It’s unremarkable these days to hear somebody bad-mouthing CEOs who pull down 7-, 8- or even 9-figure salaries. Unless the bad-mouther is Hillary Clinton.
The leading Democratic candidate for president has kicked off her campaign with a mild but unexpected jab at the leaders of corporate America. In an email to supporters right after declaring her candidacy, Clinton lamented the strains on ordinary families “when the average CEO makes about 300 times what the average worker makes.” Analysts interpret the populist remark as a leftward turn meant to appease liberals outraged over soaring income inequality and the outsized lifestyles of the one percent.
That’s pretty typical for a Democrat running for president—except that Clinton’s campaign is likely to be funded by many CEOs who fit the very profile she’s decrying. Clinton is citing data generated by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, which finds that the ratio of average CEO pay to average worker pay exploded from 20-to-1 in 1965 to 296-to-1 in 2013. During that time, CEO pay grew by nearly 1,800%, while average-worker pay grew by just 32%. Today, average pay for a CEO is $15.2 million, while the typical worker earns about $52,000.
If that wealth gap bothers Clinton, it sure hasn’t stopped her from accepting checks from some of America’s richest business leaders. During her 8 years as a senator, for instance, Clinton accepted donations from J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon (latest annual compensation: $20 million), Goldman Sachs (GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein ($23 million), Morgan Stanley (MS) CEO James Gorman ($18 million), and James Simons, founder of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, who has a net worth of about $14 billion. One of her most dedicated long-time supporters is DreamWorks (DWA) CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg ($13.5 million in annual pay). Another big backer is Warren Buffett, who earns a modest $100,000 salary as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B) -- but whose net worth grew by about $13 billion in 2014, due to his equity stake in Berkshire.
Clinton is unapologetic about her affluent funders. "Hillary has criticized a system that keeps the deck stacked for those at the top, and has offered some policy ideas for ways to ensure that every American family has a chance to succeed," campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin told Yahoo Finance. "She’s pleased to have support from a wide variety of people, including CEOs who support her vision for America."
Since Clinton just declared her candidacy for the 2016 presidential race, no public records are yet available listing donors contributing directly to her campaign. But a political action group supporting Clinton — Ready for Hillary — has been accepting donations since 2013. And the list of big donors includes a number of CEOs and their family members writing large checks despite the candidate’s apparent misgivings about corporate wealth.
Here’s a sampling of businesspeople in the top tier of donors — giving $25,000 to Ready for Hillary — according to the Center for Responsive Politics:
Eli Broad, retired entrepreneur who made billions in insurance and home building. Estimated net worth: $7.1 billion.
Bruce Cozzad, CEO of Jazz Pharmaceuticals (JAZZ). Latest annual compensation: $8.3 million. Cozzad’s wife Sharon also gave $25,000 to Ready for Hillary.
William Freeman, chairman and co-founder of real-estate investment firm Freeman Webb, whose pay is undisclosed because his firm is privately owned.
Clifford Hudson, CEO of burger chain Sonic (SONC). Latest annual pay package: $2.5 million.
Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of deceased Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs. The mercurial Jobs earned just $1 per year as Apple CEO, but he died in 2011 with a net worth of about $7 billion, mostly from stock in Apple and Walt Disney, which bought Jobs’s company Pixar in 2006.
Thomas H. Lee , founder of the private-equity firms Thomas H. Lee Partners and Lee Equity Partners. Estimated net worth: $2 billion.
William Rudin, CEO of privately owned New York real-estate firm Rudin Management Co. Estimated net worth: $4.4 billion (applies to extended family).
George Soros, chairman of hedge fund Soros Fund Management. Net worth: $23 billion.
John Tyson, chairman and former CEO, Tyson Foods (TSN). Total pay in 2007, his last year as CEO: $9.3 million.
Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart (WMT) founder Sam Walton. Estimated net worth: $37 billion.
Many other million- and billionaires will undoubtedly help fund Clinton’s 2016 campaign, some of them taking advantage of rules that allow them to give unlimited amounts to activist “super PACs” without having to disclose their identities. There’s nothing inherently wrong, of course, with wealthy people funding political campaigns, and various Republican candidates, including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul will enjoy lavish funding from their own moneyed kingmakers.
Clinton will stand alone, however, if she accepts millions of dollars in corporate money while publicly assailing the same people funding her campaign. That will only fuel the cause of liberals hoping to enlist Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts—who castigates corporate influence in politics while accepting far less corporate money—to challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination. To keep Warren and her wing content, Clinton may have to say no to a bit of corporate money, in addition to complaining about it.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.