Who Bankrolls Congress?

Published — June 8, 2010 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Mitch McConnell: Fueled by tobacco and whiskey


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Evan Vucci/The Associate Press)

Tobacco and whiskey have helped build Mitch McConnell’s political career. Tobacco giants Altria Group Inc. and Reynolds American Inc. are two of Mitch McConnell’s top five career campaign PAC contributors. And three of the Senate Republican leader’s top five individual donors have ties to the Kentucky-based maker of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.

Those are among the results of the Center for Public Integrity’s review of CQ MoneyLine information on McConnell’s contribution history for both campaign accounts and leadership PACs, dating back to before his first Senate campaign in 1984. The Center’s probe of McConnell’s finances marks the second in a series of pieces on top donors to Congressional leaders.

Addison Mitchell “Mitch” McConnell, 68, a former Congressional aide and Department of Justice staffer, was elected Jefferson County, Kentucky judge-executive in 1977 and again in 1981. In 1984, McConnell narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Walter Huddleston to win a U.S. Senate seat by just a few thousand votes. McConnell won in 1990, 1996, and 2008 by narrow margins, garnering at most 55 percent of the vote; his 2002 victory was far more comfortable. Those close races required a lot of money, and McConnell has risen to the challenge, amassing more than $47 million for his campaign committees over his career. In 1989 he established the Bluegrass Committee, a leadershipPAC through which he began distributing contributions to fellow Senate Republicans and potential candidates. The PAC has distributed money to 36 of McConnell’s 40 current GOP colleagues. It’s paid off — in 2003, McConnell became the Senate Republican Whip and in 2007, his party made him Senate Minority Leader.

McConnell has strong ties to the tobacco industry and has received more money from tobacco interests than any member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s hardly a surprise, though, as Kentucky is the nation’s second-largest tobacco producer, and is tops in the production of burley tobacco, an air-dried variety used to make cigarettes.

He is also known for his opposition to campaign finance restrictions, such as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. After the legislation was enacted over his filibuster attempts, McConnell sued to overturn the law, but the U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld most of the bill’s provisions. His wife, Elaine Chao, served as secretary of labor for eight years under President George W. Bush.

Of the more than $47.5 million McConnell has raised, nearly $27.5 million comes from individuals. At least $251,700 or about one percent of his grand total comes from his five top donors. The top ten PACs combined to give McConnell at least $1,049,341, more than eight percent of his overall total.

Sen. McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Top ten political action committee donors

1. AT&T Inc. — $155,200
McConnell’s top PAC supporter, with at least $155,200 in contributions, is AT&T Inc., which includesPAC contributions from BellSouth, Cingular, SBC, and other companies that are now part of the telecommunications giant. In 1996, McConnell voted for final passage of a landmark telecommunications deregulation bill that allowed AT&T to return to the local telephone service market for the first time in decades. Common Cause decried the industry for “buying” the legislation. McConnell also pushed for a Senate vote on 2008 legislation which gave immunity to companies — including AT&T — that were being sued for aiding the Bush administration’s program of warrantless anti-terrorism surveillance. As he blasted attempts to “drag patriotic private companies into court for answering their government’s call for help,” McConnell and his Republican caucus succeeded in passing the provision despite opposition from most of the Senate’s Democratic majority. AT&T declined to comment for this story.

2. Altria Group — $153,500
With at least $153,500 in donations, Altria Group is the second largest PAC contributor to McConnell. This includes contributions from PACs affiliated with entities now under the Altria umbrella, including Philip Morris USA and UST Inc. Though McConnell broke with Altria in support of other tobacco companies to oppose the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, he has generally been a strong ally for the company and its tobacco industry competitors. In 2003 and 2004, McConnell co-sponsored a proposal to end federal tobacco quotas and offer a buyout for “quota holders, tobacco producers, and tobacco-dependent communities.” A report by Boston University public health professor Dr. Michael Siegel blasted the measure as a “sweetheart deal for Philip Morris.” Though the final version excluded some Altria-backed provisions, a company spokesman praised the remainder of the bill. Altria, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story.

