The largest donor to the super PAC backing centrist Democratic candidate Shontel Brown in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District special election is an oil and gas executive who belongs to a billionaire family. Activists worry the donations could compromise Brown’s support for progressive climate policy.
Stacy Schusterman, heir and chair of Samson Energy, a fossil fuel company that owns at least 11 oil and gas wells in Wyoming, donated $1.55 million to Democratic Majority for Israel in 2019 and 2020, a super PAC that has in turn spent over $660,000 on ads supporting Brown and attacking her Democratic primary opponent Nina Turner, according to an Intercept review of federal campaign finance records. Schusterman is the super PAC’s largest individual donor.
Schusterman’s fortune comes from a much larger oil and gas business. Her father, Charles Schusterman, founded Samson Investment in 1971 in Tulsa, and the family owned it for 40 years until they sold it to the private equity megafirm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts for $7.2 billion in 2011, earning the family a huge windfall. Charles died in 2000; his wife (and Stacy’s mother) Lynn is worth $3.4 billion.
After the sale, Stacy Schusterman started the much smaller Samson Energy from her father’s fortune, investing in oil wells in Louisiana, Texas, and Wyoming. The wells Samson Energy has drilled in Wyoming have been a source of controversy as they are very close to residential areas in Cheyenne, the state’s largest city. Wayne Lax, vice president of the Cheyenne Area Landowner’s Coalition, told Wyoming Public Media in December 2019, “At some point, common sense needs to take over and large, dangerous industrial developments just weren’t meant to go into this densely populated a residential area.”
She’s also been an avid supporter of DMFI super PAC. The super PAC, which formally endorsed Brown in February, has spent millions going after other progressive candidates in previous elections. The group spent $1.4 million attacking Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary and an additional $1.5 million during that election cycle to support moderate Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel and attack his progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman. (Bowman went on to win that election.) Schusterman donated $250,000 to DMFI as the group was aggressively spending against Bowman, and $1 million in December 2019 — right before they launched aggressive attack ads against Sanders; her donations were not publicly available until after the primary. Schusterman donated an additional $300,000 to DMFI on December 18, 2020.
While Democratic Majority for Israel describes itself as working to “maintain and strengthen support for Israel among Democratic leaders including presidential and congressional candidates,” much of the group’s ad spending has not focused on a candidate’s support for Israel and has instead launched various attacks on candidates perceived to be more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
Evan Weber, a spokesperson for the youth-driven climate organization Sunrise Movement, which has endorsed Turner, panned DMFI’s role in the primary. “DMFI has shown time and time again that it’s nothing more than a front group for corporate, big-moneyed interests who will go to any lengths to stop progressives, especially progressive women of color, from having more power in our society,” Weber said. “Nina Turner is a backer of the Green New Deal and a signer of the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. Shontel Brown is getting backed by a super PAC loaded up with dirty oil & gas money. The choice for voters in Ohio’s 11th district couldn’t be more clear.”
Craig Holman, an ethics lobbyist at progressive watchdog Public Citizen, said the outside spending by DMFI was upending the race. “Nina Turner had been enjoying a comfortable lead for Congress in this Ohio district, reflecting her constituents’ support for progressive policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal,” Holman said. “But that lead has been fading as the Democratic Majority for Israel super PAC has raised huge amounts of special interest money from outside the district and is spending much of that money late in the election cycle targeting Turner.”
Oil and gas executives like Schusterman can use their funding as a way to build relationships with members of Congress, Holman said, adding that candidates “know where that money is coming from and they know how it’s being used to promote them. And it’s pretty hard to turn your back on that.”
Schusterman’s involvement in the congressional race through DMFI has left some skeptical that Brown will in fact advocate for a Green New Deal once in Congress. The Green New Deal finances a transformation of infrastructure in the U.S. that would significantly reduce fossil fuel consumption, impacting the profits of oil and gas companies like Schusterman’s Samson Energy.
While Brown, a member of the Cuyahoga County Council, has said she supports the “principles” of a Green New Deal, she has not signed on to the popular “No Fossil Fuel Money” pledge that was signed by Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris in the 2020 presidential primaries. Turner, a former Ohio state senator, has supported the Green New Deal and signed the pledge. Turner has been endorsed by a number of notable progressives, including Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Brown did tell the Wall Street Journal in March that she would vote for the Green New Deal if it came up for a vote, but appears to not have made environmental issues a central focus of her campaign, except for an environmental justice forum she participated in in April.
Some of Brown’s notable backers have deep ties to fossil fuel interests. Brown’s most prominent supporter, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, received $228,000 from electrical utility interests in 2019 and 2020, and $62,500 from oil and gas interests, according to OpenSecrets. (Electrical utilities are still very fossil fuel-heavy, with about 80 percent of U.S. electricity coming from fossil fuel sources.) Another one of Brown’s endorsers, newly minted Louisiana Rep. Troy Carter, was removed from the No Fossil Fuel pledge website after he repeatedly accepted campaign contributions from fossil fuel interests. Hillary Clinton, who has also endorsed Brown, helped lead the push for shale gas while she was secretary of state, according to Mother Jones. Rep. Marc Veasey of Texas, another Brown endorser, was the fifth highest recipient of oil and gas money among congressional Democrats in 2019-2020.
Brown’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Schusterman, for her part, did not say what her position was on the Green New Deal, but said through a spokesperson that she supported President Joe Biden’s climate agenda and had made “investments” in “clean tech” and “efforts to protect the environment.” The spokesperson said, “Stacy’s support for DMFI, and the candidates it endorses, is based on her commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and the shared values and interests of these two democratic allies.” The spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Schusterman’s oil wells near residential areas in Wyoming.
A spokesperson for Democratic Majority for Israel said they strongly support the Paris climate accord and Biden’s climate efforts. They declined to say whether the group supports the Green New Deal.