Some Democratic Candidates Not Ready To Say Donors Can't Be Ambassadors

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has called on her fellow presidential hopefuls to break from the bipartisan pay-for-play system.

ATLANTA ― One of the officials at the center of the House impeachment investigation is Gordon Sondland, a man with no diplomatic experience who paid $1 million to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee and was rewarded with the title of U.S. ambassador to the European Union. 

He’s part of a long, bipartisan pay-for-play system in which ambassadorships are handed out to a president’s biggest donors who are eager for a spot on the world stage. (Sondland was confirmed without objection from the Senate in June 2018.)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has pledged to break this tradition. Some of the other Democratic presidential candidates, however, aren’t quite ready to follow suit. 

“I’ll certainly commit that anybody I appoint to any position will be qualified and somebody who will do a good job serving the United States,” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said Thursday

Buttigieg has relied heavily on wealthy donors and big fundraisers, unlike Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who have sworn off those types of events. 

Warren reiterated her commitment to not giving out ambassadorships as rewards for big donations during the debate Wednesday night.

“Anyone who gives a big donation, don’t ask to be an ambassador,” she said. “I ask everyone running for president to join me in that.”

Her campaign released a digital ad on Thursday that made the same point. 

Some candidates have stepped up to the challenge. Sanders said in a tweet Thursday that it’s “an outrage that throughout the history of this country, presidential administrations have been filled with wealthy campaign contributors.”

“I will fill my administration with my donors ― the working class of this country who give an average of $18 a piece,” he wrote.

A day earlier, his campaign co-chair Nina Turner told HuffPost that the pledge is irrelevant for Sanders anyway.

“He’s the only candidate up there that doesn’t have to pledge that because he doesn’t take money from multimillionaires and billionaires so they can’t buy it,” she said. “His donors are the people. His donors are teachers and nurses and Walmart workers.”

Another Democratic presidential contender, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, released a statement Thursday stating his support for Warren’s pledge.

“If we’re serious about reforming our democracy and taking money out of politics, it means eliminating the pay-to-play practices that have dominated diplomatic appointments in both parties,” Castro said in his statement.

“In my administration, only the most-qualified people will be considered for ambassadorships and appointments — not wealthy donors or big bundlers,” he added.

Buttigieg’s campaign pushed back on Warren’s pledge after the debate, telling HuffPost that being a big donor shouldn’t disqualify someone from an ambassadorship.

Hasoni Pratts, the national engagement director for Buttigieg’s campaign, pointed to Caroline Kennedy — the daughter of President John F. Kennedy and a former U.S. ambassador to Japan — as an example of a wealthy person who excelled in her role.

“She has been a big donor all her life,” Pratts said. “Would you say that she should not be an ambassador?”

Pratts then essentially said that banning wealthy donors from getting ambassadorships would be discrimination. 

“I don’t think they should discriminate because of one particular thing,” Pratts said. “I will tell you that I don’t think Mayor Pete has a specific criteria except for the best person for the job.”

Stephanie Morales, the elected commonwealth’s attorney in Portsmouth, Virginia, and a surrogate at the debate for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), said the candidate didn’t need to commit to the pledge Warren put forth.

“I think that’s completely up to her,” Morales told HuffPost. “That’s the beauty of having different candidates voice their different opinions. As much passion as Sen. Harris put into her comments about Black women, she didn’t turn around and say, ‘Elizabeth Warren, you need to pledge to do these things.’”

Billionaire Tom Steyer danced around the question after his speech at a National Action Network breakfast Thursday, but said he wouldn’t nominate an ambassador simply because they’d given him money.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang also suggested his ambassador picks wouldn’t be dictated by their finances. But he stopped short of committing to Warren’s pledge.

“I certainly think there are other ways to select ambassadors than solely on how much money they got,” he told HuffPost after the debate on Wednesday.

This story has been updated with additional comments from candidates and  information about Sondland’s ambassadorship.