3. JPMorgan Chase & Co. — $108,249
Third place goes to JPMorgan Chase & Co., with at least $108,249 in donations from its corporate PACs and former companies that now make up the global financial services behemoth, such as Bank One, Providian, and Washington Mutual. McConnell helped negotiate agreement on and voted for passage of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008, which bailed out banks amidst the economic meltdown. McConnell called the TARP vote “one of the finer moments in the Senate.” JPMorgan received at least $25 billion in TARP funds and has since repaid the money. Through a spokesman, JPMorgan declined to comment.

4. Reynolds American Inc. — $101,000
Reynolds American Inc. ranks fourth, with $101,000 or more in contributions, including money from Brown & Williamson and other companies that are now part of the Reynolds family. While his friends at Altria backed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009, McConnell sided with Reynolds and other tobacco firms in opposing the measure. McConnell decried the legislation as “the wrong way to regulate tobacco.” A Reynolds spokesman criticized the bill for its favoritism of Altria, warning the measure “will have competitive consequences,” and the company has sued to block portions of the law from taking effect. Experts have argued that the law’s advertising restrictions will make it harder for industry leader Altria’s rivals to catch up. Regardless, Reynolds America Inc. has always been able to count on McConnell: A 1995 internal Reynolds e-mail said of McConnell “The Senator is our strongest supporter on the product liability and the effective date issue for punitive damages,” and called him “likely to be our preferred point person on the FDA issues.” Reynolds did not return a request for comment.

5. American Bankers Association — $93,000
In fifth, with at least $93,000 in contributions to McConnell’s committees, is the American Bankers Association. The association strongly backed the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) legislation of 2008, which McConnell helped enact. More recently, both McConnell and the group have opposed Democratic financial sector regulation efforts. The Kentuckian has said the latest version of financial regulation legislation in the Senate would institutionalize “taxpayer-funded bailouts of Wall Street banks.” The banking group said the proposed legislation “will subject traditional banks, which did not cause this crisis, to heavy new regulation.” The bill has now been passed by the Senate, and will need to be reconciled with similar legislation in the House. The group did not return a request for comment.

6. Bank of America — $91,385
Bank of America Corp. (BoA) ranks sixth among donors to McConnell with no less than $91,385, which includes the bank’s PAC and PACs for acquired institutions like Barnett, MBNA, Merrill Lynch, and NationsBank. BoA received $45 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, which have since been repaid. McConnell backed the TARP bill, calling it “entirely about Main Street and not about Wall Street.” Shirley Norton, a BoA spokeswoman, told the Center the PAC donates money to “select candidates for support based on qualifications and positions on issues important to the bank and to our customers.” Norton pointed out that the bank has also supported McConnell’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Harry Reid, and “over the years [BoA] support is fairly equal across parties.”

7. United Parcel Service Inc. — $89,500
In seventh, with at least $89,500 in donations, is United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS). The shipping giant, whose primary hub is at Louisville International Airport, has a long history with Kentucky’s senior senator. When UPS applied for permits in 1999 to fly planes to China, McConnell was one of a dozen senators who wrote letters of support. Indeed, McConnell said at the time, “I will continue to proudly support the interests of UPS and its employees whether they contribute to my campaign, my opponents’ campaigns or no campaign.” In 2004, Congress approved $700,000 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to open a new office at Louisville International Airport. All imports requiring approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service must be brought in through such offices; opening up an office conveniently located in Louisville was key to UPS and its attempts to gain market share on imports from Asia. The company specifically credited McConnell as having helped secure the funding for the office. McConnell has gotten plenty back from UPS. In 2002, the company cut the Kentucky Republican Party a check for $50,000 to help rebuild its headquarters — the “Mitch McConnell Building.” UPS spokesman Malcolm Berkley told the Center that “UPS participates in the political process in many ways,” and that the PAC is “used to support local, state, and federal candidates who share UPS’s beliefs in free enterprise, fair competition, and global trade.”

