Editor’s note: This is one in a series of six pieces that shows how professional sports owners in America contribute to political campaigns, why they spend millions in the space and what that financial power means as athletes across sports continue to embrace activism of their own.
BILLIONAIRES OPERATE DIFFERENTLY from the rest of us. An enthusiastic young supporter of an insurgent candidate might send off a $20 contribution to a campaign, but those with a large fortune cut checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars to national political parties and partisan super PACs. That’s enough to blanket a market like Cincinnati or Raleigh with television ads for a couple of days.
While LeBron James appeared at a Cleveland rally for Hillary Clinton in 2016, NBA owners were pouring millions into the campaigns of her and her opponent, Donald Trump, directly and indirectly. One can debate the efficacy of the free media attention surrounding an event starring a person with James’ recognition, but cold cash has a way of buying tangible resources for a national campaign. Money, as the saying goes, is the mother’s milk of politics.
The NBA has long had a place in high-level American politics. Larry O’Brien, the namesake of the trophy presented to the Los Angeles Lakers in October, was NBA commissioner in the twilight of his professional career. He’s most notable as a leading political operative central to John F. Kennedy’s campaign, Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964 and Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential bid who then served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Herb Kohl served as a U.S. senator for 24 years during his tenure as owner of the Milwaukee Bucks. Between 1989 and his death this year, former NBA commissioner David Stern made more than $2 million in individual contributions to Democratic candidates for federal office and party committees. For years, NBA owners such as Larry Weinberg and Abe Pollin were leading, high-profile donors to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Today, NBA owners on average collectively donate more than $4 million per federal election cycle to candidates ranging from the far left to the far right poles of the political spectrum, according to Federal Election Commission research by ESPN and FiveThirtyEight.
These election records sometimes produce more questions than answers. Why did Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf make the maximum contribution to both Montana Sen. Jon Tester and his Republican challenger Matt Rosendale in 2018? Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta gave to Arizona Sen. Martha McSally in her unsuccessful reelection bid, so why does he now support her opponent in this cycle, Democrat Mark Kelly, to the tune of $15,400 (including a $10,000 donation to the Arizona Democratic Party)? Why did Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon contribute to Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Hillary Clinton — all of whom were running for the same office in 2016?
We can learn a lot about a donor from his or her political giving history, quite often even their motivation for contributing in the first place. And when it comes to the billionaire class that runs professional sports franchises, these contributions aren’t always what they appear to be.
The business giver
MIAMI HEAT OWNER Micky Arison is a cruise ship titan, the chairman of the board of Carnival Corporation and CEO of the company for decades. Even after selling off nearly $1 billion of Carnival stock approximately six years ago, the Arisons still have nearly a quarter stake in the corporation.
Arison has one of the more interesting political giving histories in the NBA. He has contributed to the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats. He gives large sums of money to both Republican and Democratic party committees fighting against each other to win majorities. He will donate to a congressman, then turn around the next election cycle and donate to the challenger who beat him.
Dig deeper into Arison’s tally and some revealing patterns come to light. Each election cycle, Arison contributes to Bob Gibbs, an Ohio congressman from a largely rural, safely Republican district whose largest body of water is a small reservoir covering a modest 1,350 acres in the summer months. Those contributions make more sense when you consider that Gibbs is the ranking minority member on the House Transportation Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, which oversees cruise ships.
In addition to his $2,000 to Gibbs, Arison has given generously this cycle to the ranking members of the respective committees in the House and Senate. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who took over as chair of the committee when the Democrats won the house, received $5,400 from Arison. In the Senate, Republican Roger Wicker (chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation) received $5,550, while Maria Cantwell (the ranking Democrat) received $2,500.
What’s behind the seemingly random $1,500 check Arison wrote to the Hawaii Democratic Party PAC? That’s the leadership PAC of Brian Schatz, a young Democratic senator regarded by policy wonks as one of the more fluent legislators on the Hill on all matters cruise industry (Schatz has been receiving cruise ship money dating back to his lieutenant governor days in Hawaii).
“Arison is the cruise industry, and he’s very strategic in his giving,” Ross Klein, a professor and expert on the cruise ship business, wrote in his book “Cruise Ship Squeeze.”
