Why I did I donate $500K to the Democratic National Committee?

First I did my research on both the candidates
I spent a lot of my personal time doing research on the candidates, both online and offline. I've personally met with and spoken with both candidates. I've shaken their hands. I've asked them directed questions.  I've watched all the debates including the VP debate. I've listed to the spin comments afterwards. I've read material on both websites. I've viewed TV ads from both candidates. 

I evaluated each candidate against my criteria. Gore is the best candidate; it's not even close
See Why I support Gore.

Why did I give so much? Am I trying to buy influence?
The differences between the candidates are so striking to me. I live in fear of what will happen to this country if Bush is elected.

So to me the question is not why I am giving so much. The question is why aren't others giving more?

I'm hardly the richest guy on the planet. Not by a long shot. 

So where are the wealthy people who really care about this country? Well I got my own answer to that question in my own community when our local United Way had an $11M shortfall. First time in the 20 years I've lived here. Yet with over 65,000 millionaires in the county, the only individuals who wrote $1M checks to bail the United Way out were me, Bill Gates, and Gordon Moore. And Gates doesn't even live here. And when I ask prominent CEOs for their support on political issues that have wide support and no known opposition, I only get a small handful of CEO friends who step forward and let me use their names, even though the only effort they need to expend is to hit the reply button.

To be fair, there are a lot of generous people out there, each with their own focus. We were ranked #96 in Worth magazine's annual list of the most generous Americans. So there are at least 95 bigger givers than us, but those givers often tend to be very narrowly focused. So it really limits the playing field here.

And there are great guys like John Doerr who have invested their money in other important local political causes.

I asked a number of high profile Democratic backers to give more. One billionaire responded that he already gave 6 figures. Everyone else didn't return my calls.

So I could sit back like others and just "let things happen."

Unfortunately, the ugly truth in America is that we don't have a level playing field. By some estimates I've heard, Republicans have raised $50M more money than Democrats. http://www.opensecrets.org/ confirms that figure on their home page. That's not fair. But that makes sense since Bush's campaign directly benefits the wealthy with big tax cuts and special favors for rich and powerful donors (like Bush's unique voluntary approach on pollution...where does he get such bright ideas like this? is this the type of Bush innovation we'll see more of??). 

So in America we have people like billionaire Sam Wyly, chairman of Green Mountain Energy, creating and funding a sham organization to run misleading TV commercials in support of his good friend George W. Bush. They fail to mention that the environmental legislation mentioned in the ad (which they claim Bush led) was done in spite of Bush, not because of Bush.  Read the transcript of All Things Considered  that aired on March 9, 2000 for details. It's amazing. The chairman of a what appears to be environmentally responsible energy company running a misleading commercial supporting George Bush's environmental record. As a result of this, Wyly has resigned from the board of Green Mountain. If he hadn't, I'd have cancelled my service and encouraged others to do the same.

So what makes me different from others? Why shouldn't I give to Bush instead of Gore? After all, he'd save me money. Well, I don't need the money. I have over $100M in assets and I don't live very lavishly. We have only one house. We don't vacation very often. We don't wear expensive clothes. Our biggest dollar extravagance beyond our house is a 1/16 ownership (the smallest available) in a private jet. 

So, in short, we don't need more money for ourselves.  Our focus is on leveraging our assets and doing things that benefit all of us: ensuring world safety, restoring the environment, and curing major diseases. This is well documented on our foundation website. And the more money we have, the greater the impact we can make. Most rich people I know sit on their assets. We're a bit different. We try to deploy those assets to make a positive impact on the world.

From a personal view, I view supporting the right guy for president as a charitable contribution (albeit not tax deductible and not technically "charitable") that has extremely high leverage. For example, if Gore gets elected, he will spend billions on alternative clean fuel sources. So if I contribute $1M to make that happen, that's like getting a 2,000 to 1 matching grant. That's really hard to beat. I can't find a deal like that anywhere. And that's for just one program that I care about.

So, in the absence of campaign finance reform, it's a money game if all other things are equal. And in this campaign, things seems to be pretty equal.  My goal is not to outspend the Republicans. It is only to help bring the Democrats to parity on campaign spending.

So it's fair if everyone plays by the same rules, which we are. If both parties want to change the rules and live by a new set of rules, that's fine too. So the current choice is the status quo: unclean. And that's what both sides are living by.

While I'd welcome others to join me in this, because others are so apathetic, I'm filling in the gap myself to the extent I'm able. It's a lot easier for me to write that big check than make a whole lot of phone calls that go nowhere. I remember when Ted Turner came to my house to talk about philanthropy and he related the story of how he flew to Chicago, spent hours giving a charity pitch to a multi-millionaire, and at the end this rich guy says he'll donate $1,000. Ted said life's too short for that. I have to agree with Ted on this one. For example, I called one billionaire who recently donated tens of millions to an environmental organization. I asked him to help out with a contribution. He said he was supporting Bush because he's a Republican. I said it made no sense since Bush would do things that would more than counter the tens of millions he just donated. I offered to fill him in with the facts of Bush's environmental record. He told me not to bother--that the facts would only confuse him. Whoa...is this country in trouble... one billionaires who doesn't want to know the facts and another who runs clearly misleading TV commercials. We gotta get the big money out of politics fast.

