Real Money

Rep. Mike Thompson's sub rosa real estate industry contributions revealed

What is Votesane and why did the Virginia-based political action committee recenty contribute $35,500 to conservative Napa Democrat Mike Thompson’s 10th congressional race?

Thompson has described himself as a proud Blue Dog who does not toe the Democratic party line. That posture appears to line up with Votesane’s public mandate of sensible nonpartisanship. So maybe the $35,500 was a reward for Thompson’s recent and headline-grabbing bipartisan gun-control efforts? That’s surely an issue that could stand for some congressional sanity. Or maybe it was another “pop-up PAC” related to defeating Donald Trump. Who wouldn’t want to “vote sane” this year?

But a closer look at who actually contributes to the organization reveals that Votesane is fronting for real estate interests, which overwhelming dominate contributions sent to the PAC since 2011.

Votesane was founded in 2010 and offered itself to voters as a “non-partisan, one-stop portal to help you stay informed and get involved,” according to its website. Its founder, Rob Zimmer, is a former lobbyist for Freddie Mac, the private, but government-sponsored, housing lender. The site claims to offer a unique platform that “enables you to donate directly to the candidates and issues you care about” by forwarding donations directly to candidates. Zimmer told Reuters in 2010 that he created the site because “citizens are tired of one-sided stories. Votesane opens the doors to all sides and levels the playing field.”

That sounds pretty cool—so why do Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports clearly show a one-sided donor base? Donors from the real estate industry are the only apparent contributors to Votesane between 2011 and 2015.

Upon its founding in 2010, Politico and USA Today each offered profiles of the PAC that essentially parroted a Votesane press release and highlighted the user-friendly ease by which contributions could be directed at candidates or issues dear to individual voters. This was “political giving made easy,” reported a breathless Politico. USA Today decreed it a “non-partisan site that aims to streamline political giving.”

A review of the first set of contribution reports filed with the FEC filed in October 2010 bears out the Votesane claim: Francis Furrow, an Alaska retiree, sent 15 bucks that September; a Virginia homemaker sent $500, and individuals from various fields also sent in so-called conduit contributions as Votesane got off the ground.

But a review of FEC reports that detail contributions made to the organization after 2010—the organization has been a conduit for some $6.8 million, according to the Votesane online money ticker—is an eye-opening encounter with opaque money in politics. A review of hundreds of pages of donation receipts in the FEC reports from 2011 through 2015 reveal that all of the donations came from the real estate industry.

The sub rosa real estate contributions that flowed into the organization’s coffers in 2011 didn’t stop the Washington Post from declaring, in April 2012, that the Votesane website “isn’t necessarily aimed at those who are already heavily involved in the process. Instead, it hopes to attract both moderates and political newcomers.”

Bob Woodward must have been on vacation that week, because an analysis of year-end FEC filings from 2011 would have driven home the fact that Votesane was attracting real estate industry money, above all else.

As recently as 2014, Thompson had commercial real-estate interests in his district. According to financial-disclosure reports from that year, where he is listed as a “general partner” and former owner of a 20 percent interest in a commercial real estate partnership called Travis Webb General Partnership. According to the reports, Thompson earned between $100,001 and $250,000 that year through his partnership with the commercial realtor.

Thompson ceased to be a partner in Travis Webb in 2014, according to information contained in the financial disclosure reports available at OpenSecrets, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics. Unclear in the reports is whether Thompson earned that money through a particular sale, or if he sold his 20 percent share back to Travis Webb for that amount. Asked to clarify the source of upwards of a quarter-million dollars, his spokesperson would only confirm what was already indicated on the disclosure reports: “The congressman is no longer a partner in Travis Webb,” says Megan Rabbitt via email.

The $35,500 Votesane contribution to his 2016 campaign is a first for Thompson, who joined California Republicans Gary Miller and Kevin McCarthy on Votesane’s donor roll (Miller retired from Congress in 2015). According to OpenSecrets, those Republicans were the top two recipients of Votesane’s largesse, racking up $101,000 and $91,000, respectively, in their congressional runs. The group has also sent campaign funds to other California Democrats, including Maxine Waters and Xavier Becerra. The $35,500 directed to Thompson’s reelection effort represents the single largest campaign contribution he has accepted in his nearly two decades in Congress.

Votesane appears to have gone to some effort to keep its emphasis on real estate contributions from the public eye. The name itself is reminiscent of Vote Smart, a nonprofit founded in 1992 that “provides free, unbiased information” about candidates, issues and elected officials, according to its website.

The organizations may sound alike, but appear to share little in common. Votesane offers a public interface through its website that comes with all sorts of interactivity, red-white-and-blue visuals and a big checkmark that denotes citizen participation in the electoral process. Spend a few moments tooling around on the website, with its thumbnail candidate sketches and politically engaged Twitter feed, and you’ll be practically singing along to the old strains of “I’m Just a Bill” at the good-governance surface hustle. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll be singing “Little Boxes” for hours.

Open-government advocates at the Washington, D.C.–based Sunlight Foundation say Votesane should come clean about its donor base.

“The group appears to be a conduit organization that allows donors to direct their contributions to any candidate they choose,” says Sunlight spokeswoman Jenn Topper, “but according to its FEC filings, the donors come almost exclusively from the real estate industry.”

She adds that “realtors traditionally spend heavily on both sides of the aisle, and with the ongoing deadlock in Congress, it’s no surprise that the industry might take this approach to encourage more bipartisanship. What is surprising is that this organization is a conduit for a particular set of interests, but doesn’t disclose that anywhere on its website or in its public communication. A group whose contributors have such a clear agenda should be more forthcoming about where its interests truly lie.”

Votesane did not respond to three emailed requests for comment. Thompson was asked whether he knew about the organization’s real estate emphasis; whether he would consider sending back the contribution, given the lack of transparency in Votesane’s public posturing; and for a more general explanation about the contribution and its timing, in light of the congressmen’s real estate interests in the home district. After all, as Votesane’s own website observes, “an informed, educated electorate that donates and votes is very powerful.”

Thompson’s office didn’t directly address any of those questions. “He works closely with realtors on issues of importance to our district and is proud to have their support,” Rabbitt says via email.