Washington University’s top political donors discuss civic engagement

Quincy Schmechel | Contributing Reporter

Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Student Life analyzed data from the Federal Election Commission to see where Washington University faculty, staff, and students donated their money. In total, University community members donated $58,628.68 to candidates and organizations on both sides of the aisle. The vast majority of donations were to Democratic candidates and organizations, falling in line with the popular notion that Washington University is a liberal campus.

Student Life spoke with some of the top individual donors in the Washington University community. What follows is an explanation of their motivations behind donating and the importance of political engagement.

For Professor of Orthopedic Surgery Jacob Buchowski, engaging in politics is a necessity for academics, especially physicians, to have their interests recognized and prioritized by politicians.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” Buchowski said.

Buchowski is one of the many faculty members at the University who donates throughout election cycles and was part of the top ten donors in the most recent cycle. Collectively, the top ten donors contributed $23,450.40 to a variety of organizations and candidates. ActBlue, a nonprofit that connects Democratic campaigns with grassroots donors, Claire McCaskill, the then-Democratic senator for Missouri, and George Scott, Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District, were the top recipients of donations from Washington University community members. Both McCaskill and Scott lost their respective races in the 2018 midterm elections.

A seasoned donor, Buchowski has been engaging in political speech via donation for roughly the last decade. Specifically, Buchowski supports organizations that protect the interests of physicians.

I believe that it is critical for physicians to be engaged in the legislative and regulatory process whether on the federal, state, and/or local level,” Buchowski said. “To that end, I donate to the Political Action Committee [PAC] of the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the PAC of North American Spine Society/National Association of Spine Specialists.”

Because Buchowski donates to groups that advocate for the interests of his profession, his donations tend to be non-partisan.

“I don’t donate to individual candidates or to the major parties,” Buchowski said. “I let the PACs decide how best to spend funds to affect change on the legislative and regulatory front.”

Similarly, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Mary Hartman knows the value of money as political speech in terms of affecting change. Hartman, too, has donated for approximately the last 10 years, but donates to a myriad of different organizations, including charities, political organizations, and directly to candidates.

“The first Obama campaign was when I got started in earnest,” Hartman said of her donating. “That conveniently coincided with the completion of my medical training, which meant that I was not making a better salary and had more disposable income.”

Hartman says that working in the medical field informs a lot of the reasons she donates money and recognizes the power of donation as political activism.

“For me, it’s multifactorial,” she said of her reasons for donating. “First, I work full time at a job with a lot of work hours, schedule variability, and traveling – these all make it hard for me to donate time, which seems like an equal, if not more important, commodity. Right now, I just don’t have the time, and yet I want to be active and contribute,” Hartman said.

She continued to elaborate about the value of donation, saying, “Second, money is necessary for almost all forms of campaigning and advertising, if a candidate expects to reach their audience with any effectiveness. Donating money without restrictions on its use allows a candidate to decide how it can best serve their campaign, get out their message, and get them closer to the finish line. Money is flexible and as far as I can tell, more is always better.”

Insofar as the causes she donates to, Hartman expressed that donating to multiple causes increases the effectiveness of her political engagement.

“I donate to a number of charities each year, some directly political, and some less so,” Hartman said. “The directly political donations are made to the DNC and individual candidates. The less directly political donations are more broadly distributed, from education to community-building and organizations working for social justice, eliminating food insecurity, and combating poverty.”

Hartman said that in respect to determining where her money goes, spreading it around seems to her like the most impactful approach.

“I feel as though donations to political organizations get diffused,” she said. “While [my] donations go generally to causes and policies I support, they do not necessarily fund candidates in my locality. Direct donations to those candidates seem to be the most effective way to participate in an election about which I personally care.”

Christine Pham, Professor of Medicine and Chief of the Division of Rheumatology, agreed, saying that direct donations to candidates seem to be the most effective way to “champion” her “view of democracy.”

“I donate directly to candidates,” Pham said, “usually Democrats since I share their ideas and views, i.e. universal healthcare and economic equality.”

Pham, as a first-generation immigrant “who sought asylum in the US while fleeing a war-torn country,” is a staunch believer in political activism and engaging in every way. While she is a seasoned donor, she also participates in the political sphere in several other ways, noting the power of political donations.

“I also march [and] write letters to Congress, but money speaks.”