New Jerseyans have been generous in their support of political action committees and candidates during the past two federal election cycles, contributing close to $150 million.
And just 10 wealthy businesspeople, retirees, and homemakers and their families are responsible for nearly 10 percent of that total — giving $13.9 million between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2014, according to data compiled and analyzed by the Investigative News Network for NJ Spotlight.
The data, provided by the National Institute for Money in State Politics and the Center for Responsive Politics, shows that the queen of New Jersey donors is Virginia James, a Hunterdon County woman who donated almost $3.4 million to 63 candidates and PACs between January 1, 2011 and June 30 of this year. All of James’ gifts of any size were to groups and candidates that are conservative-leaning or Republican.
But James is just the beginning of the big-money donors. She’s joined by Sean Feiler, a hedge-fund manager; as well as Richard Roberts, a doctor and former chairman of a pharmaceuticals company; Alan Fournier, another hedge-fund manager; and his former partner, David Tepper, a part-owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who also heads up a hedge fund.
Rounding out this cash cadre are a consultant to the biotech industry, a New Jersey homemaker and her husband, the head of a lobbying firm, and several other wealthy families.
Most of the contributions from these donors went to conservative causes.
Giving so much money can buy a lot of influence and that has turned Congress from a body beholden to a small group of millionaires, says a group of citizens working to change political financing in the nation.
“Small donors’ voices are increasingly drowned out by the spending of a small cadre of large donors, and ordinary citizens are the ones who lose out,” said Lubabah Chowdhury, campaign organizer with the NJPIRG Law and Policy Center.
She said that in the wake of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance rules — including the 2010 Citizens United ruling — megadonors have increasingly been funding a greater percentage of New Jersey elections.
“Big money has become deafening and drowns out the voices of the ordinary citizen, whose single vote cannot compete with the voting power given to the billionaire or the large corporation through unlimited campaign donations,” said Susannah Newman, state coordinator for the Overturn of Citizens United Coalition. “We are losing our democracy.”
The coalition is backing a number of measures designed to mute big money in politics. These include: the federal Democracy for All Constitutional Amendment, to give Congress and the states the power to limit election spending; the Government by the People Act, which would give all Americans a refundable tax credit to spur small contributions to candidates; and the DISCLOSE Act, to mandate that corporations and political committees disclose their contributors.
“How candidates and parties collect money and how they spend it is all-consuming,” said former Republican state Sen. William Schluter, who supports stricter campaign finance laws. “The connection between the campaign contributor and the public official is simple. The donor will call up a lawmaker and ask that certain action be taken. The donor doesn’t mention the recent contribution that has been made, but the donor doesn’t have to. The lawmaker understands and wants to be reelected. This will require money for the next campaign, so the lawmaker complies with the request.”
Chowdhury released results of a study of contributions in congressional primaries in all states except Louisiana this year, which found that just 383 large New Jersey donors — those who gave at least $1,000 — contributed as much as 6,781 donors who gave $200 or less to candidates who ran in the state’s June primary.
“Mega donors shouldn’t get to drown out the rest of our voices by virtue of having deeper pockets, Chowdhury said.
More than 77,000 New Jersey individuals contributed $148.1 million during the last two federal election cycles through mid-2014, according to the INN database, which included single donations as small as $1 and as large as $1 million — there were three of these. While a majority of New Jersey voters chose to re-elect President Barack Obama, his GOP opponent Mitt Romney got more money from the state, with the $10.3 million he received the most given to any candidate or PAC. Six of the 10 candidates and PACs that got the most money were conservative leaning.
More than half of all donors gave less than $1,000, but 60 New Jerseyans contributed at least $100,000 to political causes. At the top of the list are a diverse group of men and women who gave money at all levels of elections, from school board candidates to the president and a host of PACs, also more often to conservative causes and Republicans than to Democrats and liberal groups.
The most elite was James, whose address is typically listed as a Lambertville post office box but who lives on 45 acres in neighboring West Amwell in Hunterdon County. Her large donations over the years to Club for Growth and now Club for Growth Action, a superPAC created after 2010’s U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision, have been written about numerous times, but almost nothing has been written about her. A phone number listed in her name went unanswered.
Donation databases typically list James as either retired, self-employed or an investor.
A September 1997 New York Times article about her offering $1 million in scholarships of up to $2,000 each to send students in a low-performing elementary school in Albany, NY, to private schools put her age at around 70 this year. It said she was born into a working-class family in Passaic and later moved to Levittown, PA. The article said that it was while she was working as a secretary on Wall Street that she met and married Richard Gilder, whose investments made him a multimillionaire. The couple divorced in 1994 and she was left “with tens of millions of dollars, though she would not say precisely how much,” according to the article.
