Capitol Alert

The Big 5: California’s top political donors

Charles Munger Jr. explains his legislative transparency initiative

Wealthy Stanford physicist and GOP donor Charles Munger Jr. is behind Proposition 54, a ballot measure requiring that bills be available publicly for 72 hours before they can be voted on. He explained the purpose of the initiative at a legislative
Up Next
Wealthy Stanford physicist and GOP donor Charles Munger Jr. is behind Proposition 54, a ballot measure requiring that bills be available publicly for 72 hours before they can be voted on. He explained the purpose of the initiative at a legislative

It costs money to play in California politics and the most generous people donating to state campaigns have plenty.

High-profile unions, companies and trade groups spend tens of millions of dollars on political candidates and causes every election cycle, but five deep-pocketed Californians have collectively given $46.6 million since 2013.

In the business world, they revolutionized our at-home television experience, changed the traditional retail model and struck gold in the financial world. Now, they’re writing checks to influence the lives of everyday Californians.

Two are Republicans, two are Democrats and one is an independent. Four of the five are men, who say they give money to political causes that benefit society or the state’s most marginalized voters. Four live in the Bay Area and one in Southern California. All are white.

The list includes the largest political donors who have given to more than one state political campaign or committee from Jan. 1, 2013, to June 30, 2016. .

The roundup omits Timothy Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and anomaly who spent $5.3 million on an idea to split California into six different states. He failed to gather enough signatures to land on the November ballot and hasn’t given money to any other political causes.

#1: Charles Munger Jr.

Title: Experimental physicist, member of the board of overseers of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Party: Republican

Residence: Palo Alto

Net worth: Declined to say; not on Forbes’ list

Contributions from 2013 to mid-2016: $26.7 million

The state’s largest political donor is a bow-tie wearing experimental physicist trying to measure the “electric dipole moment of the electron,” which he describes as a never-observed scientific property. Over the last decade he’s attempted what some believe to be an equally monumental feat in California politics: making Republicans relevant again.

Charles Munger, Jr.’s father and namesake is Warren Buffett’s billionaire partner at Berkshire Hathaway. The younger Munger is likely worth less than the senior, whose fortune is estimated at $1.3 billion by Forbes.

Munger said he gave money to a state political cause for the first time in 2005 and describes his political donation philosophy almost in Robin Hood-esque way. He was a driving force behind a redistricting overhaul and pushed the top-two primary system. He said the reforms, like all of the big causes he supports, “take power from narrow factions and return it to ordinary Californians.”

“These reforms give the power to influence – indeed, to choose – the decision-makers back to the people, to whom it properly belongs,” Munger said in an email interview. “They all deal with making the state government more responsive and more accountable.”

This year Munger is bankrolling, to the tune of $7 million so far, a November ballot measure to make sure bills are in print for at least three days before the Legislature votes, which is meant to prevent last-minute bill gutting and amending. The measure also requires the Legislature to broadcast all public meetings.

“A bill that every legislator and every Californian has had 72 hours to read will be a better bill than one that they haven’t,” Munger said. “A democracy where every citizen can see at will what is happening and has happened in every public meeting of the Legislature will be a more effective democracy than one where the Legislature chooses the public meetings we may see, and the ones we may not see.”

That’s not to say Munger is necessarily the white knight of California politics. He’s known as a Republican sugar daddy, who helped take down Democrats’ two-thirds majority in the Legislature. The Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s political watchdog, is investigating allegations that Munger’s independent expenditure committee, Spirit of Democracy, illegally coordinated with a candidate-controlled re-election committee for Assemblyman David Hadley, R-Manhattan Beach.

Unlike some donors with an eye for public office, Munger makes it clear that he’s not running for anything.

He said he would rather have people “come thank me for making it possible for scores of great leaders to arise and win office, than to serve for a time in office myself,” he said.

#2: Doris Fisher

Title: Co-founder of Gap

Party: Republican

Residence: San Francisco

Net worth calculated by Forbes: $2.7 billion

Contributions from 2013 to mid-2016: $5.6 million

Without Doris Fisher, American men might wear far fewer cargo shorts and chinos.

Fisher is known as the Gap co-founder, longtime merchandiser and creative mind behind the company name. But the 84-year-old’s legacy touches much more than retail.

Disappointed with the failings of the public school system, she and her late husband became big supporters of charter schools and education changes, according to a Gap biography of the couple.

Back in 2000, the Fishers gave $15 million to create the Knowledge is Power Program, a nonprofit network of 200 charter schools around the country. The San Francisco native still sits on the boards of KIPP and the Gap Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the company.

Bill Lucia, the CEO of the nonprofit education advocacy group EdVoice lauded the Fishers’ contributions to education and KIPP in particular. He said the family’s inclination to give stems from her late husband.

“Unquestionably, the entire family is committed to philanthropy,” Lucia said. “Doing what you love was a motto of Don Fisher before he passed and that you’re most rewarded when you give back, that you’re paying it forward.”

Fisher gave nearly $1 million to support Marshall Tuck’s run for state superintendent of schools in 2014. Tuck, a longtime charter school advocate, lost to Tom Torlakson in a matchup pitting charter schools against the teachers union. She’s given $2.8 million to the California Charter Schools Association’s independent expenditure committee, which backs legislative candidates sympathetic to its mission, so far in the current election cycle.

Lucia said KIPP is an example of charter schools done right and proves that the system can work.

“They’ve shown that all kids can learn,” Lucia said. “That human DNA doesn’t distinguish between poverty and affluence, and that the public (school) system needs to be designed to give all kids an opportunity.”

