When Elizabeth Warren officially entered the presidential race back in February, she made a controversial decision, one that ultimately caused her finance director to quit in protest: She swore off high-dollar fundraisers. Ten months later, that decision gave Warren some high ground when, on the debate stage in California, she called out Pete Buttigieg for holding a recent fundraiser in a Napa Valley wine cave dripping with Swarovski crystals.
“Think about who comes to that,” Warren said. “We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States. Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”
It’s an argument that goes to the central, existential question of this primary: Is the Democratic Party supposed to serve the interests of wealthy, well-connected donors? Or is it supposed to serve the interests of working people? The candidates who hold exclusive, expensive fundraisers argue the they can accept money from rich people without becoming beholden to them; while both Warren and Sanders insist the country ended up in the dire position it is today because politicians have catered to the interests of the wealthy and well-connected.
Buttigieg (who has a net worth about $100,000, according to Forbes) hit back at Warren (net worth: $12 million, also according to Forbes) contrasting his own finances with hers and the others on stage. The mayor of South Bend, who has made his millennial identity one of the calling cards of his campaign, is representative of his generation, which owns a fraction of the wealth that Boomers did at their age.
“This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” Buttigieg said. “Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine. Suppose you went home and felt the holiday spirit… and gave the maximum donation allowable by law, would that pollute my campaign because it came from a wealthy person? No. I would be glad to have that support.”
Warren doubled-down. “I said to anyone who wants to donate to me, if you want to donate to me, that’s fine. But don’t come around later expecting to be named ambassador.” She went on: “Here’s the problem. If you can’t stand up and take the steps that are relatively easy, can’t stand up to the wealthy and well connected when it is relatively easy, when you are a candidate, then how can the American people believe you will stand up to the wealthy and well-connected when you are president and it is really hard?”
Buttigieg snapped back, noting that Warren transferred money to her presidential campaign that she raised as a senator in the kinds of fundraisers she was now condemning. “Did it corrupt you, Senator? Of course not.”
Bernie Sanders jumped into the fray with a flex about his own donor base: Not only did he not have any billionaire contributors, Sanders notes, he had more donors than any candidate in history at this stage of the campaign. (Sanders also has the most contributions from women of any Democrat, and the most of any candidate from either party, by far, from members of the military.) His point, though, was to draw a distinction between himself and Warren on one side, and Buttigieg and Biden on the other.
“Now, there’s a real competition going on up here, my good friend, Joe, and he is a good friend, [who] has received contributions from 44 billionaires; Pete on the other hand is trailing. Pete, you’ve only got 39 billionaires,” Sanders said. “Pete, we look forward to you — I know you’re an energetic guy, a competitive guy — to take on Joe on that issue. But what is not a laughing matter, my friends: This is why three people own more wealth than the bottom half. … We need to get money out of politics.”