The most revealing passage of the Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles on Thursday started when Sen. Elizabeth Warren explained why she decided to forgo private fundraising events with wealthy donors and rely instead on small-dollar donations from supporters.
Within minutes, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who seemed personally affronted by the contrast Warren set up with campaigns like his, which rely on such events, found himself trapped into defending a system of campaign finance that gives influence to moneyed donors. It is the candidate, he suggested, that is corruptible — not the money that’s corrupting.
“I made the decision, when I decided to run, not to do business as usual. And now, I’m crowding in on a hundred thousand selfies,” Warren said at the start of the exchange. “That’s a hundred thousand hugs and handshakes and stories — stories from people who are struggling with student loan debt, stories from people who can’t pay their medical bills, stories from people who can’t find child care.”
People that can put down $5,000 to have a picture taken don't have the same priorities as people who are struggling with student loan debt or to pay off medical debt.— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) December 20, 2019
I won’t let them drown out the voices of everyone else—not in my campaign, not in my White House. #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/zxBnl7mpXx
Those hours she spends after campaign events meeting and posing for photographs with everyone who waits to see her, Warren explained, mean that she is not using that time to sell access to wealthy donors at closed-door fundraisers. “People who can put up $5,000 or more in order to have a picture taken, in order to have a conversation and in order maybe to be considered to be an ambassador,” Warren said, should not have more access to government officials than people with less money.
Buttigieg, who dined on Sunday in what The Associated Press described as the wine cave of a billionaire couple in Napa Valley that “boast a chandelier with 1,500 Swarovski crystals, an onyx banquet table to reflect its luminescence and bottles of cabernet sauvignon that sell for as much as $900,” raised his hand to respond.
“I can’t help but feel that might have been directed at me,” he began. He then cast the decision to spend time with wealthy donors as necessary to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020. Warren, however, held up her campaign as proof that it was not necessary to do so to compete in the Democratic primary, and contrasted her approach to one that gives outsized influence to people with wine caves.
“The mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave, full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine. Think about who comes to that,” she said. “He had promised that every fundraiser he would do would be open-door, but this one was closed-door.”
“We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren said. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”
Buttigieg tried to steer the conversation away from the private access he grants wealthy donors into a discussion of the fact that he is not personally wealthy — wrongly implying that Warren’s decision to forgo closed-door fundraising was “a purity test,” or an attack on the rich, rather than a policy of not granting special access to big-money donors.
“You know, according to Forbes magazine, I’m literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire,” Buttigieg said. “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass. If I pledge — if I pledge never to be in the company of a progressive Democratic donor, I couldn’t be up here. Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine.”
“I do not sell access to my time,” Warren replied. “I don’t meet behind closed doors with big-dollar donors.”
“Look,” she continued. “I have taken one that ought to be an easy step for anyone here. I said to anyone who wants to donate to me, if you want to donate to me, that’s fine. But don’t come around later expecting to be named ambassador, because that’s what goes on in these high-dollar fundraisers. I said no, and I asked everybody on this stage to join me. This ought to be an easy step. And here’s the problem. If you can’t stand up and take the steps that are relatively easy, can’t stand up to the wealthy and well connected when it is relatively easy, when you are a candidate, then how can the American people believe you will stand up to the wealthy and well connected when you are president and it is really hard?”
Buttigieg then suggested that Warren was hypocritical because some of the money she began her presidential campaign with was raised from wealthy donors during her previous Senate campaign, before she decided not to “run a traditional campaign” for the presidency. Warren has cited the need to draw a clear contrast between her approach and Trump’s, whose campaign is awash in cash from wealthy donors raised at private events where photos with the president are available for a very large fee.
A short time later, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who also refuses to court big money donors, interjected with a hammer blow jibe, leveled at both Buttigieg and Joe Biden, the former vice president who also relies heavily on money raised at private events with wealthy donors.
“Now there’s a real competition going on up here,” Sanders said. “My good friend Joe, and he is a good friend, he’s received contributions from 44 billionaires. Pete on the other hand, is trailing, you only got 39 billionaires contributing. So Pete, we look forward to you — I know you’re an energetic guy and a competitive guy — to see if you can take on Joe on that issue.”
Joe Biden has 44 billionaire campaign contributors.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 20, 2019
Pete Buttigieg only has 39.
This is why 3 people own more wealth than the bottom half of America.
This is why Amazon and other major corporations pay $0 in federal income tax.
We need to get money out of politics. #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/Fw3f9qCUqK
Biden’s campaign allows a pool reporter to attend and make a record of each of his private fundraising events. Buttigieg had resisted following Biden’s lead for months and kept reporters out of his private events with big money donors until last week. Details about the wine cave were first leaked to The A.P. and photographs were posted on Instagram by a donor, where a reporter discovered and shared them.
Part of the Buttigieg fundraiser in the wine cave was attended by a pool reporter, Mike DeWald of KSRO, a Sonoma radio station, who transcribed the mayor’s remarks before a private dinner. But, Warren argued in a post-debate interview on CNN, because the reporter was not present at the subsequent private dinner for donors, “nobody knows what was said behind closed doors.”
Following the initial exchange on the debate stage, some political reporters and progressive Democrats were stunned that Buttigieg seemed to walk himself into a position where he was defending the influence of money on politics that most Democrats abhor.
The fact that Buttigieg is engaged in an outright defense of the modern American political fundraising system – which basically everyone agrees creates some corruption – is really amazing.— Kevin Robillard (@Robillard) December 20, 2019
If this is what Buttigieg thinks, why fight for campaign finance reform? If there’s no potential for corruption whats the point— Rachel Cohen (@rmc031) December 20, 2019
Pete's supreme assurance of his own purity led him to walk right into a full-throated defense of granting special access to millionaires and billionaires.— Adam Jentleson ??? (@AJentleson) December 20, 2019
After the debate, Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver fielded questions from reporters wearing a T-shirt that read “PetesWineCave.com.” The address redirects to a donation page for Sanders.
By the end of the night, Warren supporters eagerly embraced the meme that they had all paid $0 for pictures with her.
Correction: December 20, 2019, 11:50 a.m. EST
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Mayor Pete Buttigieg does not allow reporters to attend his private fundraising events. The Buttigieg campaign changed its policy last week and now allows a pool reporter to have limited access to events like the one in the wine cave.
Update: December 23, 2019, 1:35 p.m. EST
This article was updated to clarify that a pool reporter did have access to part of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s fundraising event in a Napa Valley wine cave this month. The reporter, Mike DeWald of KSRO radio, was present for a reception at which Buttigieg spoke and took questions. DeWald’s pool report made clear that he was not given access to the entire event.