Peruse the list of committee members in both houses and there’s a very good chance their campaigns have received donations from Arison, be it liberal Democrat and civil rights luminary Elijah Cummings or right-wing Republican Randy Weber, who referred to President Barack Obama as a “Socialist Dictator” and “Kommandant-in-Chief” just before the 2014 State of the Union address to Congress. Even nonvoting member Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands received $10,200 from Arison and his wife, Madeleine, this cycle. (Micky Arison was the only donor to max out to Plaskett for both the primary and general elections). Incidentally, Carnival offers eight-day cruises to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Because none of Carnival’s fleet operates under the U.S. flag and it is largely governed by international maritime law, Congress’ regulatory authority is somewhat limited. Within the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Coast Guard have ultimate say on whether cruise ships can pick up passengers. Yet on an annual basis, legislators can still pass regulations that could mean hundreds of millions of dollars to the industry’s bottom line.
For instance, in 2010, Congress passed the Cruise Vessel and Safety Act, which required that cruise lines report on-board crimes, missing passengers and suspicious deaths to the Coast Guard and FBI. Ships also had to retrofit cabin doors with safety latches and peepholes, carry rape kits for potential victims, as well as have a trained forensic assault specialist on board. Congress also regulates waste streams discharged from ships, and disembarkation procedures for cruise ships docking in the U.S. — and who pays for them. Most recently, the cruise ship was a lightning rod in negotiations over COVID-19 relief, with many members of Congress opposed to handing over money to cruise ship operators that are intentionally based outside the United States.
Because many owners have real estate empires, their political contributions are often directed to local candidates. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates for federal office — the vast majority to Republicans and a handful of Democrats from New York and New Jersey — and he’s also an active giver in local elections, some in far-off cities. Ross’ real estate development company, Related, has massive, high-profile projects all over the country, and where you find those buildings, you’ll find some contributions to mayoral candidates.
Rahm Emanuel received $60,000 from Ross during Emanuel’s tenure as mayor of Chicago, where Related has a dozen properties. That trend continues across the country: Both Ross and Equinox, which Ross also owns, have ponied up in Los Angeles’ mayoral and city council races, while Gavin Newsom and Adrian Fenty received contributions from Ross during their terms as the mayors of San Francisco and Washington, respectively.
For corporations such as Carnival and Related, having a seat at the table when new laws and regulations are discussed is essential.
The ideological giver
ORLANDO MAGIC OWNER Dan DeVos comes from one of America’s archconservative royal families. In 1959, DeVos’ father, Richard, co-founded Amway, a multilevel marketing company, building it into a billion-dollar empire. Richard purchased the Magic in 1991 for $85 million, and he died in 2018. Dan assumed the role of the Magic’s representative on the NBA’s board of governors in 2011.
As Rich DeVos amassed his fortune, he became a generous donor to the country’s emerging religious right movement. He made a personal contribution of $25,000 in 1975 to be a leading benefactor of the Christian Freedom Foundation, an organization that told readers of Christianity Today that, “Our country was founded on a certain harmony of values preserved by our Christian heritage … It is time for responsible Christians to take a hand in the affairs of the state.”
The elder DeVos twice served as a president of the Council for National Policy, an organization founded in 1981 by author and fundamentalist Christian leader Tim LaHaye to bring together prominent right-wing voices ranging from Pat Robertson and Phyllis Schlafly to Ed Meese and Paul Weyrich.
In addition to donating tens of millions of dollars to civic organizations in Michigan, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation made sizable donations to anti-gay organizations such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. Dan DeVos’ sister-in-law is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has been a lightning rod in the culture wars raging during the Trump administration.
Research has shown that parents who are more politicized tend to produce children who adopt their political affiliations, and Dan DeVos’ tally of political contributions would suggest that.
“From a very young age, my brothers, sister and I were taught by our parents that engagement in the political process is an important responsibility for all Americans, and that has stuck with me throughout my life,” Dan DeVos told ESPN.
The recipients of the most money from the Daniel and Pamella DeVos Foundation in 2018 include DeVos’ alma mater, Northwood University, Grand Valley State University, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
On the political front, though, Dan DeVos is a bedrock, high-dollar Republican Party giver. In the current election cycle, DeVos has made contributions of $200,000 each to a PAC established to elect Republicans to the House; America First Action, a prominent pro-Donald Trump super PAC; as well as a single-candidate super PAC in support of Michigan senatorial candidate John James. In addition, DeVos has maxed out 13 of the 20 sitting Republican senators up for reelection in November and has given nearly $200,000 to committees dedicated to keeping a Republican majority in the upper chamber.
DeVos said his giving is “driven by a desire to advance opportunity for all, preserve and enhance individual freedoms for all, and encourage a fair and open economy that rewards hard work, fosters innovation and recognizes the important value of each person.”
