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The Democratic Party’s Addiction to Dirty Money

Joe Biden isn't the only candidate who wants to have it both ways, appealing to big donors and campaign-finance reformers alike.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

After years of largely ignoring climate change, CNN’s seven-hour marathon forum poured a Gatorade bath of climate content all over America’s head. It was neither pretty, nor fun. And Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presidential front-runner, emerged from it with a major metaphorical black eye, to match his physically bloodied one.

In the hours leading up to the climate forum, The Intercept reported that Biden planned to attend a fundraiser co-hosted by fossil fuel executive Andrew Goldman, who co-founded the natural gas company Western LNG. One of the forum’s attendees, a 27-year-old Ph.D. student from Northwestern University named Isaac Larkin, was armed with the story and lying in wait for the former vice president. “How can we trust you to hold these corporations and executives accountable for their crimes against humanity,” he asked him, “when we know that tomorrow you are holding a high-dollar fundraiser hosted by Andrew Goldman, a fossil fuel executive?”

Biden’s effort to defend himself stumbled from bad to worse. After initially denying that Goldman is a fossil fuel executive, Biden claimed he “didn’t realize” Goldman founded Western LNG. Biden campaign Spokesperson Symone Sanders joined the pushback on Twitter, arguing that Goldman was not an “executive” because he is “not involved” in the firm’s “day to day operation” and is “not on the board of the company, nor the board of the portfolio company.”

There is a remote possibility that Biden had no idea that Goldman founded Western LNG: Biden knows Goldman from his role as an adviser in his Senate office, and as the northeast finance director of Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign. (A campaign finance director is basically the person in charge of getting rich donors to part with their money, a position that provides an easy transition to becoming a member of the wealthy donor class.)

For a moment, let’s pretend that the Biden team’s spin was correct: that Goldman is not currently doing climate crimes, leaving aside the much more urgent question of whether he’s profiting from them. What else do we know about Andrew Goldman?

For starters, Goldman is a managing director at Hildred Capital Partners, whose portfolio “currently includes investments in regional banks, real estate, energy, and a broad array of healthcare-related companies, including services, technology, IT and pharmaceutical oriented businesses,” according to its website. Goldman is “responsible for overseeing the Firm’s capital allocation and day-to-day investing activities.” (Perhaps he cannot be involved in Western LNG’s day-to-day operations if he’s overseeing the day-to-day investing activities of a private equity firm.)

Before joining Hildred, Goldman founded De Cordova Goldman Holdings, a firm described as “an opportunistic investor with investments in natural resources and energy, media and telecommunications, and financial services” on the Western LNG site. So beyond his founder role at Western LNG, Goldman still has a good amount of experience investing in the energy industry—hardly a promising profile of someone whose money and influence will be marshaled in the cause of helping the next president avert climate catastrophe.

But we’ve yet to really properly plumb the depths of gold-plated squalor revealed in this fundraiser. Hildred Capital Partners was founded by Howard Solomon, who previously ran Forest Laboratories from 1977 to 2013, and his son David, who was a vice president at that company until 2014. David Solomon is slated to host the fundraiser, alongside Goldman, at his home in New York. In 2016, Forest Laboratories had to pay a $38 million settlement to resolve allegations that the company paid kickbacks to doctors who prescribed some of their drugs, between 2008 and 2011. In 2010, the company paid $313 million to settle claims that it illegally marketed the antidepressant Celexa for use in children, and that they had paid further kickbacks to doctors who prescribed Celexa and Lexapro. Forest Laboratories was sold to Actavis, now Allergan, for approximately $28 billion in 2014; Howard Solomon made roughly $47 million off the sale, and David got around $20 million.

While public information is fairly lacking about the specifics of the various investments these men and their firms have made, what is known looks pretty bad, even aside from the specifics of Goldman’s fossil fuel involvement. A private equity investor, whether he’s invested in fossil fuels or pharma or telecom, is not someone whose interests align with the people that a Democratic candidate ought to represent. Those presidential candidates who raise money from and associate with this sort of donor cannot be counted upon to aid in America’s climate survival. This crisis requires presidential contenders with an allergy to the mega-wealthy—or, rather, someone to whom the mega-wealthy are allergic.

A good private equity man is hard to find. It’s not the sort of business in which firms go looking for morally upright corporations—the sort with whom we’d not worry about our politicians having untrammeled contact—to invest in, let alone ones that don’t pay multimillion dollar settlements for paying doctors to run ersatz pill mills or invest in suicidal fossil fuel extraction. Most private equity machers with substantial investment portfolios rake profits from the continued immiseration of the poor. If it’s not fossil fuels or pharmaceuticals, it’s private prisons, or health insurers, or the defense industry.

There are a multitude of ways in which any given rich person could be screwing over the working class, including the mere fact of being a rich person. They might not go to work with the goal of doing so, but as their interests are aligned with the furtherance of these buck-raking schemes, a more equitable society would gravely imperil their balance sheets. What, then, does America gain from having them whisper in the ears of our leaders?

The problem is far bigger than Joe Biden. Other candidates in the race have gamely attempted the same two-step, violating pledges to reject special interest money and hosting big-dollar fund-raisers. The machinery of the Democratic Party is primed to run on big piles of cash and showers its favor upon those candidates who reliably stack the green. Even as voters demand that the party shed the influence of plutocratic interests, much of the shift toward rejecting the status quo has been rhetorical, not substantive. The Democrats literally demand “dues,” or a certain amount in funds raised, from the congressional committee chairs who raise those funds from the industries they regulate—and they dole out the parliamentary perks to those who deliver the goods.

Climate activist groups, like the Sunrise Movement, have lately had some success pushing candidates on climate change. Money tainted by fossil fuel profits is arguably worse than many other kinds of big bad donations, in part because of the dramatic urgency posed by climate crisis. The optics of heading from a climate forum to a fossil fuel executive’s fund-raiser are awful. And this kind of conversation—one in which the Democratic front-runner has to explain and defend his attendance at a fundraiser put on by a fossil fuel executive—is beneficial to the larger project of disentangling the Democratic Party from the control of the rich. (Though CNBC reported that Biden’s allies expected the fundraiser to go ahead as planned, with Goldman co-hosting.)

But don’t miss the bigger picture. It would be only slightly less appalling if Biden had gone straight to a fancy fundraiser with someone heavily invested in the pharmaceutical status quo, where poor people die from lack of access to drugs; or the hospital status quo, where hospitals can sue patients for the crime of getting sick; or the housing status quo, where housing and tenants are squeezed for the profits of investors.

To have any hope of averting climate catastrophe or reversing the decades-long trend toward inequality in this country, several minor miracles need to happen in 2020. But if the politics of 2021 is to achieve anything close to what most Americans require, the path cannot be paved with the boodle and the influence of the wealthy. Their interests are antithetical to this goal. Democratic candidates forget this at their, and our, peril.