of Obama and Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif. He now runs a political nonprofit organization called Democracy in Color, which focuses on race and policy through campaigns and media.
Phillips noticed that bundling became more popular among minorities when Obama first ran for office, saying a national “informal black donor” bundling group formed during that time.
“Bundling is a way for donors of color to band together and amplify their individual giving,” he said.
Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who served as interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman in 2016, said Democrats had “a wealth of black donors” during the Obama presidency.
“Many are bundlers and often they are more candidate-driven versus giving to established institutions,” she said.
Chairman and CEO of Ariel Investments John W. Rogers, together with company president Mellody Hobson, bundled at least $3 million for Obama, a longtime friend. Ariel Investments is the largest African American-led mutual fund in the country.
Hobson and her husband, director George Lucas of the Star Wars franchise, have given a combined total of nearly $2 million since the 2007.
Rogers said “bundling” is just a fancy term for networking and organizing, which is what California-based attorney Eric Casher did during both of Obama’s presidential campaigns.
Casher, who is African-American, raised at least $300,000 for Obama by tapping into his social network of young professionals of color and charging ticket prices ranging from $50 to $200.
Now a partner at the Meyers Nave law firm, Casher did voter ID protection work and “get out the vote” activities in states such as Iowa and Texas in 2008, but he couldn’t quit his full-time job. The money he raised was the first time the young attorney had entered the political spending arena.
“One of the first Obama fundraisers that I went to, I was one of the few people of color in the room,” Casher said in an interview.
Casher secured spaces in California’s Bay Area that didn’t charge him for throwing events — and lowered the entry fee for attendees. (Democratic and Republican fundraisers can charge anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 or even more for a ticket to a private event featuring a party luminary.)
Rogers said African Americans and people of color who have made a lot of money are saddled with responsibility, such as taking care of family members who aren’t rich.
These responsibilities, he said, might explain why even wealthy African Americans aren’t giving large amounts of money to politics at the rate of wealthy whites.
Candidates matter, too: Many of Obama’s top bundlers didn’t continue their bundling when Clinton ran for president. Some Democrats criticized Clinton for taking minorities for granted and not working to court them.
Gwen Moore, a Democratic congressional representative from Wisconsin and Congressional Black Caucus leader, said discussing donors of color is a “draining” conversation among the caucus.
Would-be donors aren’t giving much and organizations such as labor unions, which have large minority bases, max out their contributions on white candidates and make minority candidates “beg for $500.”
The Citizens United factor
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has made it even more difficult for minorities to affect politics with money, said Adam Lioz, political director for the left-leaning advocacy group Demos.
The Federal Reserve released data last year that found white families had more wealth than any other racial group, and the Citizens United decision expanded wealthy people’s ability to spend their money on politics in unlimited fashion.
“There are a lot of people of color making strides, but a troubling racial wealth gap persists,” Lioz said.
There’s also history to why most political megadonors are white.
“White people have more money than people of color. That’s not accidental. It’s a direct consequence 300-plus years of legalized racial exploitation,” Phillips said.
Beyond slavery, policies such as the New Deal and the G.I. Bill have intentionally excluded people of color from amassing wealth they could pass on to future generations, he added.
Last year, for example, the Economic Policy Institute concluded that more than one in four black households had zero to negative net worth — compared to less than one white household in 10. And the wealth of African Americans and Latino households decreased by 75 percent and 50 percent respectively between 1983 and 2013, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.
Although minorities are expected become the majority in the United States by 2043, that means little politically if wealthy white men constitute the vast majority of political megadonors, said Lessie Branch, associate dean for the school of business at Metropolitan College of New York and senior research fellow at the DuBois Bunche Center for Public Policy at Medgar Evers College who studies the intersection of race, ethnicity and religion in politics.
“The notion that we become more racially diverse without the accompanying wealth does not change the equation,” she said.
Steele said he used to solicit minority donors knowing that if he could talk them into contributing to Republicans, they would almost certainly still give more to Democrats. He was fine with that, as long as he got something — which more often than not, he didn’t.
“I’ll take 75 cents or 50 cents on the dollar,” he said. “I’m in the game.”
Some candidates have trouble even getting in the door to ask for dollars.
Navy veteran Pam Keith, who is running against Democrat Lauren Baer for a U.S. House seat in Florida, said African-American candidates like herself also have to deal with the reluctance of black donors wanting to get involved in elections and that when they do, it can be too late sometimes.
“Early money is more impactful than late [money],” Keith said, citing the costs it takes to run a campaign.
“You get money from people you get access to,” she said. “Really wealthy black people have more gatekeeping than white folks sometimes.”
Networking can prove more challenging for candidates of color who don’t have an established network they can use to fund campaigns, said Cori Bush, a Democratic U.S. House candidate in Missouri challenging incumbent Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay.
“My network isn’t all attorneys or doctors. It’s people who can donate 10 or 20 dollars,” Bush said, explaining that it can be more difficult for black women candidates to garner support from funders. Bush is rejecting corporate PAC money and is hoping that small-dollar donors feel as if their voice matters as much as wealthier contributors.
Bush has seen an increase in fundraising lately since Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez named dropped her and other women candidates who need help getting to Congress. Ocasio-Cortez last month defeated longtime incumbent congressman and Democratic Caucus Chair Joseph Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional Democratic primary.
Nearly 70 percent of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign contributions came from individual contributions of $200 or less.
That’s why people such as Demos’ Lioz advocate for small-donor public financing as a way of equalizing political spending and including more people.
“Folks who are able to contribute large amounts of money are able to write rules of the economy, leaving other working Americans on the sidelines,” he said. “That’s the vicious cycle and Citizens United has added fuel to that fire.”
‘No peso, no say so’
Ariel Investments’ Rogers alone has spent $983,068 since Obama’s historic first presidential run, according to federal records.
While Rogers’ firm manages around $13 billion in assets, he said his net worth isn’t near the top four political spenders in his home state of Illinois, who all happen to be white men. Richard Uihlein and J.B. Pritzker are two of the top political spenders. Pritzker was among the top donors to outside spending groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“The only way that change happens is if we work together to create a society that includes true opportunity for people of color to participate in a capitalist democracy,” Rogers said.
Muñoz is more direct about what’s at stake for Democrats this year and after, and the choice to support the party, even with its underwhelming messaging to minority communities, just makes sense, he said.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. No peso, no say so.”
Correction, July 23, 2018, 8:55 a.m.: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote. Estee Portnoy, Michael Jordan’s manager and senior vice president of his Jump.DC company, provided the statement.
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