Astronaut Mark Kelly is running what he says is a grassroots campaign to flip Arizona’s open Senate seat, pledging to refuse corporate political action committee donations and fight the influence of big money in politics. He’s also said he wants to lower drug prices and provide Americans with access to affordable health care.
Kelly, however, has made at least 19 paid appearances at corporate events across the country — and in the Cayman Islands — where he addressed giants in the financial and prescription drug industries, including Goldman Sachs, the Cayman Alternative Investment Summit, the Mortgage Bankers Association, and the controversial opioid giant AmerisourceBergen, among others.
Kelly raised an impressive $1 million in individual contributions within 24 hours of his announcement. And he says he’s gotten more than 30,000 individual contributions so far. His website says he won’t take corporate PAC money; his campaign “is about the people of Arizona, not corporate PACs and the mess they’ve created in Washington,” and he’ll “only answer to Arizonans.” In a February fundraising email sent shortly after Kelly announced his run, he condemned “the outrageous influence corporate money has on our politics,” and “powerful interests who want to stop us.”
Kelly spokesperson Jacob Peters said that Kelly gave the speeches more as a former astronaut than as a politician. “After his wife Gabby survived an assassination attempt in 2011 and was forced to resign from Congress, Mark retired from the Navy and NASA so that he could help Gabby with her recovery,” Peters said. “Soon after, like many other former NASA astronauts, Mark began giving motivational speeches, sometimes with his brother Scott, about his experiences in space, the United States Navy and overcoming tragedy. He’s looking forward to sharing those same stories and experiences with voters across Arizona.”
Keppler Speakers, the largest private speakers’ bureau in the country, which orchestrated several of Kelly’s paid appearances, still lists him on its website. The company recently updated his biography to reflect Kelly’s Senate run — a move Kelly did not authorize, and asked the website to remove after The Intercept brought it to the attention of his campaign. Keppler has since taken the update down.
Asked if Kelly would continue giving paid speeches, Peters said Kelly “has made some previous commitments that he will fulfill, but is not taking any additional engagements.”
Progressive activists say that platform is squarely at odds with his track record as keynote speaker at several major health insurance and financial service industry conferences over the past decade.
Kelly’s campaign says that giving paid corporate speeches to industry giants doesn’t preclude him from pursuing policies that support the middle class or that inherently oppose major financial interests. They say the content of his speeches was largely about his experience as an astronaut, and that it paid the bills when his wife, former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, was recovering from an assassination attempt. But progressive activists close to the race and Rep. Ruben Gallego, who’s mulling a primary challenge against Kelly, disagree. Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva has already endorsed Gallego, saying he wants him to run.
“It’s kind of weird, though, to say you’re not taking corporate PAC money, but then also directly taking corporate PAC money into your personal account,” Gallego said in an interview with The Intercept. “I don’t understand why even take that pledge if you’re not personally living that.” Gallego told The Intercept he’d make a final decision about whether or not to run by the end of March.
The Arizona representative said his office hasn’t yet discussed whether or not he’d take corporate PAC donations. “We’re focusing on doing our basic research on viability, things like that,” Gallego told The Intercept. Gallego has taken $763,489 in corporate PAC money over his career.
Kelly has been called a “Republican nightmare” given his veteran status, his ties to the law enforcement community, and the residual affection for him as Giffords’s husband. But Gallego also poses a threat, progressive activists argued to The Intercept. He’s a veteran, he’s Latino, and he’s a member of the progressive caucus leadership. And he has a voting record constituents can look to, one that underscores his commitment to progressive policies like Medicare for All and raising the federal minimum wage.
“That primary will be a barnburner,” political analyst Chris Herstam told local NBC host Brahm Resnik during an interview with the station’s Arizona affiliate. Kelly would be “a very strong candidate,” Herstam said, but cautioned that Gallego “is very progressive, [and] has taken a strong stand against Donald Trump. And that plays well in a Democratic primary these days.”
Either candidate, though, Herstam said, would win against incumbent Sen. Martha McSally. “I personally believe though that whoever wins the Democratic primary, whether it’s Kelly or Ruben Gallego, they’re gonna defeat Martha McSally because she has embraced, and is connected at the hip, with the worst president in U.S. history.”
But Lorna Romero, former campaign spokesperson for the late Sen. John McCain and a onetime adviser to former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, thinks otherwise. “I disagree with the statement that if Ruben Gallego gets out of the primary, he’s single-handedly going to defeat Martha McSally,” Romero told Resnik. She’s executive director of Chamber Business News, part of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “I don’t think the state, statewide, is as progressive as Ruben Gallego,” she said.
“We see Ruben Gallego as both the more electable and the more transformational potential senator in Arizona,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told The Intercept. “He can build a big tent coalition that attracts veterans, young people, the Latino community, white-collar and blue-collar people all at once. Just based on who he is and his record of fighting for so many communities over time,” Green said. “Mark Kelly would speak to a much more limited set of people.”