I hope this is the last time I'll be legally allowed to make a donation this large. The current system sucks. It allows wealthy people like me to get special access and influence public policy. It shouldn't be that way. And hopefully, Gore will get elected and Congress will pass the McCain-Feingold bill or even better, the campaign finance reform advocated by Public Campaign which is even better.. I'll be relieved. Power will be back in the hands of the people where it belongs. And I'll save money myself since I'll never have to write a big check ever again. And I really do hope it works because my bank account is a lot smaller than the bank accounts of all the special interests that have been influencing policy in Washington.

I have a history of support on campaign finance reform ever since that day when former Senator Alan Cranston told me it was the key to reforming politics. I've made friendships with Bill Moyers (a major supporter of campaign finance reform) and support the McCain-Feingold bill.

How I determined how much I gave
First I assessed the need. My objective is to help level the playing field so that the Democrats have as much to spend as Republicans to get their message out. So that was one factor. Estimates are that the Republicans have raised more than $50M more than the Democrats. Not surprising since Republicans tend to be wealthy.

Next, I assessed the probability of whether my donation would be spent effectively. For example, I spent 8 hours digging for dirt on the DNC (including a lot of time spent on the RNC site) and I spent lots of hour talking with various people.

Lastly, I assessed how much I could afford and not appreciably jeopardize my financial security and options (such as funding for other political causes, funding the next round of my current startup company, Propel, and so on). 

I ended up contributing $500K to the DNC, which is the maximum amount that they would accept on principle since legally there is no upper limit (the RNC has no such upper limit). Maybe they will change that policy in light of how much the Republicans are outspending them.

So I'm in the top 20 largest political givers in America to this campaign, according to opensecrets.org site.

How I'll be attacked
I'm sure the Bush campaign will attack me somehow. They seems to attack everything that moves. So, speaking of moving, I admit that I have gotten a couple speeding tickets in the last 3 years. But that's about it. I wish them luck on digging up dirt on me... they are really going to have to make something up here because I would not have made this contribution if I didn't have a squeaky clean reputation. That would have been too counter productive. And I wouldn't have made the contribution if there were any hint of a special interest motive for my doing this or if I stood to benefit in any unfair way. My intent is that I will benefit just like everyone else if Gore is elected through sounder fiscal policy, environmental reforms, and so on.

I'm proud of my track record on the issues that Gore is so passionate about. I'm sure that the press would see through any smoke-screen that the Bush campaign would try to create here. 

The special favors I've asked for
All I want is for Gore to keep his campaign promises. But I haven't asked him to do this, and it wasn't a condition of the donation.

I haven't asked for any special favors, not do I expect any.
There were no conditions attached to the money I donated. Zero. I didn't even request to review the TV commercials I am probably paying for. I'm not guaranteed any special privileges or rights. I have no say over how the money is used. I believe if Gore wins, I may get an invite to the inauguration or a good table at his next fundraiser. Maybe I'll even get to talk with Gore again.

I am not looking for any government appointments for myself, my family, or for my friends. If asked I will decline because I don't even want a hint of favoritism. Besides, I'm having way too good a time being CEO of Propel and between Propel, philanthropy, and my family, I don't exactly have any spare time. I also don't have any political aspirations either. I have a terrible memory for names. I'd make a crummy politician. I'm a technology guy. I love algorithms and solving hard technical problems.

My purpose in making the donation was to help level the playing field of dollars. I care deeply about the issues that Gore stands for, especially campaign finance reform and the environment, for starters. These are both high priority issues with Gore (and nowhere to be found if Bush gets elected). Gore deserves a level playing field to deliver his message. The American people deserve a level playing field. If we elect Gore, we'll have a shot at a level playing field forever (in fact, Gore's proposal doesn't go far enough, but it is a good start and certainly a lot more credible that Bush's campaign finance proposal). Because once we remove the money out of politics, it won't come back. It's proven and working already in several states.

So it all makes perfect sense...I'm one of those guys who's made fortune at a young age and had the foresight to figure out that it's just a lot smarter to spend that money on ensuring the world is a better place than spending it on vacations, jets, homes, and expensive toys. My peers will eventually figure out the same thing.

Epilog (Feb 1, 2001)
Gore did not win. If he does not, at least I won't lose any sleep over whether I did my part in helping him win.

And here's a list of the "special favors" I received in return for my $5M total expenditure on behalf of Gore (i.e., the 500K plus $4.5M more in various ways):

  • One return phone call from Joe Lieberman thanking me. 4 minute duration.
  • Sat one person away from Joe Lieberman at a fundraiser at Joel Hyatt's home
  • Christmas party invitations from both Clinton and Gore
  • Invitation to Election Night celebration in Tennessee and special VIP passes to the stage area
  • Notification of a conference call with Al Gore (over 200 people were on the call)
  • A "plate" from the DNC signed by Al Gore (one of thousands produced)

I've never received a phone call from Gore, nor his email address, nor a thank you note. And you thought money buys influence, eh?

Steve Kirsch Political Home Page