Top political donors include hundreds from Tennessee

9:40 PM, Aug 2, 2013   |    comments
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By Ledyard King Gannett Washington Bureau

The nation's most active political donors aren't just in New York City, Palm Beach and Hollywood. They can be found across Tennessee as well.

The Volunteer State boasts 430 of them.

They include business executives, entertainers, lawyers and ex-politicos, and their financial imprint is growing.

A recent study by the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation found that a tiny fraction of America's population - "one percent of one percent" - collectively gave nearly $1.7 billion of the roughly $6 billion that federal candidates and political action committees, including super PACs, received from identifiable sources in the 2012 election cycle.

That roughly 28 percent share is the largest that elite group of donors has claimed in modern election history, according to Sunlight. In 2012, the group consisted of 31,385 donors, or roughly one ten-thousandth of the country's population. The previous high for the group was the 21.8 percent share it accounted for in 2006.

Tennessee donors accounted for more than $17.2 million of that total, according to data the Sunlight Foundation compiled from the Federal Election Commission and records provided by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

As expected, most of the donors are from the largest and most affluent areas of the state.

The top donor was Nashville venture capitalist Andrew W. Miller Jr., who gave $272,000 to Republican candidates.

The top Democrat donor was Sarah Faulkner, a Lookout Mountain homemaker who gave $222,189 to campaigns.

The only Clarksville donor on the list is Budweiser of Clarksville CEO Charles Hand, who gave $15,500 to Republican campaigns.

The 2012 cycle includes donations made during 2011 and 2012 for Congress and from 2009 through 2012 for presidential candidates.

Troubling signs

Watchdog groups say it's troubling that super donors are playing an increasingly significant role financing political campaigns.

"Public officials listen to the people who contribute to the campaigns," said Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause Tennessee. "So it's definitely undesirable for democracy (if) a smaller and smaller number of people have a disproportionate influence on how our public officials get elected and what they do when they are elected."

The Sunlight Foundation says the trend is fueled in part by the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United decision vs. Federal Election Commission, which paved the way for the creation of super PACS.

"A tiny sliver of Americans who can afford to give tens of thousands of dollars in a single election cycle have become the gatekeepers of public office in America," the report's authors wrote. "Through the growing congressional dependence on their contributions, they increasingly set the boundaries and limits of American political discourse - who can run for office, what their priorities should be and even what can be said in public."

Some of the wealthiest Americans belong to the list of super donors, including casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who gave only to Republicans, and Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave only to Democrats. But it also includes a plethora of more modest givers who contributed less than $20,000 each.

Tennessee donors

Notable givers from the Volunteer State include Jackson businessman and 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter ($82,350), and country musician John D. Rich of Nashville ($28,000).

Tennessee's top 10 donors also include the father and brother of GOP Gov. Bill Haslam. James Haslam II, founder of the Knoxville-based Pilot Flying J Corp. gave $159,450, while Jimmy Haslam, Pilot's CEO and owner of the Cleveland Browns football team, gave $176,550, according to the report.

Not surprisingly for a reliably red state, the vast majority of Tennessee's top donors - 301 - gave exclusively to Republicans, compared to 50 who gave solely to Democrats.

The remainder split between both parties. Only two Tennesseans on the list, including Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos, gave equally to Republicans and Democrats.

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