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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Scott's Campaign Contributors Are Vermont-Based, Business-Oriented

Peter Hirschfeld
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VPR/file
A VPR analysis of campaign financing shows that more than half of money Phil Scott has raised this cycle comes from businesses or people who run them.

The role of corporate money in Vermont politics has come under withering scrutiny this election cycle, due in large part to the rallying cries of Bernie Sanders. And several politicians in Vermont – Democratic candidate for governor Sue Minter among them – have sworn off direct donations from corporate entities altogether.

Not Phil Scott.

“We’re proud to have their support,” says Brittney Wilson, campaign manager for Scott’s gubernatorial run.

Scott, the Republican candidate for governor, continues to welcome financial support from businesses large and small. A VPR analysis of financial disclosures at the Secretary of State’s office show just how significant a role they’ve played in funding his campaign.

Of the $1.17 million Scott has raised this cycle, more than half – $623,000 – has come from businesses and the CEOs, presidents, founders or owners who run them.

Scott’s campaign says contributions from businesses demonstrate how in tune he is with their needs.

“Phil’s priorities – making the economy the top priority and trying to make Vermont more affordable – resonate with small business owners,” Wilson says.

Scott may wear those donations as a badge of honor. Elections watchdogs say they’re cause for concern.

"Human nature is that you look out for the people who have done you favors." — Ian Vandewalker, counsel to the Brennan Center of Justice

“When a corporation gives, it’s not a person expressing a political belief, it’s an entity designed to make money, presumably doing something that it thinks is going to make it money,” says Ian Vandewalker, counsel to the Brennan Center of Justice, a law and policy institute at the New York University School of Law.

When businesses give, Vandewalker says, the politicians they support inevitably make note of it.

“Human nature is that you look out for the people who have done you favors,” Vandewalker says.

Credit Peter Hirschfeld, Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR
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VPR

It’s a premise that Phil Scott and his supporters reject – supporters like Germain Bourdeau, a Swanton business owner who, along with his wife and two of their businesses, have contributed $16,000 to the Scott campaign this year.

Bourdeau says he gave because he believes in Scott’s platforms and policy positions, not because he wants to influence or alter them.

“So I think he’s the person that will see it on his own without anyone one of us expecting for him to do something favorable because someone gave him a few dollars, OK? I don’t see that in him,” Bourdeau says.

Sue Minter's Campaign Gets Big Boost From Women, Out-Of-State Donors

Scott has taken in about $43,000 from the agriculture sector this year, according to VPR’s analysis. Bourdeau’s family-owned agribusinesses serve customers in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Canada. He says it’s Scott’s business acumen and concerns for farmers that won his support, not the expectation of favors if Scott is elected.

“I’m thinking that we have a man here who understands business, and he understands that agriculture is the largest industry in the state of Vermont,” Bourdeau says.

The same goes for John Connor, a partner at Connor Contracting, which gave $4,000 to Scott’s campaign. The construction sector, not surprisingly, has been particularly generous with Scott, and accounts for $179,000 of his total haul. Scott owns a construction business himself, and runs his campaign out of an office in a building owned by Associated General Contractors of Vermont, a trade association he belongs to.

"I'm thinking that we have a man here who understands business, and he understands that agriculture is the largest industry in the state of Vermont." — Germain Bourdeau, Swanton business owner and Scott supporter

Connor says there’s a good reason contractors support Scott with their money.

“I think because he’s very much a known commodity and very respected amongst the other construction professionals out there in the state,” Connor says. “Many of us have worked with him, many of us have worked with his guys. And they understand a good company, a good person.”

Connor says contractors don’t have any hidden motives.

“We’re a supporter of Phil because we believe in the way that he acts, and his integrity, and his decision making,” Connor says. “No, we don’t expect anything at all in return.”

Scott Swenson is the vice-president of communications at Common Cause, a national government accountability organization. Swenson says the issue isn’t about the integrity or trustworthiness of donors, or the candidates they support.

“So it has less to do with the person that’s running for office, and more to do with the system that they’re forced to run in,” Swenson says.

Credit Peter Hirschfeld, Emily Alfin Johnson, Angela Evancie / VPR
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VPR

And systems that allow corporate entities to play an outsized role in the elections process, according to Swenson, are systems rigged in favor of the corporate entities supplying the money.

“They get to set the agenda. They get to help decide what’s going to be on the legislative agenda. And they get to help write, in some cases, that legislation,” Swenson says.

Vermont law sets a $4,000 limit on contributions to gubernatorial candidates. But through limited liability corporations (LLCs) and immediate family members, some businesspeople in Vermont have contributed in excess of $20,000 to Scott’s campaign. In a state like Vermont, Swenson says that’s an influential sum.

VPR’s analysis of Scott’s support from corporate entities includes direct contributions from businesses. It also includes donations from presidents, CEOs, founders and owners, as well as their direct family members. VPR gleaned that information by researching the individual donors listed on Scott’s campaign finance disclosures.

"[Corporate entities] get to set the agenda. They get to help decide what's going to be on the legislative agenda. And they get to help write, in some cases, that legislation." — Scott Swenson, vice-president of communications at Common Cause

Fuel dealers Skip and Tim Vallee and their family members have given at least $22,600 to Scott this year. Skip Vallee, a former Republican national committeeman for Vermont, says his family’s support is less about business than it is about returning a fellow Republican in the state’s highest elected office.

“I love candidates that relate to the challenges that everyday people face, and I think Phil really understands that,” Vallee says.

Peter Bourne, another fuel dealer who contributed to Scott this year, says he doesn’t view the donation as a worthwhile expenditure for his business.

“No, it’s a worthwhile expenditure for Vermont,” Bourne says.

Bourne says he wants to see Vermont elect a candidate with firsthand knowledge of the struggles businesses face in the state.

Credit Peter Hirschfeld, Emily Alfin Johnson, Angela Evancie / VPR
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VPR

“My frustration with the administration that’s leaving is we’ve always spent more money than we’ve made,” Bourne says. “And for Vermont to survive, we have to be financially responsible, and we have not been.”

Bourne says fears of pay-to-play politics are misguided.

“Because if I can buy you for $4,000, you set a pretty low bar on yourself,” Bourne says. “I mean let’s be real. That’s not an earth-moving amount of money in this world of politics.”

Members of the real estate industry accounts for about $67,000 in donations to Scott; the fuel industry has given close to $64,000; and the automotive sector – car dealers mostly – has given Scott $54,000.

"Because if I can buy you for $4,000, you set a pretty low bar on yourself. I mean let's be real. That's not an earth-moving amount of money in this world of politics." — Peter Bourne, Scott campaign contributor

Wilson says voters need not worry about those contributions influencing the candidate’s publicly policy decisions, if he’s elected governor.

“Phil cannot be bought,” Wilson says.

“Of course everybody probably honestly believes about themselves that they’re not influenced by this money,” Vanderwalker says.

But Vandewalker says human nature is what it is.

“And it raises the question at the very least about these relationships, and is somebody getting more out of government than everybody else,” Vandewalker says.

Although businesses make up the bulk of Scott’s money, the support is mostly homegrown: 90 percent of Scott's total haul comes from within the state of Vermont.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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