8. Union Pacific Corp. — $87,949
Railroad company Union Pacific Corp. is in eighth place with a minimum of $87,949 contributed throughout McConnell’s career. The company has a long history of supporting Republicans, and former Vice President Dick Cheney was a board member until his election in 2000. As part of the Tax Relief Coalition, an advocacy group, Union Pacific has fought for lower tax rates. In 2007, the Coalition opposed tax reform legislation introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel in the House, claiming it would be bad for business interests nationwide. McConnell warned that if the bill reached the Senate it would be “dead on arrival.” The bill never got that far. At the same time that the Coalition was calling for the “full and permanent repeal” of the estate tax, McConnell said in an interview that the Senate’s Republican leadership was pushing for a “total repeal” of the tax. The Coalition supported a quick enactment of the economic stimulus bill in early 2008, which McConnell voted for, and the Kentucky senator has cited the Tax Relief Coalition on the floor of the Senate during arguments against Obama’s first budget. Union Pacific’s director for corporate communications, Tom Lange, told the Center that the company supports McConnell because of his “pro-business stance.” While acknowledging previous membership in the Tax Relief Coalition, Lange said there is no longer a relationship between the group and the company, and that Union Pacific itself took no position on Rep. Rangel’s bill.

9. Ashland Inc. — $85,858
In ninth place: Ashland Inc. with $85,858 or more. The oil and chemical company is named after Ashland, Kentucky, but is now headquartered in Covington and has four other offices throughout the state. Former chief executive Paul Chellgren was a longtime funder of McConnell, and has hosted fundraisers for the senator at his house. In the mid-nineties, Ashland joined three other companies to donate at least $500,000 each to the McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville. The naming rights came with an unusual and controversial string attached: If the university ever removes McConnell’s name from the center or its endowed chair, it must return a “pro rata” share of the corporate donations. In 2001, when the donor list was made public, the Center for Public Integrity’s then-executive director Charles Lewis decried the McConnell Center as “another place for special interests to ingratiate themselves with lawmakers, and to do it secretly.” McConnell, in addition to a reliably pro-business overall record, voted for a 2010 defense spending bill containing a $500,000 earmark for Ashland. Ashland Spokesman Ken Gordon told the Center that decisions onPAC spending “get made through a committee process,” noting that the firm’s Kentucky base would probably “be a contributing factor” in deciding to donate to McConnell. Gordon said that while he isn’t sure if the company knew of the refund language attached to the leadership center donation, the company has a long history of donating to educational causes. He added that the McConnell’s center’s purpose “aligns with Ashland’s efforts to support leadership and education.”

10. National Association of Realtors — $83,700
Last place on the list belongs to the National Association of Realtors (NAR) with, at minimum, $83,700 in donations to McConnell. The trade group supported a 2008 law which increased mortgage loan limits for the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. McConnell supported quick passage of the bill, initially proposing the Senate simply pass the House version. He eventually supported the changes made in the Senate, saying the bill would be “an important statement that we are concerned about the slowing of the economy and able to do something about it quickly.” The NAR also opposed campaign finance reform restrictions, which McConnell led the effort to block. The NAR did not return a request for comment.

Top five individual donors

1. William M. Street — $73,000
The top donor to McConnell with at least $73,000 in contributions is William M. Street, 71, a retired executive of Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corp., one of the largest American-owned spirits and wine companies, which counts among its brands Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, Korbel champagne, and Fetzer wines. Street continues to serve on the firm’s board of directors. The alcoholic beverages industry has long supported McConnell’s career, and McConnell has supported the industry. In 2000, he sponsored a successful amendment to an agriculture spending bill to help protect organic grape growers and wine producers — an effort applauded by Brown-Forman Wines. Brown-Forman is also a major donor to the McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville. Street did not respond to a request for comment.