Real estate documents seem to indicate that she was married a second time, to Robert B. Manheimer. In 2000, as Virginia Manheimer, she transferred ownership of her West Amwell house for $1 to Virginia and Robert B. Manheimer. Seven years later, as Virginia Manheimer, she took sole ownership of the property again for $10. The most recent assessment valued the 54-year old 2-story home, now in the name of Virginia James, at $741,500, down from $826,300 in 2011. Tax records show she owns an additional 80 adjacent acres, which are assessed as farmland and thus have a very low value.
James is on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, a nonprofit that backs accountability and school choice, based in Clifton Park, NY. That group’s website says she is chair of the Empire Foundation for Policy Research, founder of A Brighter Choice Scholarships and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
The Times article stated she was already a “major contributor to conservative causes and politicians for years” but that she said her politics were not doctrinaire.
Still, her donations record shows her strong support for conservative Republicans exclusively or almost exclusively. A 2004 “Philadelphia Inquirer” article described James as a co-founder of The Club for Growth, which supports a fiscally conservative economy agenda. She has been listed as a member of its leadership council.
Her largest contributions between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2014 were a total of $2.7 million to the Club for Growth Action superPAC. Her $1 million donation to the group in February of this year is the largest single contribution the superPAC has received in the current election cycle, according to data from the campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets. Its single largest expenditure this cycle was $2.4 million spent working against Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), who came in second in a three-man primary but then won a runoff against a Tea Party-backed candidate.
James’ next biggest contribution was $400,000 to Women Speak Out PAC, an anti-abortion SuperPAC that is a partner of the Susan B. Anthony List. She also gave $100,000 to American Commitment Action Fund, roughly half its total receipts — the other half was contributed by Sean Fieler, New Jersey’s second largest political contributor. This conservative PAC has spent more than $190,000, nearly all its money, against Democrat Cory Booker’s election to the U.S. Senate last October. She also gave $30,000 to Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican who lost his bid to be governor of Virginia last year; $21,500 to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; and $10,400 to Steve Lonegan, supporting both his failed U.S. Senate run last year and House run in the 3rd District Republican primary earlier this year.
About $1 million behind James in giving was, a hedge-fund manager who lives in Princeton. Along with his wife Ana, the president of their Equinox Partners hedge fund, the two contributed almost $2.6 million. Like James, he supports conservative Republican PACs and candidates. And like almost every other one of the state’s top donors, he did not respond to a request to comment on his contributions.
In a video posted on YouTube by Right Wing Watch of a 2012 gathering of the American Principles Project, Fieler shared his views of how Republicans need to change in order to win elections: “Instead of railing against the welfare state that is squeezing the life out of our country, we promise only to run it more efficiently. Or worse still, when it comes to what are euphemistically called the social issues, we promise not to talk about life and marriage, the literal future and irreplaceable foundation of our society … So long as we lack a resonant vision of America’s larger purpose, we will also lack an electoral majority. To win, we need but make one change to emphasize, rather than run away from, our principles.”
Fieler is also president of the Chiaroscuro Foundation, whose home page describes its “aspiration to reflect God’s light in an often dark world” and supports Catholic teachings and pro-life causes, and is chairman of the National Bible Association and sits on the board of the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank based in Princeton.
Data shows that Fieler gave $924,000 to American Principles Fund, whose mission is “to advance an ‘integrated conservatism’ and break the unilateral truce on social issues within the GOP by demonstrating that social issues are winning issues.” Fieler is chairman of the fund, which has spent about $337,000 against Booker and for his GOP rival Jeff Bell. Fieler’s other big donations were $475,000 to Massachusetts Alliance Against Doctor Prescribed Suicide and $109,000 to the Ohio Republican Party.
Third on the list is Richard Roberts, a doctor and former chairman of a drug company bought by a Japanese pharmaceuticals maker in 2012 for $800 million — though a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article in March 2013 quoted Roberts as saying he got “less than one-third” of the sale price. The Lakewood man gave $2.41 million to various Republicans. But when another $300,000 in contributions from Roberts’ wife and children are added, the family’s total tops $2.7 million. Roberts, who last year hosted a private luncheon for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is also a donor to GOP and conservative groups.
In a YouTube video posted of the June 10, 2013 event, Roberts gives some of his views on politics and candidates: “I think that for politicians in general and certainly for higher office, including president, the number one thing people are looking for is integrity. They’re looking for authenticity, someone who’s real. They are so sick of politicians. I mean, look at President Obama. He does this. He ‘s talking to one group one day and he’s saying exactly what they want to hear and the very next day he’s talking to an opposing group and he tells them what they want to hear and yet you never really know what the man stands for because he’s just saying whatever who’s listening wants to hear at that moment. Rand Paul is the polar opposite of that.”
