When Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney campaigned in Colorado earlier this month, he probably ought to have swung through Aspen to thank some of his high-dollar supporters. Of the nearly $37 million raised by the super PAC supporting Romney, Restore Our Future, over $4.85 million — 13 percent of the total — came from people who own luxury homes in Pitkin County.
The vast majority of that sum came in large amounts from very wealthy second-home owners, many of them financial industry executives, according to a review of public records, online databases, and a recent New York Times feature based on Federal Election Commission data that identified funders of super PACs, a new breed of political action committee.
The analysis, by Aspen Journalism, did not necessarily capture every donation by every property owner, so it’s likely to be an even higher sum.
Two of the gifts came in $1 million chunks from hedge fund managers, another million from former Romney co-workers, and another million dollars was split between an individual and the energy company he controls.
Restore Our Future, which according to the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation is operated by a former Romney staffer and supporters, has far outraised and outspent every other super PAC. It has nearly three times as much money in its coffers as the next largest candidate-supporting super PAC, Winning Our Future, which supports fellow Republican Newt Gingrich. It has more than eight times as much as the most well-funded liberal super PAC, Priorities USA Action, which supports President Obama.
Restore Our Future has spent $25.5 million dollars through the end of January 2012 (the latest date for which data is available), and is credited with helping to topple primary opponent Gingrich from potential frontrunner status through intensive media campaigns in primary states. Winning Our Future has spent the next largest amount, $12.5 million, according to a database on OpenSecrets.org, a website that tracks campaign contributions and lobbying data.
Super PACs are a new phenomenon in this presidential election cycle. The limit to donate to individual campaigns is $2,500, but a pair of 2010 Supreme Court decisions paved the way for unlimited donations from individuals, corporations, and unions to these entities that are now called super PACs.
According to OpenSecrets.org, people who list their addresses in Aspen and Snowmass Village have given a total of $493,000 to individual campaigns so far in the 2012 election cycle. That’s about 10 times less than the amount the pro-Romney super PAC has received from just eight wealthy owners of luxury properties in the Aspen area.
Varying opinions exist on the impact these large sums of money will have.
“This is the first presidential election in which we’ve seen super PACs, so it will be an interesting thing to watch,” said Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which publishes the OpenSecrets.org website. “Will there be payback for some of these people? Will favors be called in? Because it’s not unusual to see a person who has raised a lot of money get good positions.”
A candidate shouldn’t be judged by the size of his donors, said Pitkin County Republican party chair Frieda Wallison. It simply means that that person, whatever his or her personal wealth, happens to support that candidate.
“Is any of this good or bad for democracy? I’m astounded by the numbers myself,” said Wallison, who pointed to the legal battle from which super PAcs arose. “I think it’s the byproduct of what you do when you try to put a clamp on what people are giving.”
GOP Washington strategist and Aspen homeowner Fred Malek told NPR’s "All Things Considered" last week that there’s nothing wrong with asking big donors to keep on giving.
“I don’t see it as a problem at all,” Malek said in the radio interview.
But some disagree.
“The Citizens United decision is one of the most horrific decisions of the last few years of the Supreme Court, and as a result, it is forcing huge amounts of money into the political system,” said Laura Lauder, an Aspen second-home owner who gave $50,000 to a pro-Democratic super PAC. “And in order to enable us to fight fairly, we have to play within the existing system. But I would advocate huge campaign finance reform legislation that would really dramatically reduce the amount of money in politics.”
Who’s giving to Romney?
Of the seven million-dollar donors to Restore Our Future, two have second homes in the Aspen area.
John Paulson, a billionaire hedge fund manager who founded and runs New York-based Paulson & Co., made local headlines in 2010 when he bought an estate on McLain Flats for $24.5 million. The sum paid for the 12,500-square-foot home on eight acres was one of the largest prices ever paid for a single-family home in the Aspen area. Paulson made billions in 2007 betting against the subprime mortgage sector.
Paulson personally gave Romney $2,500 in August 2011, around the same time he reportedly hosted an event for the candidate in his home in the Hamptons. He has also supported other Republican candidates in this election cycle. In the 2010 elections, he also gave money to some Democratic politicians and committees.
Another hedge fund manager, Paul E. Singer, gave Restore Our Future $1 million in October 2011. Singer, the founder and CEO of Elliott Management in New York, which specializes in distressed debt investing, owns two adjoining homes in the Two Creeks neighborhood of Snowmass Village worth $9.4 million and $8.9 million, according to the Pitkin County assessor.
Singer was a major sponsor of the 2011 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, which brings disabled veterans to Snowmass for a week of winter sports and other recreational opportunities.
Bill Koch, a Florida billionaire who founded the energy development holding company Oxbow Carbon, is another major pro-Romney super PAC donor. Koch, who has a penchant for the Old West, owns $50 million worth of property in the Castle Creek valley, including the former Elk Mountain Lodge, which he converted to his private home. Koch gave $250,000 to Restore Our Future, and Oxbow, which runs a coal mine near Paonia, gave $750,000.
One of Oxbow’s firms, Gunnison Energy Corp., recently settled an anti-trust lawsuit for colluding with another firm on energy leases in Gunnison County.
In an entirely separate legal matter, Koch is one of the plaintiffs suing the city of Aspen for trying to develop hydropower on the lower part of Castle Creek. He also founded a nonprofit to fund guardrails along Castle Creek Road, reportedly because he has children approaching driving age.
According to OpenSecrets.org, Koch has a history of giving to Republican candidates and causes, and has made some large donations to Republican committees. He has also occasionally given to Democratic candidates and committees. His brothers, David and Charles Koch, who also own homes in Aspen, are major Tea Party funders. Although they have not yet donated to any super PACs, they have pledged to put up $60 million to defeat Obama, according to news reports.
A couple with professional connections to Romney who are new Aspen homeowners also gave $1 million to Restore Our Future. Paul and Sandra Edgerley paid $19.5 million for a new mansion in Starwood in February 2011; each gave $500,000 to the Romney-affiliated super PAC in May 2011.
Paul Edgerley is a managing director of Bain Capital, the Boston-based private equity firm that Romney co-founded and where the two worked together for about a decade. Sandra Edgerley also used to work at Bain. The Edgerleys each also gave Romney $2,500 last May, and Paul Edgerley supported him financially while he was making a run at the Republican nomination in 2008, and then gave money to the eventual nominee, John McCain.
A man who has seen his company’s holdings in Snowmass Village diminish significantly is also a Romney supporter. Stephen Ross is CEO of the Related Companies of New York, which owned Snowmass Base Village but defaulted on a $520 million loan from a group of European banks. The banks acquired the property through a foreclosure sale in November 2011, and Ross gave $100,000 to Restore Our Future one month later.
Ross, who made a candidate contribution of $2,500 to Romney in April 2011, also went on CNBC to make his case for supporting Romney, and hosted a fundraiser at his Florida home in January. That same day, Related President Jeff Blau donated $2,500 to the Romney campaign. Ross has for the most part supported Republican candidates and committees, according to OpenSecrets.org. Related still owns property in Snowmass’ other two commercial nodes, the Snowmass Center and Snowmass Mall.
Steven A. Webster, another private equity investor, who owns a $5.7 million home on Red Mountain with his wife Linda, gave $500,000 to Restore Our Future in 2011. Webster co-founded Avista Capital Partners in Houston, which specializes in private equity investments in growth-oriented energy companies, among others.
And finally, Los Angeles real estate developer Geoffrey H. Palmer gave the pro-Romney super PAC $250,000. Palmer, whose firm owns more than 8,000 properties in southern California, owns a Red Mountain home worth $18.3 million.
