It should have been easy to cast Glenn Youngkin, once the CEO of the financial behemoth Carlyle Group and now Virginia’s governor-elect, as a greedy private equity vampire. But when his opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, tried to pull it off in a debate, his attempt fell flat. “If you can trust me with your money, the rest of Virginia can trust me too,” Youngkin shot back, alluding to McAuliffe’s substantial investments in Carlyle. “It wasn’t any good investment, let me tell you that,” was all McAuliffe could muster in response.
Following the loss by McAuliffe, the establishment pick who sought to win his old job back after leaving the Virginia governorship in 2018, the next big test for the Democrats’ centrist wing is likely to be the primary contest to succeed outgoing Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. In the key swing state — which proved decisive in President Joe Biden’s election — centrists and progressives are preparing for a showdown between Rep. Conor Lamb, a House moderate and member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, an ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders who endorsed the Vermont independent for president in 2016. Lamb, who has few endorsements from major leaders but has earned the stamp of reliable Democratic groups like the Human Rights Campaign, does not seem shy to take up the centrist mantle. Days after McAuliffe’s loss, Lamb tweeted, “If you want a Senator who runs as a Socialist, feeds the GOP attack ads, & didn’t help with infrastructure, I’M NOT YOUR GUY.”
If you want a Senator who runs as a Socialist, feeds the GOP attack ads, & didn't help with infrastructure, I'M NOT YOUR GUY.
That's not how you beat Republicans. I know because I've actually done it & will again.
I'm a normal Democrat who supports jobs & wins elections. #PASen
— Conor Lamb (@ConorLambPA) November 8, 2021
But Lamb may find himself in a similar predicament as McAuliffe, trapped as an avatar of the Democratic party’s monied interests, having received over $100,000 in campaign contributions from PNC Bank executives and employees since his first congressional run in the 2018 cycle. Over $28,000 of that sum came from his father, a lobbyist and senior executive for the bank, and his wife, according to campaign finance records reviewed by The Intercept.
Lamb’s father, Thomas Lamb, has worked for Pittsburgh-based PNC since 1995, serving as a federal lobbyist for the bank from 2001 to 2011 and a state-level lobbyist from 2007 right up to today. With cash flowing from PNC bank executives to Conor Lamb’s campaign for U.S. Senate — $23,400 of which landed in the third quarter of this year, including two maximum contributions from PNC’s CEO, William S. Demchak — it seems likely that Lamb, as senator, would share his father’s pro-business perspective. In fact, upon his inauguration to the House of Representatives in 2018, the younger Lamb’s first vote in Congress bucked his own party and joined a majority of Republicans to exempt banks worth up to $10 billion in assets from the Dodd-Frank Act’s Volcker Rule, which prohibits banks from engaging in risky speculative trading. Lamb’s father, disclosure records reveal, had lobbied on the Dodd-Frank act.
“Conor was one of 78 House Democrats who voted for this bill — nearly half of the Caucus at the time, including Leader Hoyer, Whip Clyburn and Chairman Jeffries,” wrote Lamb’s campaign manager Abby Nassif-Murphy in a statement to The Intercept. “The bill applied to small community banks, not large banks like PNC, and Conor voted for it after listening to constituents at community banks in his district who had a common-sense case to make. Conor has also voted against legislation to relax regulations on large banks. This is just recycled Republican garbage that no one bought the first time and no one will buy now.”
Thomas Lamb’s role in his son’s political ascent has received minimal public scrutiny. In addition to lobbying for PNC — which he has represented in the state of Pennsylvania since 2007 — Thomas Lamb has served on several pro-business advocacy groups, including the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and the Committee for Economic Development. The latter group describes itself as a “business-led public policy center” run by “key executives of leading US companies” and promotes free-market policies favorable to business. (The Committee has itself received considerable funding from PNC.) Thomas Lamb did not respond to a request for comment.
Fetterman, Lamb’s leading primary opponent and previously the mayor of Braddock — a former steel town savaged by poverty — is unlikely to have many fans among the cufflinks crowd. Earlier this week, Fetterman joined striking teachers in Scranton, calling their current contract an “abomination.” The image of the towering, 6-foot-8-inch former college football player standing sentry over a crowd of union members is hard to miss and is one he’s sought to cultivate amid the recent spike in strike activity. Last month, Fetterman joined striking Kellogg’s workers at a cereal factory in East Hempfield Township. “They posted record earnings and have been able to be compensated for providing the critical food supply that they do, and the workers deserve a share of that,” Fetterman said.
Lamb, a former Marine and federal prosecutor, paid a visit to striking steelworkers in Harrison in April, but his language was more temperate, saying that he “respect[s] their right to go on strike” and calling on management to “respect the legal rights and demands of these workers and begin a negotiation.” (In the House, Lamb chairs the Congressional Steel Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators who “represent regions with steel manufacturers or care about the health of the American steel industry.”)
Fetterman, for his part, received one federal contribution of $1,000 from a PNC Bank employee in 2016 — but this cycle, his overall fundraising haul dwarfs Lamb’s. Fetterman has raised $9.3 million since January, whereas Lamb has raised $2.6 million over the same period. Commercial banks as well as securities and investments represent top industries supporting Lamb’s campaign, accounting for some $35,000 and $206,000 in contributions respectively, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets. By comparison, commercial banks did not account for a large enough share of contributions to Fetterman’s campaign to even appear on his list of top industry supporters, while securities and investment accounted for $41,000 in contributions.
However, like Lamb, Fetterman is also a beneficiary of his father’s support, having received over $45,000 from him in federal campaign contributions. Fetterman’s father, Karl Fetterman, is a small business owner, with Federal Election Commission data identifying him as an “insurance agent” who works at Kling Bros. Insurance LLC. Insurance appears among Fetterman’s top industry supporters, representing some $36,000 in campaign contributions.
The vast majority of Fetterman’s campaign contributions come from small-dollar donors, whereas the reverse is true of Lamb. 68 percent of Fetterman’s campaign contributions came from small individual contributors versus 8 percent for Lamb, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.
Love or hate Lamb’s business-friendly brand of politics, you can’t say he isn’t being candid about them. “Some of the focus on the billionaires and the ultra-wealthy that people are putting in the news right now — it’s fine, it’s valid, it’s not enough to fund everything we want to do,” Lamb said last month, in reference to the heated debate over how to fund Biden’s signature Build Back Better legislation. “Well, the combined cost of everything that Democrats are proposing to do right now goes far beyond what billionaires are ever going to realistically pay.”
Correction: November 16, 2021
This story has been updated to clarify that Conor Lamb has received over $100,000 in campaign contributions from employees and executives for PNC Bank, not the bank itself.