The presidential campaign of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has taken the unusual step of sending its national policy director, Sonal Shah, on the road. For the past several months, she has been headlining high-dollar fundraisers across the country, according to a slew of invitations obtained from a variety of sources.
It’s common for campaigns that rely on wealthy donors to lean on surrogates and senior officials to buttress their fundraising operations, but sending the aide in charge of crafting policy on a tour of American mansions is an unusual approach and wipes out the line between policymaking and solicitation of campaign contributions. Almost all of the invitations typically tout the role of Shah, a veteran of both Google and Goldman Sachs, as the campaign’s national policy director.
The news of Shah’s intimate involvement in Buttigieg’s fundraising comes as his campaign is under fire from both Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for his reliance on wealthy donors to power his campaign (see, especially, the wine cave). Buttigieg has argued that Democrats would be fighting with one hand tied behind their backs if they refused the support of the superrich. But Buttigieg is not just a passive recipient of big money; he devotes a significant amount of time and energy to soliciting it — in part by putting his chief policy adviser in the room with high-dollar donors.
Sanders and Warren have argued that relying on wealthy donors blunts the ability of Democrats to go directly after President Donald Trump’s corruption. On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Warren argued that “the coalition of billionaires is not exactly what’s going carry us over the top.”
“Last count, he has about 40 billionaires who are contributing to his campaign, the CEOs of the large pharmaceutical industries, the insurance companies, and so forth,” Sanders told “Face the Nation,” referring to Buttigieg. “It matters enormously. That is precisely the problem with American politics.”
The Buttigieg campaign has been sensitive to the charge that he is overly reliant on big money, and has urged its small-dollar donors to give in increasingly small numbers to drive down the . average contribution amount. Shah’s months-long road trip is another indication, however, of just how significant high-dollar giving is to his campaign.
In a statement from spokesperson Sean Savett, the campaign did not directly address Shah’s close involvement in fundraising effort.
We are proud that more than 800,000 Americans have donated to our campaign and the only promise that any of them will ever get is that Pete will use their donations to defeat Donald Trump. We don’t agree with all of our supporters on every issue and what guides our policies is what’s best for America. Pete is from a town that was ravaged by corporate greed and he’s proposed a bold, progressive agenda, which includes holding bad actors accountable and paying for our plans with higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans who can afford it. The stakes in this election are clear and stark and we can’t go into this fight with one hand tied behind our backs. That’s why whether you can give $3 or $300, whether you are a Democrat, Independent or Republican, we welcome you to our campaign and won’t turn you away if you’re ready to help rid us of Donald Trump.
Shah’s background positions her well to connect with the high-net-worth individuals within the Democratic Party that are powering Buttigieg’s bid and are concerned about income inequality, climate change, health disparities, or other social inequities. While she was a top official at both Goldman Sachs and Google before joining the Obama administration — spanning the two dominant elements of the corporate wing of the party, Wall Street and Silicon Valley — she worked in the divisions of those firms publicly dedicated to doing social good. At Goldman, she designed environmental strategy. At Google, she did global development. More recently, she became founding executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation.
The attempt to marshal corporate resources in the service of society is in line with the Buttigieg approach to economic policy and politics, which aims to leave the system largely untouched but divert some resources toward charitable efforts and social and technological innovation.
The high-dollar fundraisers are often organized around lofty themes, such as the one scheduled for February 21: a “conversation about economic equity and justice” at an undisclosed Baltimore location. Shah’s co-host that evening will be Chike Aguh, billed on the invite as the campaign’s policy adviser responsible for its Douglass Plan and the “Future of Work.” The Douglass Plan is the campaign’s effort at outreach to the black community and was rolled out with claims of support from high-profile black leaders in South Carolina who had told the campaign that they did not want to be listed as endorsers.
The earliest invite obtained by The Intercept dates to October 2, and there have been at least 22 additional events held since then, with Shah serving either as solo host or, occasionally, co-hosting with another Buttigieg aide. Top-level access to the events costs a maximum contribution of $2,800.
All told, Shah has been meeting with high-level donors on at least a weekly basis throughout the fall and winter, whether for pancakes in Newton; cocktails in Tulsa, Austin, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, or Manhattan; lunch in Chicago; or video calls with Shah that investors can buy their way into.
The Buttigieg campaign is in the habit of referring to donations as “investments.” The RSVP for many of the fundraisers goes to the email address [email protected]. The fundraising team’s titles similarly suggest that there is a return for money invested in the campaign. Tom Strong-Grinsell, for instance, is the campaign’s “regional investment director,” handling New York. Swati Mylavarapu, a Silicon Valley tech executive and startup investor, is the campaign’s “national investment chair.” Anthony Mercurio, a Hillary Clinton alum, is “national investment director.” (Mylavarapu and Shah joined forces for at least one San Francisco fundraiser, a January 26 event called “Chefs for Pete,” with food by chef Alice Waters.)
The link between “investing” in a campaign and the policy it advocates for is precisely the argument Sanders has made against Buttigieg. “When you have the heads of large pharmaceutical companies contributing to your campaign, you are not going to aggressively deal with the fact that, in some cases, we pay 10 times for the same exact drugs as our friends in Canada or in Europe pay. You’re not going to take on the collusion and the corruption of the drug companies who are ripping us off.”