#3: Reed Hastings

Title: Co-founder and CEO of Netflix

Party: Democratic

Residence: Santa Cruz

Net worth calculated by Forbes: $1.24 billion

Contributions from 2013 to mid-2016: $5.1 million

Reed Hastings changed the way we view television forever when he founded Netflix, which evolved from a snail-mail DVD subscription service to a streaming platform with original content that rivals anything you can find on cable. Despite deserving high praise for giving us “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black” and an even less-filtered version of Chelsea Lately than the E Network gave us, not all of Hastings’ contributions to society are tied to the tube.

Hastings is a major political force in California, mostly in the realm of education. And while he doesn’t seem to hold back his opinions, he says he does his best to separate business and his personal beliefs.

“Our employees and customers have a broad range of views that disagree with mine, and that is fine,” Hastings said in an email.

He gave to his first campaign in 1980, backing Republican Rep. John Anderson’s unsuccessful bid for president, and has focused much of his political contributions on education reform and charter schools over the years.

“I think that nonprofits, which charter schools are, can be more stable and mission-focused than school districts, resulting in a better environment for teachers and more student learning,” Hastings said.

Hastings has been involved in education for nearly two decades, served as the president of the State Board of Education and taught math in Africa through the Peace Corps. Education is at the top of his agenda again this year – he’s dished out $1 million to an independent expenditure committee for the California Charter Schools Association. He’s also backing separate ballot measures to abolish the death penalty and Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to make nonviolent felons eligible for early parole.

Like many of California’s big spenders, Hastings casts his motivations as altruistic and even discounts the influence of deep-pocketed donors.

“The terrible success of Trump, on very little spending, shows that money is a secondary force in politics,” Hastings said. “Nonetheless, I want our state to have good policies, so I donate to initiatives I think are good for Californians.”

#4: Bill Bloomfield

Title: Former president and CEO of Web Service Co.

Party: Independent

Residence: Manhattan Beach

Net worth: Declined to say; not on Forbes’ list

Contributions from 2013 to mid-2016: $4.6 million

While many deep-pocketed donors align themselves and their wallets with the right or the left, Bill Bloomfield plays somewhere in the middle. Bloomfield, a longtime Republican, left the GOP in 2011. Frustrated with the power and influence of special interests, he registered as an independent.

Now the 65-year-old chairman of Baron Real Estate and his wife, Susan, support candidates across party lines, from Sen. Steve Glazer, a moderate Democrat from Orinda, to Neel Kashkari, a Republican who lost to Jerry Brown in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

“We think we can make an impact in our Legislature by backing candidates who are not carrying water for any special interests,” Bloomfield said. “Whether they are a Republican or a Democrat isn’t as much concern for us if they are intelligent, pragmatic and ethical.”

Bloomfield says one of his top priorities is to fix the public education system, casting many schools as “deplorable.” A product of Los Angeles public schools, he says public school isn’t what it used to be and fails to reach the most impoverished students. He’s given $2.1 million this session to EdVoice, the education-advocacy group pushing for changes to teacher-tenure laws, school-accountability rules and other positions that frequently put them at odds with teachers unions.

“Now about the only game in town, if you’re an inner-city kid and don’t win the lottery to go to a private school, is to go to a charter school,” Bloomfield said. “It’s a civil rights issue. It’s about equal opportunity. We are clearly failing our inner-city kids.”

Bloomfield attempted to change the system from the inside and spent $8 million on his own bid for Congress in 2012. He lost to legendary politician Henry Waxman.

“We don’t have any skin in this game other than we all have,” he said about his motives for giving. “We just want kids to be educated, that’s all. There’s nothing I’ve asked the Legislature other than that.”

#5: Tom Steyer

Title: Philanthropist, environmentalist, former hedge fund manager

Party: Democratic

Residence: San Francisco

Net worth: $1.6 billion, according to Forbes

Contributions from 2013 to mid-2016: $4.4 million

Four years ago, Tom Steyer cut ties with his San Francisco financial business, put on a white hat and became known around the Capitol as a “billionaire environmentalist,” cast as Democrats’ answer to the deep-pocketed Koch brothers on the far right.

Since then he’s given millions to left-leaning state political causes – buying Coleman water jugs for farmworkers, funding legislative Democrats under fire from oil interests, pushing hard for climate-change legislation, writing big checks to the state Democratic Party and teaming up with labor unions and health advocates to increase tobacco taxes – all the while flirting with a possible bid for governor in 2018.

Outside California, Steyer and his wife, Kathryn Taylor, are the top individual donors to national political causes, notching $31.5 million this year alone. An anti-Donald Trump agitator, Steyer cast himself in political advertisements denouncing the GOP contender and encouraging people to vote.

But that’s only a fraction of his story. Steyer founded one of the largest hedge-fund management firms in the world three decades ago. Farallon Capital, his former San Francisco financial shop, managed as much as $37 billion at one point and, during Steyer’s tenure, invested millions in coal production in Asia and Australia.

Steyer said his “aha” moment hit in 2002.

“I got very nervous about the George W. Bush administration, its impact on America, where it stood and where it was taking us,” he said. “I couldn’t look my kids in the eye if I didn’t participate in getting us back on the right path. I became obsessed with the idea of getting us as a society back to our core values and beliefs.”

Steyer and his wife pledged to give half their wealth to charitable causes. He sold his interest in Farallon Capital in 2012, calling it a “dramatic change” to eliminate any perceived self-interest and allow him to focus on politics and climate change full time. Steyer’s largest state contribution in the current session is a $1 million payment to a coalition determined to increase tobacco taxes.

“I didn’t want someone to say that I’m doing something to make me better off,” he said. “You can’t show me where we’re doing something out of self-interest. I could have stayed in business and made a ton of money for little work.”

As for his political aspirations, Steyer said he doesn’t expect to make a decision until after the November election.

Tom Steyer, billionaire environmentalist and potential candidate for governor in 2018, spoke to the California delegation at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia.

Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments