Money and Politics in the Hamptons
The crystal, deep blue waters; those wonderful celebrities we hear so much about roaming the streets of Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton, and Montauk; Porsche’s, Lamborghini’s, and Hummers sailing through those country roads…each and every one of these images accurately conjures up what life is like in Eastern Long Island during the summer months. What is a relatively close-knit community of locals transforms into a three-month summer getaway for movie starts, best-selling authors, media personalities, and corporate hedge-fund managers from New York City to Tokyo. You would be hard-pressed to find a typical resident from Southampton talking to a stranger about how they live in “the Hamptons” — unless, of course, that person is trying to make a lasting first impression — yet that term is known throughout the country as a microcosm of the top one percent of Americans.
“The Hamptons” is a place where wealthy people with money rolling out of their pockets come to relax from their hectic schedules in New York City or Los Angeles — an area of America where you can do some lavish spending on everything from the best scallops and flounder in the world to the most impressive mansion on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean.
But Eastern Long Island also happens to be a political powerhouse in its own right: a sliver of beach and farmland from Southampton to the tip of Montauk Point where politicians of all stripes can assemble supporters, test out campaign themes before a state, district, or local election, and raise the type of money that would make the most experienced officeholder blush. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, if you’re running to be a member of Congress for the 1st District of New York or for President of the United States — money is available for the taking. And in American politics, money often leads to an effective campaign, which leads to power at the national level.
You don’t need to go far to arrive at several, noteworthy examples. Whether it’s Bill or Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joseph Biden, the Democratic National Committee, or current Congressman Lee Zeldin, politicians who are hoping to help out their friends or help out themselves will be able to meet people who have a boatload of cash and are more than willing to spend it. The top one percent that live in “the Hamptons” during the summer months — those same people who own the colossal mansions near the shoreline that we’ve all grown to expect — have the resources to propel a candidate across the finish line or at the least in the race.
Consider the Clinton’s, the smartest and most politically astute families in American politics. In August 2014, the height of the tourist season on Eastern Long Island — and a month when the richest of the rich set up camp for the remainder of the summer — Bill and Hillary turned their friend’s Walter Mill home into a fundraising compound. Invitations on the guest list cost a minimum of $5,000, but if you were willing to spend $50,000, you want to sit at the same table with the power couple. Who knows: you may even get to exchange pleasantries and accolades with the former President and Secretary of State for a couple seconds.
The money raised that weekend went straight to the Clinton Foundation, a vast organization based in New York City with a large donor list that does incredible work around the world on everything from improving child health care in poor countries to supporting a girl’s right to an education.
Or, take another fundraiser for Hillary Clinton that same month, when supporters of the Ready for Hillary Super Pac invited anyone who could spare a couple thousand dollars to a special “dinner discussion about the work being done to lay the foundation for a potential Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.” Former New Jersey Senator and Governor John Corzine and actress Ashley Judd were given the honor of being special guests at the discussion. We don’t know how much money the event raised for Hillary’s 2016 presidential campaign, but one can safely assume it was a lot: according to the rules governing Ready for Hillary, a donor could contribute as much as $25,000.
Republicans have also trekked to the East End in the hopes of tapping the cash-cow universally known as “the Hamptons.” Just ask Lee Zeldin, the former New York State Senator and U.S. Army Intelligence veteran who recently unseated six-term congressman Timothy Bishop during the November 2014 midterm elections. Whisper the name “Robert Mercer” in Zeldin’s ear, and it would be an understandable reaction if the congressman jumped up in celebration or gave a big smile. Mercer, a New York City hedge-fund manager with a giant yacht docked somewhere on the East End coast, made Tim Bishop’s life miserable by donating $500,000 to a Super PAC associated with Zeldin in 2012 — an amount that increased to $920,000 by Election Day according to filings made to the Federal Election Commission.
Bishop went on to win that election, but the defeat didn’t discourage Zeldin or Mercer from trying again two years later. In 2014, Zeldin ran again for Bishop’s seat, and Mercer provided the U.S. Jobs Council — a Super Pac working against Bishop’s reelection — with $200,000. By the time Election Day was over, Zeldin defeated Bishop by nearly 10 points.
All of this, of course, is perfectly legal. There is nothing that the Clintons or Mr. Mercer did wrong: thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations can indirectly donate unlimited amounts of money to the PACs supporting the election of their preferred candidates. In fact, as the Supreme Court ruled in 2010, donating millions of dollars is a perfectly legitimate way to express the political rights under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
It just so happens that Citizens United has also had the effect of increasing the importance of Long Island’s East End, where multimillionaires can write checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars to the politicians that are running for higher office. Residents of Eastern Long Island are, in practicality, living in the midst of a fundraising hub for politicians of all ideologies and beliefs.
For decades, the villages comprising “the Hamptons” were labeled summer playgrounds for the rich and powerful tourism ready to soak in the sun, splash in the waves, and bask in the all-inclusive nightlife. Now, Southampton, Bridgehampton, Montauk, and everywhere in between can add “political center of gravity” to the mix.