Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) condemned South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for relying on lavish private fundraisers to finance his presidential bid, sparking a contentious back-and-forth between the two candidates that they have been conducting offstage for weeks.
Warren initiated the conflict, calling Buttigieg out for holding a fundraiser in the Napa Valley wine cave of the billionaire couple Craig and Kathryn Hall.
“We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of United States,” Warren said. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”
Buttigieg responded by pointing out that Warren ― and all five other Democratic candidates onstage ― are far more personally wealthy than he is.
“This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” Buttigieg said.
Warren returned the conversation to the topic of private campaign fundraisers, which she said amounted to selling influence. As a presidential candidate, Warren has foresworn private fundraising of any kind, including over the phone.
“I do not sell access to my time,” she said.
Warren also reiterated that she has committed to not naming donors to ambassadorial posts and has challenged her rivals to join her in that pledge. (They have yet to take her up on the offer, though a Sen. Bernie Sanders campaign surrogate told HuffPost it’s a moot point since he, too, has rejected private fundraising.)
Buttigieg responded by noting that Warren’s campaign relies on cash from her Senate campaigns, for which she did hold private, high-dollar fundraisers. After launching her presidential bid, Warren indeed transferred $10 million from her Senate campaign account to her presidential campaign account.
“Did it corrupt you, Senator? Of course not,” Buttigieg said of Warren’s Senate fundraising. “So to denounce the same fundraising guidelines that President Obama went by, that Speaker Pelosi goes by, that you yourself went by until not that long ago, in order to build the Democratic Party and build a campaign ready for the fight of our lives. These purity tests shrink the stakes of the most important election.”
Buttigieg, whose rise in the polls is believed to have come partly at Warren’s expense, has been trading blows with the senator on questions of transparency for several weeks.
Earlier this month, Warren challenged Buttigieg to disclose the names of his “bundlers” ― the mega-donors who serve as fundraisers from other rich people ― and to open his private fundraisers to the news media. Buttigieg shot back by calling for Warren to release more than 11 years’ worth of tax returns to reveal how much she earned from private legal consulting.
Last week, Warren disclosed her earnings from her consulting work without releasing additional tax returns. And soon thereafter, Buttigieg opened his fundraisers to the news media and revealed the names of his private donors.
But the exchange between Warren and Buttigieg reflected a broader ideological divide within the Democratic primary field between corruption-focused progressives and moderates who insist that “purity tests” are impractical. Sanders, and to a lesser degree, businessman Andrew Yang, sided with Warren in the debate, while Biden, who also relies on private fundraisers, defended his campaign finance model.
At one point, Sanders took a sarcastic jab at Biden and Buttigieg, teasing the South Bend mayor that 44 billionaires have donated to the former vice president, while 39 have donated to him. (A Forbes count actually found that 40 have donated to Buttigieg.) Sanders alone has refused to accept contributions from billionaires, going as far as to return a $470 check from Marta Thoma Hall, a Sanders supporter married to a billionaire.
“So Pete, we look forward to you ― I know you’re an energetic guy and a competitive guy ― to see if you can take on Joe on that issue,” he quipped. “This is why three people own more wealth than the bottom half.”
Biden defended himself by noting that his average contribution is $43.
“The idea that the senator suggests that I’m in the pocket of billionaires ― in fact, they oppose everything that I’ve ever done and continue to do,” Biden said.
In his response to a subsequent question on immigration reform, Yang took the opportunity to tout his “democracy dollars” plan to grant every American $100 to spend on political candidates to “drown out the influence of mega-donors,” per his campaign website.
That policy would make politics more accessible for female candidates — because, Yang said, they wouldn’t have to “shake the money tree in the wine cave.”