Romney was the winner of the Pitkin County Republican precinct caucuses held in early February, and carried 16 of 64 Colorado counties, but lost the state to Rick Santorum. The counties he did carry tended to be Denver suburbs and some of the wealthier counties outside of that area, said Wallison, chair of the Pitkin County Republicans. But, she doesn’t think there’s a correlation between Romney’s local political win and the campaign support he enjoys through super PACs.
“Our Republican voters tend to be a very diverse group of people who are not by and large of that wealthy category,” said Wallison. “The story is that the super PAC supporting Romney is large and active, and that large donations are coming from a limited number of people in the Aspen area.”
Wallison suggested that in the next few cycles of super PAC reporting, and especially after the Republican primary has concluded, “you might see the same thing on the Democratic side.”
Other super PAC donations
Not all donations from Aspen-area property owners were made to the super PAC supporting Romney. Historically a more liberal electorate, Aspen also has Democratic-leaning second-home owners. Jim Crown, whose family owns the Aspen Skiing Co., was the chair of Obama’s Illinois fundraising campaign in 2008, and he and his wife Paula have recently hosted Michelle Obama in Aspen.
On the other hand, Susan Crown (Jim’s sister), who also has an Aspen home, has been fundraising for Romney in the Crowns’ native Chicago. Susan Crown, who also hasn’t shown up yet on super PAC donor lists, hosted a fundraiser in October offering bundlers who would raise $25,000 a private dinner with Romney.
The main pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, has no obvious supporters with Aspen ties, according to our research.
That super PAC, which was only recently — and controversially —endorsed by Obama, has so far raised $4.5 million and spent $612,000. Priorities USA Action has just 13 donors as of the latest filing, according to The New York Times, the most well known being film moguls Jeffrey Katzenberg ($2 million) and Steven Spielberg ($100,000) — although comedian Bill Maher has pledged to give $1 million, according to The Associated Press.
Two local donors have given to American Bridge 21st Century, a “Democratic-leaning” super PAC with no known candidate ties, according to The New York Times.
Peter B. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance Company, was one of three individual donors who gave $200,000. Lewis and his family own multiple properties in Aspen’s West End; Lewis’ two properties are valued at a combined $8.4 million. The family, which includes sons Jonathan and Adam, bought the University of Colorado’s Given Institute last year for $13.8 million and tore it down to make way for a single-family home.
Laura H. Lauder, a partner at venture capital firm Lauder Partners LLC, gave $50,000 to American Bridge. Lauder and her husband Gary, grandson of cosmetics titan Estée Lauder and co-creator of the Aspen Institute’s Socrates Society, own a home in Aspen's West End valued at $14 million.
David Bonderman, billionaire founding partner of private equity giant TPG Capital, gave $35,000 to Majority PAC, which has raised $2.5 million through the end of 2011. Majority PAC was established, according to The New York Times, to support Democratic senators and candidates. Bonderman and his wife Laurie Michaels, who gave $40,000, own a property in Wildcat outside of Snowmass Village valued at $20.5 million.
And at least one new Aspen property owner pledged his support to a failed Republican presidential candidate. Paul Foster, chairman of El Paso, Texas-based oil refining and marketing company Western Refining, gave $100,000 to Make Us Great Again, a super PAC supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry before he left the race.
Foster, who paid $15 million for a spec home on Red Mountain in November 2011, spent almost $20,000 flying Perry to a trade meeting in Mexico to ask Mexican energy officials to consider more joint ventures with Texas oil companies.
People who listed their primary addresses in Aspen gave much smaller amounts to super PACs, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Retiree Tatnall Hillman gave $5,000 to the conservative Club for Growth Action, which has raised nearly $2 million and spent most of its money on campaigns against one of the Republican primary contenders for Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat.
Michael Malcolm of Aspen gave $365 to Raising Red Action Fund, another conservative super PAC that has spent $2,000 against Obama. And Judith Steinberg gave $250 to Women Vote!, a liberal super PAC which has raised $600,000.
Editor's note: This story was published in collaboration with the Aspen Business Journal.