“But also,” Green continued, “Donald Trump won in part by railing against Wall Street speeches and corporate trade deals and corruption. And while he was lying about all of that, he tapped into a very real desire by voters to shake up the system, not have people who are cozy with corporate insiders and political insiders,” Green said. “And that would be one of the biggest differentiators between Ruben Gallego and Mark Kelly.”
The race poses an opportunity for Democrats to turn both of Arizona’s Senate seats blue for the first time in over 60 years, going back to before Barry Goldwater served in the Senate. Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign is widely credited as the spark for the conservative revival that shapes today’s politics.
If a primary does take place, the winner would face McSally, who’s in a particularly vulnerable spot; she was appointed to replace Sen. Jon Kyl, who filled the seat temporarily after McCain’s death. But that was after she’d already lost her bid to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Jeff Flake to Kyrsten Sinema, the state’s first Democratic senator since 1995.
But Kelly will have to grapple with the mixed messaging his past speaking engagements sends to voters.
In October, Kelly was the keynote speaker at a national expo for Innovatix and Essena, health care group purchasing organizations that help health care providers save money by negotiating the costs of drugs and services and procuring contracts with manufacturers and distributors.
In May, Kelly and Giffords addressed the annual conference for Experian, a credit reporting agency. And in March, he delivered the keynote address to the annual conference of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons.
In March, Kelly was also the keynote speaker at the spring summit for the Association for Financial Technology in Ojai, California, where he addressed executives from hedge funds and private equity firms. The group, according to AFT’s website, “is industry’s premier resource for networking and professional development for those companies and executives serving U.S. financial institutions, including banks, credit unions, lenders and payment companies.”
In 2017, he and his brother, Scott, were the keynote speakers at the annual forum for Optum, a $100 billion subsidiary of UnitedHealth, the country’s largest health insurance company. Earlier that year, he and Scott spoke at the Cayman Alternative Investment Summit in the Cayman Islands. An event also attended heavily by hedge fund and private equity executives, the summit is “a not-for-profit event dedicated to supporting financial services both in the Cayman Islands and internationally.”
In 2016, Kelly and his brother addressed the annual convention of the Mortgage Bankers Association in Boston, where Megyn Kelly was the keynote speaker. Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Quicken Loans were among the event’s sponsors. He also spoke at the group’s 2014 National Mortgage Servicing Conference in Orlando.
He and his brother gave the keynote address at the 2016 annual ThoughtSpot conference hosted by Good Neighbor Pharmacy and AmerisourceBergen, a pharmaceutical company currently under federal investigation for its relation to opioids and drug diversion.
Also in 2015, Kelly and Giffords addressed the Million Dollar Round Table’s annual meeting in New Orleans. That event was sponsored by MetLife. MDRT calls itself “the premiere association of financial professionals” and serves as a network for “the world’s leading life insurance and financial services professionals.” The same year, Kelly was the keynote speaker at the annual Intercompany Long Term Care Insurance Conference in Colorado Springs.
In 2014, Kelly was the keynote speaker at the Jefferies Financial Group’s Global Consumer Conference in Nantucket. Jefferies is a multi–billion-dollar company that describes itself as “a diversified financial services company engaged in investment banking and capital markets, asset management and direct investing,” offering “a full range of investment banking, equities, fixed income, asset and wealth management products and services.” He also spoke that year alongside Giffords and former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, at the Fiserv Conference in Orlando, which is dedicated to “the areas impacting financial services and their implications for the future.”
He was a keynote speaker at the 2012 annual forum for members of PSCU Financial Services, the country’s “largest credit union service organization.” The same year, he spoke at the Drug Trend Symposium in Orlando, hosted by Medco/Express Scripts. Also in 2012, he was the keynote speaker at the TriZetto Payer Conference in Phoenix, where presenters and organizers focused on “the key challenges facing healthcare organizations today.” TriZetto says it helps “physicians, hospitals and health systems simplify business processes and get accurate payments quickly.”
In 2011, he addressed the annual Schwab Advisor Services Impact conference in San Francisco.
Kelly’s campaign says his policy goals should speak louder than his record of corporate speaking engagements. But Kelly has also been cautious on a number of progressive policy priorities, including single-payer health care and the Green New Deal.
“Mark refuses to accept campaign donations from corporate PACs, and he is humbled by the more than 30,000 contributions he’s received as he builds his grassroots campaign across Arizona,” Peters told The Intercept in a statement.
Asked if Kelly supports the Green New Deal, Jacobs pointed to his mention of climate change in speeches and in his launch video, arguing that Kelly has addressed the issue more vocally than other Senate candidates in the state. “As an engineer and astronaut Mark has a deep appreciation for the imminent threat climate change poses to Arizona and all of humanity,” Jacobs said in a statement to The Intercept. “Mark supports bold, science-based solutions to address the root causes of climate change.”
Asked if he supports a single-payer health care system, Peters said, “Mark believes health care is a right for every American and supports universal coverage.”