The state Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Tim Lambert/WITF)
Tim Lambert / WITF
The state Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Tim Lambert/WITF)
Tim Lambert / WITF
(Philadelphia) — Montgomery County billionaire Jeff Yass, a professional gambler turned powerful Wall Street trader, has long been a major donor to conservative causes in Pennsylvania. He’s particularly well known for putting tens of millions of dollars into the commonwealth’s school choice movement.
With Pennsylvania gearing up to redraw its congressional districts, choose a new Supreme Court justice in the fall, and elect a U.S. Senator and a governor next year — along with a slew of congressional and state House and Senate races — Yass has poured $10.5 million of his own money into his political action committee, Students First, over the past six months, before transferring that same amount to a different conservative PAC with a stated mission to further school choice.
The money in that PAC, the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund, is still mostly unspent. As of its last filing, the fund had nearly $11.5 million on hand, nearly all from Yass.
“He seems to be positioning himself to be a real power broker, if you will, in Pennsylvania politics,” Chris Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College who keeps an eye on statewide spending, said of Yass — noting that the money the billionaire has added to the election cycle has been “enormous.”
The Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund and the similarly conservative Commonwealth Leaders Fund both have prominent Harrisburg GOP advocate Matt Brouillette as their treasurer. His relationship to Yass is well established — Yass put millions into Brouillette’s PACs in the lead-up to the 2020 election, and Brouillette told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he and Yass had a signed agreement that he could use the money however he wanted.
The $11.5 million in the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund isn’t unheard of. The committee run by Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for instance, had $13,363,920 in the most recent reporting period.
Like Yass and the PACs associated with him, IBEW Local 98 has a record of making a big impact on races both big and small. The union’s decision to back Democratic state Sen. Nikil Saval, for instance, was seen as a significant factor in Saval’s upset victory in last year’s primary election.
One big difference, though, is that Local 98’s money comes mainly through small donations from union members. Arthur Steinberg, who heads Pennsylvania’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the thing that unsettles him about Yass’s spending is that it’s just one man making a huge difference in the political landscape.
“They pick and choose spots where their money can overwhelm any other local effort,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons the fact that they have $11.5 million is concerning…bottom line is, it’s actually frightening.”
As major new political contests approach, Yass’s contributions have hit notable highs, even for him. Steinberg, who keeps track of the cash flowing into school choice PACs, knew there was a lot of money there. But the actual number surprised him.
“We are really concerned that they’re going to pour all that money and concentrate that effort onto the Supreme Court race in 2021,” he said. “That court is really what has protected the sanctity of teachers union contracts and public education in the state. It’s really, really something that we’re all very worried about.”
Three Republicans and a Democrat are battling for an open Supreme Court seat. The current balance of the court is a 5-2 advantage for Democrats. Because the vacancy is due to a Republican’s retirement from the bench, the best the GOP can do this cycle is hold that line.
Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson is the GOP-endorsed candidate and a favorite to win his party’s primary. An up-to-date campaign finance report for Brobson’s campaign isn’t available through the state’s record-keeping system, though the campaign confirmed it had filed one on time. In the first reporting period for the race, which ended March 29, he had brought in less than $80,000.
His likely Democratic opponent, Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin, had raised more than $420,000 through the reporting period ending May 3, primarily from labor unions. The other two judicial candidates, Republicans Paula Patrick and Patricia McCullough, also didn’t have up-to-date reports available. They raised a little over $13,600 and no money, respectively, in the periods ending March 29.
Supreme Court candidates are statutorily barred from saying how they’d rule on any specific issue, such as the power of teachers unions or the adequacy of state school funding.
Brobson already has financial ties to Brouillette. His biggest contribution in the first quarter of 2021 came from the Commonwealth Leaders Fund.
Similar to the way money has flowed from Yass’s PAC to Brouillette’s, the Harrisburg GOP advocate often transfers cash from the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund to his Leaders Fund. The most recent reallocation was $1.9 million ahead of the 2020 election.
Yass, who is historically averse to speaking on the record about his political spending, didn’t return requests for comment.
He also didn’t respond to requests for comment about why the largest of his transfers to Brouillette’s PAC — an $8.5 million contribution Students First made in November 2020, after the general election — is incorrectly marked on campaign finance reports as having gone to the United States Postal Service.
Brouillette didn’t say exactly how he’ll use the money he has stockpiled. Of Yass’s contributions, a spokesperson said in an email that, “Anyone who gives to Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund does so because they believe in our mission of helping elect people who want to rescue kids from failing and often violent schools.”
Yass’s growing political contributions have corresponded with his expanding wealth over the past year.
According to Forbes, he now has a net worth of $12 billion, making him the 184th richest person in the world and a new addition to the publication’s list. Much of the recent influx came from the trading firm he co-founded, Susquehanna International Group, becoming an early investor in TikTok.
The Commonwealth Children’s Choice fund isn’t the only group that has gotten donations from his PAC since the 2020 election — and recipients haven’t all been Republicans. In recent years, several Democrats in favor of school choice have been beneficiaries, including House Minority Whip Jordan Harris and Senate Minority Whip Anthony Williams, both of Philadelphia.
Other recent recipients of Yass’s money have included the pro-school-choice Education Opportunity PAC and the Committee for Progressive Communities, which appears to be affiliated with Harrisburg mayoral candidate Otto Banks, who heads a school choice group.
Brouillette’s PACs have generally focused more on pumping funds to Republican candidates in races with far-reaching implications. In 2020, for instance, the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund spent heavily on Sen. Scott Martin, Sen. John DiSanto, and Rep. Andrew Lewis — Republicans holding increasingly competitive seats. All three won their races, helping block Democrats from taking back one or both legislative chambers.
The Commonwealth Leaders Fund had similar spending patterns. It spent a lot of money bolstering the GOP candidate for auditor general, Timothy DeFoor, who won his race and ended Pennsylvania’s row offices being held by all Democrats.
Borick notes, all this spending is perfectly legal under Pennsylvania law. There are no limits on the amounts that individuals or political action committees can give to campaigns.
“It’s more or less the wild west,” he said. “That opens up the door for an incredible amount of influence to come from a few donors.”
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.