Few people spend much time considering which brand of almonds to buy. But progressives just might want to take that extra moment the next time they’re in the snack aisle. That’s because a Florida company called US Sugar Corp. owns Blue Diamond almonds, and US Sugar’s founder and co-CEO, Donald G. Tobin, serves on the board of the Manhattan Institute, one of the country’s leading conservative think tanks. US Sugar Corp. also gave $410,000 last year to a Florida group called Families for Conservative Values, which funneled the money to other groups opposing Democrats and progressive ballot measures in that state.
You’re not going to bring Tobin, US Sugar Corp., or the Manhattan Institute to their knees by putting down that can of almonds. And you can’t possibly hope to avoid buying anything that profits conservatives. But you should know where your money is going.
If you’re a pro-choice woman in the Boston area, odds are you’ve heard that the founder and CEO of the fitness chain Curves, Gary Heavin, supports and funds pro-life causes. As a result, so many women have decided not to join the clubs that the Curves corporation has gone on the defensive, trying to show that Heavin’s contributions are not as bad as people say.
But even if you have decided to withhold your money, when feasible, from those who campaign against progressive causes, it can be awfully hard to know which companies, and which products, to pick and choose through.
One way is through corporate political contributions. The Web site BuyBlue.org does a good job providing this information, rating companies along a spectrum — red if they give mostly to Republicans, blue if they give more to Democrats.
That’s a good start. But it won’t tell you what individual business leaders support and at what level. It won’t tell you, for instance, that McCormick & Schmick restaurants’ co-founder William P. McCormick is a Republican "Super Ranger," who raised $300,000 last year for the Republican National Committee (RNC). Or that when you buy a snack at the TD Banknorth Garden, the beneficiary is Boston Concessions Group founder and CEO Joseph J. O’Donnell, a major contributor and fundraiser — and White House sleepover guest — of George W. Bush.
The signs are often there, even if some of the specifics of the money flow are hard to trace. Take former Kellogg Company CEO Carlos Gutierrez. Gutierrez was a GOP fundraiser, and the Kellogg Foundation gave primarily to conservative causes. Then, this January, Gutierrez left the company — to become secretary of commerce for the Bush administration.
For years, parents bought Vicks VapoRub for their sick children, not knowing that their money would ultimately permit the company’s founder to create the Smith Richardson Foundation, a major funding source for more right-wing causes than you can name. Bernard Marcus, founder of Home Depot, may well turn out to be the next Smith Richardson. He is one of the country’s wealthiest men and has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party. The company’s current chairman and CEO, Robert Nardelli, has personally given $45,000 (near the maximum for individuals) to the RNC since 2003.
Surely these people have every right to use their money as they please, and to participate in any organizations whose causes they believe in. And certainly they have every right to own or run businesses. But if you feel strongly about progressive causes, you might think twice the next time you pick up those almonds.
That’s why the Phoenix has dug through campaign-finance reports, foundation-governance documents, and other materials that link corporate leaders to right-wing causes.
We found, for example, that Starz Network founder and chairman John Sie gave $50,000 to a group called Americans for Better Government, which used the money to encourage Colorado residents to support Bush for president and Pete Coors for senator. We found that the head of the company that makes Copenhagen and Skoal chewing tobacco gave heavily to the John Kerry–bashing Progress for America organization.
Most contributions to pro-life, "traditional marriage," or other controversial causes go undetected. That’s because most of those groups are so-called 501 nonprofit organizations, which do not disclose individual contributions. Anyone could give tens of thousands of dollars to Operation Rescue, for example, and nobody would ever know.
The ones who give in publicly traceable ways tend to be in industries that don’t rely on customer purchases: investment firms, for instance, or large energy holding companies.
But the Phoenix has found quite a few consumer-product or -service companies with leaders who fall into one of four categories of conservative supporters: Business Interests, Conservative Think Tanks, GOP Loyalists, and Right-Wing 527s.
Executives listed under Business Interests serve as directors or advisers to such groups as the US Chamber of Commerce — which spent millions opposing John Kerry in 2004 — the Business Roundtable, or similar groups. These entities lobby and advertise for business-friendly tax laws and environmental regulations. They also push for tort reform, to protect businesses against lawsuits brought by consumers — like the suit just won against Merck for its Vioxx product.
Those listed under Conservative Think Tanks serve on boards of organizations that work more broadly for right-wing causes. The Heritage Foundation, which promotes conservative policies and limited government (and which helped breed the neoconservatives who now drive US foreign policy), is probably the best known of these think tanks. But there are dozens of them, mostly funded by private right-wing foundations. The Pacific Research Institute opposes regulations on business, particularly environmental restrictions. The Reason Foundation, more libertarian than strictly conservative, also argues against government oversight of industry. The Ethics and Public Policy Center argues for using Christian moral values to guide public policy.
GOP Loyalists include many "Pioneers" who have raised $100,000 or more for George W. Bush, or who have earned "Super Ranger" status by raising $300,000 for the RNC. Others have given extensively to Republican candidates and committees. Some on the list will surprise you (Urban Outfitters! Activision!). Some have also given occasionally to Democrats. But to qualify for this list, they must have donated heavily to Republicans while making only token contributions to the other side.
Finally, the Right-Wing 527s category includes those bold enough to give huge sums to so-called 527 funds, which publicly report all contributions. The most popular among conservatives is Progress for America, which ran millions of dollars’ worth of ads last year attacking John Kerry. This year, the group ran ads for Social Security privatization. GOPAC, which funds Republican congressional candidates, gets a good share of donations, as does the Republican Leadership Coalition, which is considered among the most right-wing of GOP groups.
David S. Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Katie Liesener contributed to this report.
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Issue Date: August 26 - September 1, 2005
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