Big giving by wealthy shaped Minnesota's ’12 campaigns

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Alida Messinger gave $1 million-plus to state DFL.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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In the world of Minnesota political money, three people stand out: Joan Cummins, Bob Cummins and Alida Messinger.

On the right are the Cumminses, who gave more than $3 million to Republican and conservative causes over the past two years. On the left is Messinger, who donated $2.52 million to Democratic and liberal causes.

Together, the three are responsible for nearly $6 million of the $9 million given by the top 25 donors to state parties and campaign committees in the 2012 election cycle, according to a Star Tribune analysis of campaign finance records.

The Star Tribune analysis, which covered donations reported to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board over the past two years, shows that individuals and lobbyists gave a total of $24.7 million to state-based committees. That means the 25 wealthiest donors gave nearly a third of all contributions from individuals. The Cumminses and Messinger were responsible for nearly a fourth of all individual contributions in the period.

Corporations and unions still pour cash into elections, but the records show that wealthy individuals still hold a powerful place in funding Minnesota campaigns. They can give unlimited amounts to party organizations and independent committees working to influence voters, although they are limited in how much they can give directly to candidates.

 In Minnesota, those millions helped fuel the pet causes of top donors.

Joan Cummins, whose husband is head of Primera Technology, practically carried the effort to require voters to show photo ID at the polls. ProtectMyVote.com, the primary organization supporting voter ID, raised $1.5 million — $1.3 million of which came from Joan Cummins.

Messinger, an heir to the Rockefeller fortune and former wife of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, was the Minnesota DFL Party’s single biggest individual donor, at more than $1 million.

Money for nothing?

Big bucks don’t necessarily bring big victories.

Despite Cummins’ infusions, Minnesotans ultimately rejected the voter ID requirement.

The Cumminses also gave about $1.3 million to the Freedom Club, which campaigns for conservative Republican lawmakers. While some of the club’s favorites won in November, Republicans lost control of the Minnesota House and Senate.

Public documents reveal that all of Bob Cummins’ checks arrived in 2011 and nearly all of Joan Cummins’ were donated in 2012. Sources have said that Bob Cummins, long a go-to donor for the state GOP, cut the party off after Republicans failed to put a union-limiting, right-to-work constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot.

Asked over the phone to discuss her political giving, Joan Cummins told a Star Tribune reporter, “No, thank you” and hung up. Mike Scholl, executive director of Civis Communications and adviser to Cummins, did not return calls seeking comment. The Cumminses rarely speak to the media.

Since 2011, Messinger has directed nearly all of her Minnesota political dollars to funders of the DFL-aligned Alliance for a Better Minnesota, the DFL Party and DFL legislative committees. She also gave heavily to campaigns to defeat the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and the voter ID amendment. In addition to rejecting both amendments, voters gave DFLers control of the Legislature.

 “Alida strongly believes in moving Minnesota forward, and she is willing to work at it,” said Jeff Blodgett, a Messinger adviser who said she would not be available to comment. Blodgett and others said she is not the type of donor who makes demands of the beneficiaries of her largesse.

Joining the Cumminses and Messinger in the big donors circle are contributors with names long familiar to those who track political giving. Former Target executive Robert Ulrich, Starkey Hearing Technologies founder William Austin, Pawn America CEO Bradley Rixmann and Hubbard Broadcasting’s Stanley Hubbard were top contributors to Minnesota Republican causes.

Despite the election results, Hubbard said he is open to giving Republicans money again. But he said he wants to make sure his money is well spent. “I want to know what they plan to do in the future,” said Hubbard, who believes it was a mistake for the Republican-led Legislature to put the marriage amendment on the ballot. He gave about $200,000 to Minnesota committees in the past two years.

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