Amid significant spending in the 2016 election cycle and the emergence of campaign finance as a national concern, the political contributions of Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees have become especially notable. The size and volume of Board member’s contributions shed light on the political affiliations of the College’s highest governing body.
The trustees are active participants in the political process. According to data compiled from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), 10 members of Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees have donated over $20,000 to political campaigns since 1997. Five have donated over $200,000 and six of those 10 have made contributions primarily to Republican candidates and groups.
Influence, Ideology & Board Composition
Significant financial ties to political candidates have some influence on the decisions these trustees make as Board members, according to according to Associate Professor of Government and Legal Studies Michael Franz. Franz teaches a course called Money and Politics, and his research investigates the role of interest groups in political campaigns.
He said that, though the contributions do not directly affect a trustee’s decision making, the contributions are suggestive of political ideology, and that ideology affects a trustee’s decision making
“Ultimately I think you can separate the things you’re involved in with your political preferences in some fashion or another. So trustees who are primarily Republican donors or primarily Democratic donors likely have a perspective on the role of government and regulations that may influence the way they think about the world,” Franz said. “That perspective may influence how they behave as trustees but I think the donations are a reflection of those beliefs as opposed to the donations as having an influence on what they do as trustees.”
Theory suggests that donations that follow the pattern of party alignment can be understood as indicators of ideological alignment.
Six of the ten top contributors to political campaigns on the board have donated consistently to Republicans and three have donated consistently to Democrats. Leonard Cotton has donated a roughly equal amount to both parties. This imbalance can likely be explained by the tendency for large contributors to support Republicans.
The political affiliations of the Board as a whole, as implied by campaign contributions, appear slightly unaligned with that of the student body. In 2012, the Orient reported that 47 percent of respondents in a survey of students were registered Democrats and 8 percent of respondents were registered Republicans. Only 35 percent of Board members have made political contributions that indicate a Democratic alignment and 33 percent of Board members have made contributions that indicate a Republican alignment.
The implications of these contributions raise important questions about the demographic composition of Bowdoin’s Board and its process for selecting new trustees.
New trustees are selected by a committee of the trustees themselves. The Statement of Trustee Roles and Responsibilities says that the Board’s Committee on Trustees takes recommendations for new members, evaluates them and recommends them to the full Board for approval.
No members of the Board of Trustees responded to requests for comment.
According to President Rose, the process of selecting trustees is a process of matching the Board’s needs.
“You think about mapping what your needs are at a given moment in time against who’s available and out there and who might be interested and willing to do it and then try to figure out how to get from A to B,” Rose said.
One possible explanation for the ideological divergence on the Board is the expectation that Board members make financial contributions to the college. According to The Statement of Trustee Roles and Responsibilities, “Trustees are expected to support the College financially by taking the lead in gift-giving, thereby setting an example for others in the Bowdoin family.”
While trustees are only expected to do this within their capacity to do so, there is an implicit incentive for trustees to have significant financial means.
Nearly two-thirds of the Board is male and almost 50 percent have spent most of their careers in finance.
The Board's Top Contributors
Understanding the donations
The recipients of the trustees’ donations are incredibly numerous and span the entire partisan spectrum, but according to Franz, the contributions likely share a similar purpose. They facilitate the donor’s access and influence during the policymaking process.
“If you’re an important businessman or woman and you feel that the success of your business partly depends on what the federal government decides to regulate or how it decides to act, you may decide that your campaign contributions allow you to have a seat at the table in the discussion of policy making,” Franz said.
The effects of these contributions have been measured and quantified.
“If the donor calls the candidate and says, ‘I’m going to be in Washington, it would be nice if we could get together and talk,’ research suggests that donors are much more likely to get those meetings,” said Franz.
The significant financial assets of each of these trustees suggest they have a direct interest in the policy making process. Each of these 10 high-contributing trustees has direct or nearly direct involvement with large amounts of money. Seven have had careers in the financial services industry. As owners and senior management of hedge funds, private equity firms and banks, six of these trustees oversee investment portfolios worth billions of dollars. For example, Stone’s company, Oaktree Capital, has over $95 billion in assets under management. Roux’s firm, Silver Lake, oversees over $26 billion and Great Hill Partners, the firm Gormley co-founded, has over $2.5 billion in assets.
Trustee John McQuillan’s firm Triumvirate Environmental navigates complex environmental legislation for a variety of corporate and public clients. Karen Walker’s law firm Kirkland and Ellis reported $2.15 billion in revenue in 2014 and routinely represents the interests of multi-billion dollar corporations in commercial litigation. Geoffrey C. Rusack ’78, P’13 owns a winemaking business in California with his wife Alison Wrigley Rusack, who inherited a portion of the chewing gum company that shares her name’s fortune.
The political donations available in the FEC database and compiled by the Orient include donations directly to candidates, to joint fundraising committees and to Super PACS. Regulations that dictate contribution limits vary significantly for each type of donation.
For example, in the 2016 election cycle, contributions directly to a candidate are capped at $2,700 per election. A donor can give that amount to a candidate twice—once for a primary and once for the general election. Such a donation, however, buys a limited form of influence.
According to Franz, party and congressional campaign committees, for which the contribution limits are significantly higher, buy a donor significantly more influence. Specifically, the donor gains access and influence with the party elites who exert more influence and have a greater ability to shape policy outcomes.
Contributions to party committees also have a far greater potential to shape the party’s outcome across many elections.
“Parties don’t really like to waste their money on sure winners, they like to spend their money on competitive races,” said Franz. “So you could give a $50,000 check to the DNC and that money is gonna go straight into Ohio next fall.”
These trustees have also made contributions to Super PACs, which have no contribution limits but they are prohibited by modern campaign finance laws from consulting directly with candidates. Because these committees are so new—they were established by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision—there has been little research into the direct effects of Super PAC contributions.
Additionally, many of these trustees have likely made political contributions that do not appear in FEC data. A 501(c)(4) is a non-profit organization that is not required to disclose its donors. Donors often use these organizations to shield their contributions from the public eye.
ProPublica published a helpful breakdown of the difference between Super PACs and 501(c) organizations here.
While the contributions of all but one of the ten high contributing board members skew significantly left or right enough to indicate a party alignment, many have given money to candidates or groups from the opposing party.
For instance, while Karen Walker has given to the Republican National Committee, Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush, she also contributed to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Within the long list of Jes Staley’s democratic donations, there is one to Rob Portman, a republican senator from Ohio.
Franz believes these contributions are likely hedges and that they support the understanding that these board members buy influence and access. A donor who has an incentive for political access is likely to contribute to candidates despite ideological differences.