2. J.D. Nichols — $50,100
In second place is J.D. Nichols with $50,100 or more in donations. Nichols is chairman of NTSDevelopment Corp., a Louisville-based real estate company offering apartment rentals, residential communities, and commercial properties. He has extensive ties to McConnell’s alma mater, the University of Louisville, where he has served on the board of trustees. McConnell has made FY 2011 appropriations requests for at least $13.1 million in earmarks directed toward projects at the university; Congress has yet to act. Nichols also serves as board chairman of the Louisville International Airport. McConnell secured a $2 million earmark for “various capacity and safety improvements” for the airport in FY2009 and another $1.2 million in FY2008 for runway improvements. Nichols told the Center he and McConnell have been friends since college days and that he has backed McConnell — including several stints as his campaign finance chair — “out of friendship as well as strongly sharing the same beliefs and values that he does.” Nichols said that he was not previously aware of the University of Louisville appropriation. He also noted that “virtually every senator and congressman from Kentucky whether Republican or Democrat works to get financial support for the airport,” and he added that NTS does no business with the federal government, so “neither Mitch nor any other senator or representative could benefit our business.”

3. James A. Patterson — $46,200
Wealthy investor and philanthropist James A. Patterson, with at least $46,200 in contributions, is the third largest individual McConnell donor. Patterson heads Pattco LLC, a private investment firm. He helped start numerous restaurant chains, including Long John Silver’s, Rally’s, and Chi-Chi’s, as well as a petroleum company and a telecommunications company. He has also given money to presidential candidates, ranging from Bob Dole and Steve Forbes to Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes. In addition, Patterson has contributed funds to the controversial 2004 Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth 527 committee, and Stop Union Political Abuse, a PAC that seeks “to make sure that [labor unions] do not have undue or illegal influence in the political process.” McConnell has criticized Democrats for “doing the bidding” of “Big Labor bosses,” and has offered legislation to increase oversight of union activity. Patterson also helped to found School Choice Scholarships, a nonprofit that provides private elementary school scholarships to lower-income Louisville families and believes “that all children will be better educated at their families’ choice of schools.” McConnell has been a strong supporter of school choice, in particular backing a program that provided “opportunity scholarships” for Washington, D.C., students. Patterson did not respond to a request for comment.

4. Jean Frazier — $42,200
In fourth place: real estate executive Jean Frazier with at least $42,200. She is the widow of the late Harry Frazier, a civic leader who co-founded and chaired HFH Inc., one of the largest real estate development companies in Louisville. Mrs. Frazier took control of HFH following her husband’s 1994 death. Like her late husband, Mrs. Frazier is an active member of the Louisville community. In 2006, she funded an educational program at the University of Louisville — McConnell’s alma mater — to research detrimental effects of unnecessary and excessive drug prescriptions. Frazier is also a member of the parent council at Hollins University, where her daughter Sandra attended school. Hollins received a $250,000 earmark in the 2005 NASA budget “to inspire and motivate students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” and specifically address the shortage of women in such fields. Though a Hollins spokesman noted that the earmark was pushed by then-Senators George Allen and John Warner of Virginia, McConnell, is a member of the both the Senate appropriations committee and the subcommittee that had jurisdiction over the space agency. He voted in favor of that appropriations bill. Frazier did not respond to a request for comment.

5. Owsley Brown Frazier — $40,200
Rounding out the top five is Owsley Brown Frazier, Harry Frazier’s brother, with at least $40,200 in contributions. Frazier’s grandfather, George Garvin Brown, founded Brown-Forman Corp., a longtime corporate donor to McConnell’s campaigns and organizations, and Frazier worked there from 1955 to 2000. The senator and Brown Frazier, a generous philanthropist, share a passion for their alma matter, the University of Louisville. Brown Frazier established the Frazier Family Professorship within the business college, refurbished the president’s home, and gave more than $1 million to the athletic program. McConnell has provided federal funding; for 2011, he earmarked $13.1 million for the school. Brown Frazier did not respond to a request for comment.

Claritza Jimenez contributed to this report. Numbers are from a Center for Public Integrity analysis of CQ MoneyLine data. Totals include individual and political committee contributions to Mitch McConnell’s Senate campaign committee and the Bluegrass Committee, from their inception through the beginning of 2010. PAC totals include all subsidiaries and companies now part of current companies after merger or acquisition.

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5 years ago

When will Leader McConnell pass away?