Type of organization: Super PAC
Supports: President Barack Obama
Founded: April 29, 2011
- Bill Burton (co-founder): Campaign press secretary for Obama in 2008 who was later named White House deputy press secretary.
- Sean Sweeney (co-founder): Former chief of staff to Rahm Emanuel, while he served as White House chief of staff.
- Harold Ickes (president): Registered lobbyist with strong union ties who was formerly the deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and who served in senior positions in the presidential campaigns of both Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Priorities USA Action, which first registered with the Federal Election Commission in April of 2011, is the main super PAC associated with President Barack Obama. Its stated goal is to ensure “the re-election of President Obama and setting the record straight when there are misleading attacks against him and other progressive leaders.”
Bill Burton, one of the group’s founders, served as Obama’s 2008 campaign press secretary and deputy press secretary in the White House; he was considered to succeed Robert Gibbs in that role before Jay Carney was appointed. Sean Sweeney, the other co-founder, served under Rahm Emanuel for many years, eventually serving as his chief of staff at the White house before Emanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago.
Many of the super PAC’s donors fit the stereotype held by right-wingers of Obama — that he’s beholden to traditional Democratic allies such as labor unions, trial lawyers and celebrities.
For instance, Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg donated $3 million to the group, director Steven Spielberg contributed $1.1 million and comedian Bill Maher gave $1 million.
When asked about his donation to Priorities, Katzenberg told USA Today he donated to the group because “the stakes are too high for us to simply allow the extremism of a small but well-funded right-wing minority to go unchallenged.”
Meanwhile, the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting and Sprinkler Fitting Industry gave $2.4 million to Priorities USA Action.
Other unions also chipped in, including the American Federation of Teachers ($1.5 million), the National Air Traffic Controllers Association ($1.25 million) and the Service Employees International Union ($1 million).
Furthermore, trial lawyer Steve Mostyn of Texas was one of the super PAC’s top donors, giving just over $3 million. The American Association for Justice, the trial lawyers’ primary trade group, donated $150,000 to Priorities USA Action. And the Florida-based firm Morgan & Morgan, known for its slogan “representing the people, not the powerful” and its ubiquitous advertising, gave $50,000 to the super PAC in March.
John Morgan, the Florida firm’s founder, is also a bundler for Obama who brought in more than $500,000 for the president’s re-election efforts. The personal injury firm also employs Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, the former GOP governor who was defeated by Republican rising star Marco Rubio during the state’s 2010 U.S. Senate race.
The No. 1 donor to Priorities USA Action was hedge fund manager James Simons, the founder and former CEO of Renaissance Technologies, who gave $5 million. During the Democratic National Convention in August, Simons hosted a fundraiser for the super PAC at his home in the Charlotte suburbs.
Priorities USA Action drew criticism for its ad “Understands,” which linked Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s actions as chairman and CEO of Bain Capital to a woman’s death from cancer. Another of the group’s most memorable ads featured a worker describing how building the stage on which officials announced the plant’s closure, after it was bought by Bain Capital, was like building his “own coffin” and made him “sick.”
For much of the 2012 election cycle, Priorities USA Action’s fundraising was dwarfed by GOP-leaning groups.
A Politico story in January highlighted concerns over Priorities’ fundraising among Democrats, driven in part by the Obama White House’s stance on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that paved the way for super PACs. Yet in early February, Obama signaled support for Priorities and other outside Democratic groups, a shift that paved the way for increased fundraising.
Later, the group announced that veteran Democratic operative Mary Beth Cahill would also be signing on as a consultant. Cahill was the campaign director for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., during his 2004 presidential campaign, and she also previously worked for the United Auto Workers union as well as EMILY’s List, a group that seeks to elect more female elected officials who support abortion rights.
Ultimately, Priorities USA Action raised nearly $80 million, compared to the roughly $154 million raised by the pro-Romney Restore Our Future and $117 million raised by GOP-aligned American Crossroads.
- The PAC went up with its first video in May of 2011. “Pages” attacked Romney and linked him to Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who was not yet his running mate.
- In November 2011, the PAC spent $100,000 to launch another attack on Romney.
- “Understands,” the controversial cancer ad, was released in August.
- “Small Minded,” released in August, criticized Romney’s low tax rate and put a photo of Romney and Ryan in a cartoon heart.
- For more ads, see Priorities USA Action’s YouTube channel.
Last Updated: Jan. 17, 2013
Your support is crucial!
Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.