I deal with some tough stuff in this newsletter, yet I’m usually an upbeat guy. But 2022 is testing me. The war in Ukraine is a daily quagmire of human despair. The Democrats’ brief flirtation with bold ideas is over. Tom Brady is back, and new waves of COVID-19 may be right behind him. Groundhog Day and six weeks of winter was one thing, but no one asked for six more months of 2020.
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A hedge fund billionaire who owns everything now wants to buy a Pennsylvania senator
How filthy rich is Chicago hedge fund trader Ken Griffin? Well, for starters, the man recently bought the U.S. Constitution! To be clear, the 53-year-old billionaire actually owns a copy of the foundational American document framed here in Philadelphia in 1787, one of only 13 originals from that year.
Griffin said he was minding his own business last fall when his son called him up and said, “Dad, you have to buy the U.S. Constitution,” in reference to an upcoming auction. Based on not much more than that, Griffin went out and bid $43.2 million for the 235-year-old parchment, defeating and deflating the rival bidder, a confab of cryptocurrency investors. Is this a great country, or what?
Don’t answer that.
This thing is, once you’ve bought the U.S. Constitution, it’s not a big deal to buy one or two actual U.S. senators — especially when they can be had for a fraction of the cost. Griffin has already spent roughly $50 million on almost exclusively Republican political candidates in the current election cycle. But arguably nothing he’s spent has made a bigger difference than his $5 million donation to a political-action committee backing a fellow mega-rich hedge fund dude running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania — David McCormick, who has spent much of his recent life in Connecticut.
Unless you’re a CNBC groupie, you’ve probably never heard of Griffin and his Citadel Securities before. But then, almost no one here in Pennsylvania had ever heard of McCormick, until he started spending those Wall Street dollars on a blizzard of TV ads, building himself up with his own fortune while the Griffin-backed PAC demolishes his chief GOP rival.
In the ads, we see Dave McCormick decorating a Christmas tree. Dave McCormick bragging that as an Iraq War vet he’s “battle tested, Pennsylvania true” — this after spending most of the 21st century in the Nutmeg State. Dave McCormick taunting President Biden with a “Let’s Go Brandon” chant — during the Super Bowl. He’s spent more than $8 million — more than any other candidate running for any office in America in 2022. And it’s worked, spectacularly.
The latest Fox News poll of the Pennsylvania race shows that the anonymous out-of-state mega-rich guy. McCormick, has now pulled ahead of the out-of-state well-known TV celebrity, New Jersey’s Mehmet Oz, 24%-15%. In a year when the normal political trends and voter worries about issues like inflation point to a strong GOP surge, any Republican candidate might have the edge in November over Democrats like Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta who actually live here and hold political office.
But how can voters in Pennsylvania — a state famed for being hostile to outsiders from J.D. Drew to Santa ...(no, I won’t go there) — let this happen? The super PAC backing McCormick is called Honor Pennsylvania — yet in addition to Griffin and his whopping $5 million, the group’s big-bucks donors include Arjun Gupta of Colorado’s Telesoft, California’s Harry Evans Sloan, and New York’s Joel Klein. Oh, and the Honor Pennsylvania PAC is registered in Texas. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
But what does a $5 million donor like Griffin — whose net worth has soared during the pandemic past $28 billion, making him one of the 30 richest people in America — want? On one level, it’s hard to say because Griffin seems to want EVERYTHING, from that copy of the Constitution to his brand new $238 million penthouse on Central Park South in Manhattan, the most expensive piece of U.S. real estate ever purchased. (He’d bought an $122 million mansion in London just days earlier — a starter home, apparently.)
In many ways, Griffin’s bio reads like any random American billionaire, including the lurid mid-life divorce with sordid allegations including his ex-wife’s claim that Griffin threw a bedpost at her during a fight about their prenuptial agreement. (Griffin’s forceful yet interesting denial: He “inadvertently removed a bedpost from the bed, which resulted in a moment of levity ending the argument.”) And yet as Griffin’s wealth reaches the stratosphere, he’s spending more and more of it on politicians, including another $5 million for the campaign of Florida’s anti-gay, anti-racism-education Gov. Ron DeSantis.
His 2022 pet political cause seems to be the defeat of his longtime Chicago nemesis, that state’s billionaire Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Griffin has even delivered speeches blaming Pritzker and Democratic policies for his hometown’s high murder rate, causing critics to note the inconvenient truth that Griffin’s Citadel has invested $86 million in companies making guns and ammunition. I think it’s more telling that Griffin spent a gob-smacking $54 million in 2020 to defeat a Pritzker-backed amendment that would have raised income taxes on Illinois’ super wealthy.
In Washington, a Senate with at least 50 Republican votes in recent years has fought off any talk of changes to the loophole that taxes a lot of the money that hedge-fund managers like Griffin earn at just 20%, not the top marginal rate of 37%. Having a fellow hedge funder like McCormick replace Wall Street’s current reigning champion, Sen. Pat Toomey — in a state that Griffin occasionally flies over — makes sure that a Chicago billionaire can still afford to spend $43 million on a copy of the Constitution while mocking the democracy it supposedly created.
