Posted: Feb. 10, 2012
A LITTLE SIDE ACTION
By Celia Cohen
Jack Markell has a little action going on the side for some political high-rollers. He has a way for them to skirt the state's individual contribution limits, as he runs for another term as Delaware's Democratic governor.
Markell has a PAC, or political action committee, called The Committee for a Better Future. The name is so vague, it all but says, anyone who has to ask what it is, does not need to know about it.
Truth in advertising, it ought to be called JackPAC.
This is for the serious players, coming in through the back door. Money can arrive in $10,000 chunks, some of it from surprising contributors, including Republicans and a branch of Stoltz real estate. Who knew?
In the five years since Markell turned his attention from treasurer to governor, JackPAC has collected almost $222,000, according to its financial disclosure reports from 2007 through 2011. The amount pales next to the money for "Markell for Delaware," the official campaign organization that financed a $4 million run in 2008 and banked $1.4 million so far for 2012, but still.
JackPAC was one way that Markell ramped up for the 2008 election, a wild ride involving a tumultuous and bittersweet primary that ultimately made him the governor and spun John Carney into the state's lone congressional seat two years thereafter.
It is all perfectly, cold-bloodedly legal. Under state law, a statewide candidate cannot accept individual contributions of more than $1,200 per election, but a candidate's PAC can take contributions in unlimited amounts. Unlimited means unlimited.
A PAC can function as an auxiliary campaign account, although it does have some restrictions on how it can spend its money. A candidate who controls a PAC can use it to pay for all manner of activities, except for advertising that directly champions the candidate.
JackPAC gave a lot of its money to other Democrats, trying to build loyalty to him and his causes. The contributions had to comply with the customary legal limits, giving no more than $1,200 in a statewide race and $600 in a local one.
For example, at one point JackPAC gave $1,200 to Matt Denn, the fellow Democrat running for lieutenant governor, and $600 to Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic majority leader in the state House of Representatives.
Although both the getting and the giving can accrue to Markell's credit, JackPAC is portrayed as having a larger mission.
"The purpose of The Committee For a Better Future has been and remains to assist good people in serving in public office," said Brian Selander, the governor's chief strategy officer who ran JackPAC in the time between the primary and the inauguration.
The top giver to JackPAC was Don Puglisi, once a business professor who left the University of Delaware to start a financial consulting firm in Newark. In total he was a $50,000 contributor, notable not only for his generosity but for the connections that make sense only in Delaware.
Puglisi taught with Markell's late father at the university. His firm happens to be the workplace for Greg Lavelle, the House Republican minority leader.
Republicans have helped out JackPAC, too. There was David Marvin, along with his wife Nancy, giving $35,000. Marvin, who runs an investment firm and used to manage the pension fund at DuPont, served with Markell for 10 years on the Cash Management Policy Board, overseeing the state's investments, while Markell was the treasurer.
There were also Gerret and Tatiana Copeland, contributing $10,000. Gerret is a du Pont. Tanya is the great-niece of Sergei Rachmaninoff. They are great friends of the arts in Delaware, as are the governor and first lady.
"The Republican Party in Delaware isn't [much of a political force.] It doesn't seem to be able to come up with a good, viable candidate," Gerret Copeland said. "Jack is fiscally a moderate. I think he's doing a very, very good job getting the state back together. Another reason we like him is he and Carla are big backers of the arts."
Like the contributions from Republicans, others did not necessarily make sense at first glance -- like the one for $10,000 from Rock River Real Estate. What was that?
Rock River, as Selander acknowledged, was part of Stoltz Real Estate Partners. The contribution arrived in October 2008 in the early days of the controversy that rocked New Castle County with the developer's expansive proposals for Barley Mill Plaza and Greenville Center.
Citizens for Responsible Growth in New Castle County, an organization that fought to persuade Stoltz to scale back its plans, appealed to the Markell administration to intervene but got nowhere. They chalked it up to the governor's virtually single-minded commitment to bring in jobs.
"It was a county issue," Selander said.
More recently, JackPAC took in $19,000 collectively from the soft drink industry, including Coca Cola and PepsiCo. The contributions arrived in 2011, the year after Delaware repealed the bottle bill and its five-cent-per-bottle deposit, so despised by the beverage business.
Coincidence, Selander said. Rather, the soft drink people contributed once they got to know Markell while he chaired the Democratic Governors Association during the 2010 campaign season.
JackPAC's activities reflected the political reality when he was locked in combat with Carney for the nomination for governor. Carney had the Democratic Party endorsement, so Markell went outside and buried his spending in JackPAC.
It paid almost $20,000 for what Selander described as "canvassing and door-knocking" to Citizens Services Inc. of New Orleans. That would be an associate of ACORN, the defunct community organization that Republicans love to hate.
What a difference a primary can make. Look what it meant for Timothy Brown and Terence Brown, whose family is part owners of Murphy Marine Services at the Wilmington port. They were Carney backers, giving $20,000 to the Democratic Party before the primary, while it was furiously trying to beat Markell. Afterwards, they turned around and sent $10,000 to JackPAC.
"We're good loyal Democrats," said Darrell Baker, a lawyer who represents Murphy Marine.
The primary made a difference for Selander himself. Once it was done, he took over JackPAC and got paid $30,000 for it.
At the end of 2011, JackPAC had $45,000 available. Needless to say, the election year is young and the committee primed for a better future.