Money & Politics

Super PAC Donor Calls for Campaign Finance Reform

Others in the New York donor community feel the same way, says ex-Jeb Bush backer Mel Immergut.

Super PAC Donor Calls for Campaign Finance Reform

Some of the same people who put big money into politics would like to slow the flow. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Mel Immergut has had a long and distinguished career as the head a powerhouse international law firm. But right now, he’s enjoying 15 minutes of fame as the woebegone super PAC-man.

“I have given to super PACs over the years and I have raised quite a lot for super PACs,” the soft-spoken retired chairman of Milbank Tweed told Moyers and Company over the weekend in a phone interview from his home in the Hamptons. “Would I rather that this tyranny of super PACs didn’t exist? Yes.”

This is not exactly a case of donor remorse, but if Immergut is representative of his well-heeled community — and he believes he is — there’s reason to believe there’s a mounting sense of donor fatigue and exasperation with the existing campaign finance system by the very people who are supposed to be its chief beneficiaries.

Since his appearance last week on Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal for a send-up of super PACs and their donors, Immergut says he’s gotten nothing but rave review from friends and associates — including those who worked with him on Jeb Bush’s now-moribund presidential campaign. Immergut says he’s gotten texts and other messages from friends he never would have suspected of being Samantha Bee fans.

“People who watched it surprised me,” he says.

Bee’s “Victims of Super PACs” segment takes a satirical, pitying look at the mega-donors who poured money down the drain on failed campaigns this year. Federal records show that super PACs supporting Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Ted Cruz, to name a few of the bigger flameouts, raised a combined $191 million. Immergut, who gave $25,000 to Bush’s Right To Rise, deadpanned his way through the skit, filmed against the Medici-like backdrop of Manhattan’s Lotte New York Palace Hotel.

Field producer Tyler Hall says it wasn’t easy to find a straight man. “That was pretty difficult,” he says of his search for a willing super PAC donor. “A lot of them said no. I would say two or three dozen.”

His motivation for saying yes was “not ideological at all,” says Immergut. “I thought it would be interesting and fun.”

Even so, Immergut says he’d like to see “some sort of rationalization” of the campaign finance system that would limit the amount of money going into campaigns.

Immergut got a first-person look at the inefficiencies in the system when earlier this year, he took time off his work advising Marker LLC, a New York- and Tel Aviv-based venture capital company, and Wendel, a Paris-based private equity firm, to go door-knocking in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He says voters gave him an earful about the ads, the robocalls and the mailers.

“They’re resentful of it and don’t react well,” says Immergut, adding that “more than a couple” told him they deliberately sabotage robocall polls by lying about their positions on issues.

Immergut is not swearing off super PACs. He says if necessary, he intends to use them to support the Senate candidates he’s backing this year, Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rob Portman of Ohio (Immergut hasn’t decided whether to work for GOP nominee-apparent Donald Trump, though he says, “I know Donald well.”). But he bemoans a system in which it can cost $100 million to run for Senate.

“My preference would be that there be some sort of campaign finance reform,” he says. And he thinks his views are shared by many other people who routinely get tapped for the six- and even seven-figure donations now allowed by the Supreme Court: “I think that many people in the New York donor community, which is the one I know best, would be strong supporters.”

Immergut got his start as a political donor and fundraiser during Rudy Giuliani’s failed 2008 presidential campaign. He gave $50,000 to Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful 2012 campaign and $30,800 to the Republican National Committee. Over the years, he’s also made a number of smaller donations, mostly to Republicans, but also to some Democratic senators, including New York’s Chuck Schumer, Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse and Florida’s Bill Nelson.

Despite the fact that all three presidential candidates he backed lost, Immergut says he has no regrets about his role as a donor or fundraiser. On the contrary; he speaks about the experience with the zeal of a civic evangelist.

“It made me part of the election process,” he says. “I got to do really interesting things. I learned enormously. I met incredibly interesting people from all over the country. And I had fun.”

Maybe, if Immergut gets the campaign finance reform he wants, people with less well-padded bank accounts will get to have the same experience.

Kathy Kiely

Kathy Kiely, a Washington, DC-based journalist and teacher, has reported and edited national politics for a number of news organizations, including USA TODAY, National Journal, The New York Daily News and The Houston Post. She been involved in the coverage of every presidential campaign since 1980. Follow her on Twitter: @kathykiely.