What does any of this have to do with the very real issues facing Pennsylvania? Nothing, and that’s the problem.
Yo, do this
While Ken Griffin was paying $43 million for the Constitution, The Nation’s wildly irreverent legal writer Elie Mystal is out here shredding the document, metaphorically speaking. Mystal’s new book — Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution — is backed up in my queue while I finish Watergate (SEE BELOW!). In the spirit of the on-and-off racial reckoning of the 2020s, Mystal wants you to question everything about America’s foundational document, including its inherent conservatism and the ways that racism and sexism are woven through it. And the author has a lot of ideas to make it better ... if we only had the willpower.
There’s just 15 days left to sink your teeth into Garrett M. Graff’s meaty tome Watergate: A New History and prepare to join Garrett and me on Wednesday, March 30, at 4:15 p.m. for a special online event, the first-ever gathering of The Will Bunch Culture Club. (Please register at this link!) I am thoroughly enjoying this New York Times best-seller and can’t wait to ask Garrett what he thinks the high crimes and misdemeanors of Richard Nixon tell us about the long downhill road to Donald Trump and January 6. I know you’ll bring some great questions, too.
Ask me anything
Question: Is there any hope for the 2022 Phillies? — Via Holly Branham (@BranhamHolly) on Twitter
Answer: Holly, now that baseball is abruptly back for a full (but slightly delayed) season, there’s two ways to answer this. In the conventional sense, the Phillies — playing in a tough division led by the world champion Atlanta Braves — have so far failed to add any of the big guns who could back up their lone superstar, Bryce Harper. But there’s also hope in the moral sense, and the Phillies are failing badly here. In looking to build back the team on the cheap, they’re signing not one but two players dogged by past allegations of domestic abuse — reliever Jeurys Familia and the return of annoying outfielder Odubel Herrera. A quality team requires quality human beings. The 2022 Phillies will be hard to watch.
Backstory on house-to-house warfare against Putin, climate change
One of the most bizarre things as the war in Ukraine slogs towards the three-week mark has been the stampede of American politicians claiming that the bloody conflict — funded by Vladimir Putin’s oil-and-gas revenues — is a justification for more drilling and pipelines, rather than trying to abandon our over-reliance on fossil fuels. That’s why it’s unfortunate that so little attention has been paid to a truly groundbreaking proposal that’s going down to the wire for our neighbors in New York State. In Albany, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul wants to make her state the first in the nation to ban natural gas connections in new homes and office buildings, effective in 2027. “To make real progress on climate change, it’s time to tackle major sources of pollution head-on,” Hochul told New Yorkers earlier this year — and that was before Putin sought to leverage his hold as Europe’s biggest gas supplier. Some cities have enacted similar bans, including New York City, with a more aggressive target of 2023, and a few environmentalists have complained the Hochul plan is too slow.
But the reality is that in the present crisis — with Republican politicians and Big Gas interests shamelessly trying to leverage the spike in gasoline prices — any positive step toward climate-change sanity deserves our attention, and our support. Of course, the fossil-fuel cutoff will only flourish with enough clean energy to replace those natural-gas hookups. That’s why the Hochul administration is also supporting the ongoing construction of a massive offshore wind turbine project near Long Island that will power 70,000 homes, part of a major green energy push. The hope is that New York’s plan for smart, green homes will inspire neighboring states like Pennsylvania, where pro-fracking interests in Harrisburg have — so far, unsuccessfully — pushed legislation that would ban the banning of natural gas hookups. The day will come when Pennsylvanians will ask why we were so dumb to put off making our new houses “smart.”
Inquirer reading list
In my Sunday column, I looked how and why President Biden seemed to get everything right on the economy — overseeing an unprecedented hiring boom and economic growth that’s actually benefitted low-wage workers — and yet is paying a price politically because of inflation. Give partial blame to bad media coverage that leaves millions unaware of the 6.6 million jobs gained in 2021, but the real problem is the pain of higher prices, and the demographics of who gets hurt the most. With gas prices rising by another $1 a gallon since I wrote this, Biden’s problems are about to get worse.
Over the weekend, I dug into more cases in the post-George-Floyd environment of big city cops from New York to Philadelphia offering false or misleading accounts of high-profile shootings, and our continued failings to reform law enforcement and bring accountability. I argued that President Biden’s State of the Union plea to “fund the police” can’t be taken seriously without real police-reform legislation as well as efforts to fund the community programs that actually reduce crime.
One of the cases I discussed in that column — the tragic fatal shooting by a police officer of a 12-year-old South Philadelphia boy named Thomas “TJ” Siderio — raised a swirl of questions, not only about the cops but also how it came to be that someone so young was out riding his bike with a stolen gun, allegedly firing at a car containing plainclothes officers? The Inquirer assigned a team that grew to seven journalists that dug deep into the short, troubled life of TJ, his problematic parents, and a world where a 12-year-old lost boy could veer between sweetness and violence. Their piece was not only a compelling read but a reminder of how local journalism can inform the community. That requires people power, and it won’t happen without your subscription to the Inquirer.