Pete Buttigieg faced criticism on the debate stage on December 19, 2019, for a lavish fundraiser he participated in at the Hall Rutherford wine caves in Napa Valley a few days beforehand. The dinner was hosted by the winery owners, billionaires Craig and Kathryn Hall.
Senator Elizabeth Warren took aim at the South Bend mayor for accepting larger donations from wealthy patrons, arguing that “billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”
Buttigieg countered back, accusing Senator Warren of essentially being a hypocrite by pointing out that she had accepted larger donations when she ran for the Senate. He added that Democrats should not head into the general election against President Trump with “one hand tied behind our back.”
Here’s what you need to know.
1. The Hall Rutherford Wine Cave Boasts a Chandelier With 1,500 Swarovski Crystals & Bottles of Wine Sell For As Much as $900
The fundraiser at the Hall Rutherford wine caves featured a guest list that included big names in the tech industry. According to Recode, the co-hosts for the event included Netflix CEO Reed Hastings; Nicole Shanahan, who is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin; Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s sister, Michelle Sandberg; and Wendy Schmidt, who is married to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Recode reporter Teddy Schleifer shared images of the wine cave the day after the event. The hall includes a massive chandelier that is adorned with 1,500 Swarovski crystals. As Senator Warren noted during the debate, bottles of wine sell for as much as $900.
This dinner was one of four fundraising events Pete Buttigieg participated in during his visit to the region.
2. The Buttigieg Campaign Promised That Fundraisers Would Be Open to Media But the Majority of the Wine Cave Event Was Closed to Reporters
Pete Buttigieg’s campaign has faced recent scrutiny over transparency. For example, critics argued that he should disclose more details about the work he did while employed at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company from 2007 to 2010. (He has since released the names of the clients he worked with and you can read more about that here).
On December 9, campaign manager Mike Schmuhl announced that Buttigieg’s fundraisers would be open to reporters going forward. He added that the campaign would also publicize a list of people raising money for the campaign.
That promise is partially why Mayor Pete is facing some heat for the wine cave event. Reporters were on-hand for his prepared remarks ahead of time and there was a question and answer session. But the dinner itself was closed to the press. The New York Post reported that one pool reporter was allowed in for part of the event.
3. Buttigieg Argued That His Campaign Was Not ‘Polluted’ By Accepting Maximum Individual Donations of $2,800
Senator Elizabeth Warren brought up the wine cave fundraiser by name during the sixth Democratic debate on December 19. She argued that she does not “sell access” to her time and that “rich people in smoke-filled rooms” should not pick the next president. Senator Warren also said that the rest of the Democratic field should commit to saying that they wouldn’t grant an administration position to someone who donated a lot of money. You can watch the entire exchange in the video embedded above.
Pete Buttigieg countered that anyone who could be influenced by a donor like that has “no business running for office in the first place.” But he argued that rejecting money from wealthy individuals would not help a Democrat defeat President Trump in 2020. Buttigieg pointed out that the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee has far outraised the Democrats and that the Dem nominee should not enter the general election “with one hand tied behind our back.”
Buttigieg also argued against the idea that his campaign was somehow “polluted” for accepting the maximum individual donation of $2,800 from wealthy donors. Buttigieg pointed out that Senator Warren’s net worth was “100 times” more than his own and that if someone like her wanted to give to his campaign, he welcomed it. (More on Buttigieg’s net worth here).
Buttigieg also went back at Senator Warren by stating, “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you yourself cannot pass.” He was talking about the fact that while Senator Warren does not accept larger donations now, she used to.
Campaign finance records available from the Center for Responsive Politics and the FEC show that Senator Warren transferred $10 million from her 2018 Senate campaign into her presidential campaign. More than $6 million were made up of donations that totaled $1,000 or more. (Senator Warren has faced criticism for this in the past, including from former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who had donated to her in the past).
4. The Halls Donated Large Sums to President Bill Clinton & Kathryn Hall Served as Ambassador to Austria During His Second Term
Senator Warren’s statement during the debate, about how wealthy donors should not expect to be granted ambassadorships, may have been a jab at the couple who hosted the wine cave fundraiser for Pete Buttigieg.
The lavish dinner was hosted by Craig and Kathryn Hall, the owners of the winery. The couple has donated at least $2 million to Democrats over the years, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Party committees, according to Federal Election Commission records cited by the Associated Press.
The Halls donated about $234,000 to Democrats during the 1996 election. Kathryn Hall was later named as the ambassador to Austria during President Bill Clinton’s second term.
Before the wine cave dinner took place, Pete Buttigieg’s Press Secretary Chris Meagher released a statement insisting that wealthier donors would not be promised high-level positions if Buttigieg won the presidency. The statement read, “We are proud to have the support of more than 700,000 grassroots donors across the country who are helping power this campaign. The only thing people are promised at an event with Pete is that he will use that money to beat Donald Trump.”
5. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Is Using the Wine Cave Issue As a Fundraising Tactic
The term “wine cave” was a major online trend following the sixth Democratic debate. Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign jumped on it as a fundraising tactic.
The campaign bought the URL peteswinecave.com. It leads to a fundraising website that states, “Our single path to victory is from LOTS of people making small donations. Bernie doesn’t have a super PAC or wealthy donors supporting this campaign.”
Senior advisor to the Sanders campaign Jeff Weaver spoke with VICE News after the debate about why the wine cave moment had resonated. He told the outlet, “It epitomizes the problem of money in politics. People are disgusted with wealthy people buying elections, and the wine cave with the crystals and china really epitomized that for a lot of people.”
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