Showing a knowledge of the laws governing money and politics, Roberts presented Paul a gift, joking, “Now, if the election commission is watching, I think you’re allowed to give $50. This cost 15, 1- 5, bucks. This is totally legal.” Paul thanked Roberts for the gift — a model drone — and for “sponsoring and taking us all to Israel.” Roberts told the National Journal that Paul paid for himself, while Roberts “paid for everyone else” who took the January 2013 trip.
The data shows that Roberts gave $1 million to the Treasure Coast Jobs Coalition, a conservative superPAC that spent $2 million in a failed effort to prevent Patrick Murphy from unseating Florida GOP Rep. Allen West. He also gave $750,000 to Restore Our Future, a superPAC that supported Romney’s failed presidential bid, and $250,000 to American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s superPAC.
New Jersey’s fourth biggest donor was Alan Fournier, the founder and managing member of Pennant Capital Management, LLC. Fournier, of Far Hills, gave $800,000 himself and, with his wife Jennifer, contributed just over $1 million. While most of the money went to Republicans, Fournier also gave the maximum $5,200 each to New Jersey Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate Education Committee, and $2,600 to Booker’s 2013 U.S. Senate campaign, as well as two other Democrats in the state Legislature.
A hedge fund manager with a degree in engineering, Fournier explained via Twitter that his political contributions are driven by his desire “to help inner city kids get a better education, a fair opportunity.” Commenting on the fact that his donations cross party lines, Fournier added, “I give based on education policy alone — that is my focus, the big issue, the moral imperative.”
Fournier is on the New Jersey board of governors of KIPP, which operates five charter schools in Newark. He started with former partner David Tepper Better Education for Kids, Inc., an organization and PAC promoting tenure reform, merit pay, and other issues affecting teacher and principal quality. Fournier and his wife were honored last year by the nonprofit group New Jersey SEEDS for their commitment to education.
Fournier’s largest contribution, of $500,000, was to the pro-Romney Restore Our Future. He also gave $50,000 each to the Assembly Republican Victory of New Jersey PAC and the New Jersey Republican Party.
Right behind Fournier in giving was Tepper, his former partner in Appaloosa Management, the hedge fund that Tepper manages. “Forbes” magazine puts the net worth of the 57-year old Livingston man at $10 billion, naming him the 125th wealthiest person in the world. Like Fournier, Tepper also gave to both parties, with Republicans getting significantly more of his total $846,000 in contributions than Democrats.
A partial owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tepper has given $125 million to Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned a Master of Science in Industrial Administration. He is on the board of and has made substantial donations to the Robin Hood Foundation, which creates and funds programs and schools in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods.
Tepper’s largest contribution, of $375,000, was to the pro-Romney Restore Our Future. He gave $150,000 each to Freedom to Marry, a group backing same-sex marriage throughout the nation, and American Unity PAC, which works for equality for gays and lesbians within the Republican party. His next-largest donation was $45,000 to the Senate Democratic Majority committee. Tepper also gave to four Democrats in the Legislature, including Sweeney.
Rounding out the list of the 10 most generous political contributors:
* Judith McCartin Scheide, of Princeton, is also a Democratic donor, as well as a member of the Democratic National Committee advisory council. A member of Corporate Accountability International, Judith Scheide has been involved in politics for much of her life, worked for 17 years at Princeton University, and is the president of the Scheide Fund, a philanthrophic organization that supports concerts and other causes. Judith Scheide gave just over $500,000 in her name, including $131,000 to DNC Services Corp., $67,700 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and $34,900 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
+ Tonio Burgos, president of the strategic planning, lobbying, and consulting firm that bears his name, is also a Democratic donor. Burgos, with addresses listed in Jersey City and Trenton, served in both the administrations of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey. He gave $404,000, much of it in individual donations to candidates. His biggest beneficiaries were Andrew M. Cuomo, $52,500; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, $33,500; and House Majority PAC, a superPAC working to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives, $25,000.
There are several other New Jersey donors who, individually, ranked below the top 10 donors but who would have made a list of the largest couple or family donors. They include: Laura Overdeck, of Short Hills, who gave $472,000 with her husband to GOP causes; Michael Kempner, of Cresskill, who contributed $443,000 with his wife to Democrats; and Grover Connell, patriarch of The Connell Co., who with his wife and children donated $573,000, the vast majority of it to Democrats.
This story is part of an Investigative News Network collaboration examining the major political donors in states across the U.S. To view other stories in this initiative, please visit the INN website.