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Way Out Of Balance

For all the talk these days about activists trying to rein in corporate spending on political campaigns and conservative outfits like ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), I’m a little surprised there hasn’t been more of an upwelling against the individual donors who are, arguably, having an even more outsized role in the post-Citizens United landscape. I wrote recently about fledgling efforts by some state treasurers to consider using their states’ pension funds as a way to encourage greater transparency in political spending by big Wall Street money managers. But there hasn’t been much of an equivalent grass-roots push in this direction, as far as I can tell. Case in point? New Balance.

New Balance running shoes have long been a favorite of the liberal jogger set, who could feel better shelling out $100 for sneakers knowing that New Balance still made many of its shoes in America (though it, too, has been shifting more of its production overseas in recent years.) But the company’s chairman, Jim Davis, who bought the company in 1972 and turned it into a global powerhouse, is of a decidedly different political persuasion than the company’s Portland-to-Portland trail-mix clientele. The most recent disclosure reports show that Davis gave $500,000 to Restore Our Future, the SuperPAC supporting Mitt Romney. It wasn’t his first gift, either—Davis gave Restore Our Future $500,000 last June, and has regularly dashed off five-figure checks to Republican party committees in recent years. And there’s plenty more where that came from—Forbes lists Davis as one of the 250 wealthiest people in the country, with an estimated net worth of $1.8 billion.

There was a bit of activist pushback against the company last year, after Davis’s first $500,000 check to Restore Our Future. Dan Eggen reported at the time:

Gay rights groups have criticized the donation in the wake of Romney’s decision last week to sign a pledge supporting a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriages.
New Balance President Rob DeMartini said in a statement posted on the company’s Facebook page that the contribution was “a private donation” unconnected to the company. The company, based in a state that allows same-sex marriages, has often emphasized its diversity policies.
“Mr. Romney’s position on this issue is not reflective of Jim Davis’, my or New Balance’s position and support of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered community,” DeMartini wrote. “As a company, New Balance embraces the differences in all people and we work tirelessly to create and sustain an environment where everyone—our associates, consumers, customers and guests—are treated with dignity and respect.”

But unless I missed it, there hasn’t been any equivalent activity since the disclosure of the latest check last week. This will be an area worth keeping an eye on. If progressive activist groups get traction against corporate political spending on groups like ALEC, what’s stopping them from trying to shed light on six and seven-figure spending by individual executives? In the era of Citizens United, joggers taking action by putting their dollars where their politics are may be just about the only potential restraint on such million-dollar donations.

* A final note: Restore Our Future’s most recent disclosures included some other interesting names, among them Ken Griffin, the Citadel hedge fund founder whom I featured recently in a cover story about former Obama supporters in the hedge fund world who are now spending heavily on the other side. Griffin gave the group $850,000, a big jump from the two $100,000 checks he’d given earlier. I guess he liked the article.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis