Botched fossil fuel contribution ban will cost DNC

Botched fossil fuel contribution ban will cost DNC
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There are good political decisions that look bad and bad political decisions that look good — and then there are bad political decisions that just look bad. The Democratic National Committee specializes in the third one.

As a rule, politicians don’t make announcements they are proud of on Friday afternoons in August. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly where the Executive Committee of the DNC found itself recently when it voted to reverse a ban on fossil fuel contributions


Everything about the decision — the process, the timing, the half-baked rationale — stank to high heaven, and the window is fast closing for DNC to correct the error.

Just two months ago, the DNC voted unanimously to refuse donations from political action committees, or PACs, run by fossil fuel corporations. 

The June resolution made the case for a polluter-free Democratic Party in terms that rang true for many activists. It called fossil fuels an “existential threat to our civilization,” admitted that Democrats could never be the party of climate solutions if they took money from climate deniers, and made the case for a grassroots base of small donors over Big Money.

Perhaps most important all, the resolution recognized that hundreds of candidates for local, state and national office have already pledged to refuse fossil fuel money. As the number of pledge signers fast approaches a thousand, the DNC risks being dangerously out-of-touch with its candidates, its activists, and its voters if this reversal remains in place.

The August resolution is a half-clever twisting of words that uses fossil fuel workers as props to justify continuing to take corporate cash. It guarantees that money from Democrats who happen to work in the industry will always be welcome, whether the contributions come “individually or through their unions' or employers' political action committees.” 

The truth is that the new resolution is so poorly worded it very likely opens the floodgates for all kinds of corporate giving. For example, it is great news for someone like Theresa Fariello, ExxonMobil’s former chief lobbyist and a Clinton Democrat. Would she, as a Democrat and a fossil fuel employee, have been able to organize a contribution to the DNC through the ExxonMobil PAC? Seemingly, the answer is yes.

What about Louis Finkel, another Democrat and the former head lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute? As someone who worked on behalf of fossil fuel employees at a trade association, would he also have been able to organize donations to the DNC through Big Oil PACs? Since no one is sure what the phrase “employers’ PAC” means and the words are legally meaningless, very likely the answer is yes.

The future of the Democratic Party lies with dynamic state office seekers like Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout, as well as rising stars like congressional candidates Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Jess King, and Rashida Tlaib. Besides progressive credentials, one thing all of these women have in common is a pledge to refuse fossil fuel contributions. The DNC ignores this trend at its own risk.

But the worst consequences may come in November. Refusing to accept donations from fossil fuel corporations would have signaled to disaffected progressives that the DNC is serious when it talks about reform. It would have said that the DNC was equipped to lead on both climate change and clean elections. Reversing course so quickly only confirms that the strong-arming and backroom dealing that made the DNC so toxic in 2016 is alive and well. This is how elections are lost.

Three months before the most important election in living memory, the DNC felt the need to publicly broadcast contempt for the kind of progressive activism that actually wins. 

Lukas Ross is a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth Action, a political organization that focuses on the systemic causes of injustice and environmental degradation in society. Follow him on Twitter @LukasRoss1.