DeVos will support non-Republicans on rare occasions when the party can’t field a competitive candidate, such as the nonpartisan race for mayor of Orlando. The PAC supporting longtime incumbent mayor, Democrat Buddy Dyer, received $50,000 from DeVos, more than from any other individual or entity. (The PAC also received $45,000 from Disney Worldwide Services, a subsidiary of ESPN’s parent company, second only to DeVos).
On the other end of the political spectrum, Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts has compiled pro sports’ most progressive tally of political donations, which is an extreme departure from the rest of her family. One of Ricketts’ brothers, Todd, is the current finance chair of the RNC, and her brother Pete is the Republican governor of Nebraska.
Laura Ricketts founded LPAC, a PAC advocating for LGBTQ women, to which she has contributed more than $1 million over the past three electoral cycles. She gave $35,500 to the DNC this year and $300,000 to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She is an enthusiastic supporter of female candidates for federal office, with a contribution of more than $100,000 to a super PAC that supports pro-choice women running for federal office.
Both of today’s major political parties are fueled by true believers who are deeply committed to a gospel that preaches their vision of what American should look like. There are few things more powerful in political life than the faith in that conviction backed by billions of dollars.
The personal giver
THERE’S A THIRD group of contributors driven by less concrete motivations. Some of them are social creatures who enjoy the company of fellow power brokers, while others are drawn to the game of politics the way you might be to NBA basketball.
The opportunity to play golf with a former president can be enough of an incentive to donate what represents a meager amount for a person with extreme wealth. And some people say yes when solicited for a political contribution because they value their relationship with the person who is asking.
When examining the motivations of an American sports owner, more than one of these factors — if not all of them — likely is at play. Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry is the NBA’s quintessential personal giver, one whose combination of general political orientation and social inclinations make him a resident of the Democratic Party’s elite circles.
A hedge fund manager, Lasry — who, along with Arison, declined to comment for this story — is not an ideologue, but he is an immigrant from Morocco who has said he values the Democratic Party’s overarching creed that government should actively help those in need.
Lasry was a relatively modest giver, limiting his $2,000 contributions largely to New York Democrats and assorted others, including Rahm Emanuel’s congressional campaign in Chicago, until the summer of 2004, when he wrote his first $25,000 checks to the Democrats’ Senate and House committees. His close friendship with Emanuel deepened his ties to the power center of the party and, correspondingly, his financial support of its candidates. There’s mutual benefit: Like every key politician, Emanuel has fundraising as an unofficial task, and Lasry got to meet that need for a friend.
Prominent donors and powerful politicians often become friends, which means Chanukah parties at the White House and rounds of golf on Martha’s Vineyard. Walk into the office or home of a big party donor and there’s a good chance you’ll find a framed photo of him or her with a president or senator.
Lasry’s deep involvement in the Democratic Party is about far more than the health care debate or the composition of the Supreme Court.
Over time, politicians called him to get advice on the economic landscape. He began to be a regular at high-dollar events and, in 2012, became one of the few people who can say he hosted a sit-down dinner at his home that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama attended. On more than one occasion, Clinton has sat courtside with Lasry at a Bucks game, in Milwaukee and in Brooklyn.
Party bigwigs eventually meet just about every aspirational politician, which means they can expect (or hope) to be hit up for a contribution by the candidate. During the 2020 Democratic primary, Lasry gave money to Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Pete Buttigieg. Lasry wasn’t wishy-washy so much as a longtime party fixture who was a friend or acquaintance of several candidates.
Personal relationships are central to this kind of political giving. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft made his first contribution to an individual candidate’s campaign in more than five years when he donated $15,000 to the PAC supporting 32-year-old congressional hopeful Jake Auchincloss. Why? Possibly because the candidate’s mother is the CEO of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Kraft’s wife, Myra, died in July 2011, more than a year after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the family has donated millions of dollars to the institute, which provided her generous care. What a critic might call cynical back-scratching someone else might call material support for a person who shares a common cause.
Some of the biggest party donors are hobbyists who like the action, while others like having their proverbial name on the wall of a longstanding American institution like a major political party. Some are here for the real estate porn — which in fundraising circles means using the lure of a posh home to attract potential donors. Some enjoy the ego gratification that comes with exclusive company, while others are just returning a favor for a friend who gave to their philanthropic project.
So long as money funds America’s political parties and their politicians, people with money will be in close proximity.