What passes for much “campaign-finance” reporting in America typically follows the flow of cash from big bundlers to particular candidates, treating the whole thing like a competition over who “got” what rich person to invest in them. Rarely is the central question asked of how that rich person earned their money, and what effect that will have on the candidate’s outlook. In other words, it’s not just the power of Big Money, but what specific kind of Big Money, that often gets overlooked.
Yesterday presented a perfect example. Mark Gallogly, a founder and managing partner of Centerbridge Partners, indicated to friends that he would support former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke as his 2020 candidate, according to CNBC. Gallogly is enthusiastically described as an “Obama bundler” who raised at least $500,000 for the former president in 2012. Centerbridge is merely noted as an “investment firm,” with no indication of, well, what it invests in.
The answer is distressed debt, Centerbridge’s specialty. It’s a $30 billion hedge fund. Those suffering from the after-effects of its strategies would describe Centerbridge as a “vulture fund.” It scoops up debt on the cheap, and uses whatever means necessary to force the troubled company or sovereign government to pay up. Centerbridge debtors include bankrupt utility PG&E, the country of Argentina, and Puerto Rico.
Centerbridge, which concealed its Puerto Rican debt holdings through multiple shell corporations, was on the steering committee of one of the largest coalitions of debtholders, known as the Ad Hoc group, with over $4.5 billion in general obligation bonds that carry a constitutional guarantee. It also carries at least $390 million in bonds in the island’s public employee retirement system, and holds a stake in Ambac, which insures Puerto Rican debt.
This was an explicit strategy. As Puerto Rican debt mounted, vultures swooped in, buying nearly half of the distressed bonds and using that leverage to pressure the Puerto Rican government. The bouts of austerity and suffering that we’ve seen on the island are in no small part due to the role of vulture funds like Centerbridge Partners. In fact, the Ad Hoc group publicly proposed specific austerity measures to free up space for Puerto Rico to pay them back.
The result has been a rapidly declining population, as anyone who can moves to the mainland. Huge cuts to schools, universities, and health care have made life treacherous on the island. Unemployment is sky-high and residents are suffering. The twin devastations of the man-made debt crisis and Hurricane Maria have put Puerto Rico in a perpetual depression, losing thousands of citizens a week.
That any presidential candidate would even consider taking money from one of the vulture funds who participated in the Puerto Rican carnage is unthinkable to local activists. “Voters are watching, and they know that vulture hedge fund money is toxic,” said Julio López Varona from CPD Action and the Hedge Clippers coalition, which educates the public about the role of hedge funds in Puerto Rico and other areas. “They are seeking to get rich by making Puerto Rico poor. Any presidential candidate should know that Puerto Ricans in the diaspora can determine the election of the next US President and they will not support so-called progressives that take their money from those who have caused so much pain for our communities.”
Another source close to the activist community compared the vulture funds in Puerto Rico to the Sackler family, whose company marketed painkillers relentlessly and has been characterized in lawsuits as one of the leading causes behind the opioid crisis. “People don’t see all of the suffering because much of the coverage is in Spanish,” the source said. “But would you put Jonathan Sackler as your major bundler? What kind of message does that send?”
O’Rourke’s spokesperson, Chris Evans, did not respond to a request for comment on the matter, or whether the candidate would accept the bundled cash raised by a vulture fund giant.
That prospect certainly conflicts with O’Rourke’s image of a clean-money candidate. He has rejected corporate PAC money and speaks about the toxicity of campaign financing on the political process. Then again, he did take $5400 in donations from Gallogly in 2018 for his near-miss Senate run, and over half of his $80 million haul in that race came from big donors.
O’Rourke has been accused of supporting the stances of his big-money donors, beyond just the cash. In his early career on the city council in El Paso, Texas, he supported a redevelopment plan ginned up by the real estate establishment in town, including his own father-in-law, that would have bulldozed a low-income area to install an arena and an arts walk.
Gallogly, meanwhile, sat on economic advisory boards under Obama. He’s spread around his fortune to a number of Democratic candidates in the past, including presidential hopefuls Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar.
Gallogly is a member of the Partnership for New York City, a group that has habitually proposed tax cuts and spending cuts locally. He’s on the board of trustees for the ROADS Charter High Schools, and the Centerbridge Foundation, a division of the vulture fund, finances other charter school management organizations. He also briefly considered a run for mayor of New York City in 2013, and either he or a supporter actually tested a poll question about whether voters would support someone “who was in Mitt Romney's line of work, buying distressed companies, firing people and taking hundreds of millions for themselves.”
The 2020 race will test the limits of the previously accepted pay-to-play political donor game. Can anyone’s money fund candidates who call themselves progressive, no matter where that money came from, no matter who it damaged? Will the bundler scramble be covered as a horse race, or something toxic that reveals much about the candidates they choose?
O’Rourke can end the speculation in this particular case simply by saying he won’t take vulture fund money gained through the suffering of citizens in Puerto Rico. But so far, he’s said nothing.