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Why is right-wing Philly hedge-fund guy Jeff Yass backing Democrat Andrew Yang in NYC?

In April 2019, I hopped an Amtrak train to D.C. to have lunch (OK, he ate a salmon Caesar salad while I scribbled notes) with a rising presidential candidate named Andrew Yang, before watching him rally hundreds of his new followers on a brutally cold night near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I was there to profile the former middling businessman and ideas maven for Brown University’s alumni magazine (our mutual alma mater). And I boarded my return train impressed with his intelligence, intrigued by his thoughts on automation and a universal basic income (UBI) — and thinking Yang was a progressive who might work for a Democratic president in 2021.

Instead, the 46-year-old Yang is running for mayor of New York City, and the man who famously campaigned for the White House in a baseball hat reading “MATH” has been racking up the numbers, riding his 2020 TV celebrity to lead in most polls since he entered the race, over a field where his rivals all have much more experience in local politics.

But not everything about Yang’s second act is adding up.

The man who’d convinced me two years ago that he was a progressive now has some strange new political bedfellows — including his most prominent donor who happens to hail from the Philadelphia region and who’s well-known as a supporter of right-wing political causes, a hedge-fund billionaire named Jeffrey Yass.

I profiled Yass and two of partners from the Bala Cynwyd-based unconventional trading firm called Susquehanna International Group back in 2015, when they invested millions in an unsuccessful effort to pick a mayor for Philadelphia in state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who shared their unbridled support for charter schools. Since then, Yass — a self-described libertarian (like other billionaires who support no government and super-low taxes ... weird, right?) — has been more often linked to Republican and right-wing causes.

» READ MORE: What if the feds sent you $1,200 every month? | Will Bunch Newsletter

Yass’ man in the 2020 president race was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and he’s a major Republican donor both in Pennsylvania and nationally. And just this weekend, Yass was targeted by picketers outside Susquehanna’s offices over a report that he and partner Arthur Dantchik are major donors to a right-wing group in Israel that supports building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

But now Yass has given a reported $500,000 — and is listed in a disclosure as one of the three biggest donors, along with two other mega-rich hedge fund executives who mostly back Republicans — to the new Comeback PAC, a reported $6 million drive to put Yang over the top in America’s biggest city.

I called the secretive Susquehanna’s offices Monday and got an answering machine — you can guess how that turned out — but Yass did speak last week with Politico. “I thought he would be the best guy for school choice,” the billionaire told them, but he added something else that reminded me of Yang’s talent in convincing listeners (like me) that he shares their political viewpoint. “Andrew has a lot of libertarian leanings. He is not quite a libertarian, to say the least, but he has those leanings.”

But does he? Yang has distinguished himself on the New York campaign trail with his unabashed support for charter schools and also his willingness to criticize the city’s powerful teachers’ union, which is probably smart politics after a year in which that district’s lengthy coronavirus lockdown angered many parents.

But earlier this month, Yang caused something of a stir and later backpedaled some after —during the most intense fighting in Gaza — he tweeted full support for Israel in the conflict, writing, “The people of NYC will always stand with our brothers and sisters in Israel who face down terrorism and persevere.” He later acknowledged both the criticism and the suffering of Palestinians, calling his tweet “simplistic” — but I have to wonder whether Yang had also been trying too hard to impress some of his new donors like Jeff Yass.

As Politico also noted, Yass is just one — albeit arguably the most controversial — of a number of big donors in the New York City race. And that is disappointing, because the city — dating back to the 1980s, and the era of reform that followed the Watergate scandal — has long been a leader in public campaign financing, the scheme that was supposed to remove the influence of deep-pocketed donors. That system worked well for several decades, but was overrun by all the dark-money tricks and the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United that allowed a hedge-fund dude like Yass to drive a truckload of cash through the massive loopholes.

The New York primary on June 22 will be just the latest reminder that Congress needs to somehow get its act together and finally pass the For the People Act, or HR 1, which has a number of campaign-finance provisions including an end to so-called “dark money” spending. The measure wouldn’t fully prevent the influence of a billionaire like Yass, but it might curb it.

Instead, we have a candidate like Yang who’s on the brink of becoming mayor of America’s flagship big city as a celebrity and also as a cipher, with voters having no idea if his newly formed policy positions are heartfelt — or simply a new fundraising pitch. That’s kind of sad. To update Joni Mitchell, I’ve looked at Yang in two races now, and still somehow ... I really don’t know Yang, at all.

Programming note

Since this newsletter began in April 2020 (yes, right at the most panicked moment of the pandemic!) I’ve pretty much produced it every week. But over the coming month of June, I’ll be taking my time off from The Inquirer in order to (hopefully) finish my book on what went wrong with college in America and how this caused our political crack-up. (The book is coming in spring 2022 from William Morrow, and, yes, you’re all expected to buy it.) So the next four weeks will mark the first (and rare, I promise) hiatus for The Will Bunch Newsletter. Don’t go anywhere, because when weekly newsletters return in July, there will surely be a lot to talk about.

Yo, do this

  • The racial reckoning that began on the streets in 2020 seems to have moved to the printed page in 2021. The latest must-read analysis, and maybe the most important, is the new America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s by Yale Law School professor Elizabeth Hinton. Hinton mines an almost forgotten moment in American history — the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Black youth and amped-up city cops were locked into a cycle of escalating violence — to show us the roots of a modern police state. The author reveals how yesterday’s miscalculations and short-sightedness led to today’s crisis of injustice.

  • One of the many unfortunate side effects of a global pandemic that has lasted for more than a year has been that it took our political focus away from the ongoing public health crisis of opioid abuse, even though drug overdoses predictably spiked during the 2020-21 lockdown. Thus, it’s good timing for the arrival of Alex Gibney’s sprawling two-part documentary, The Crime of the Centurynow streaming on HBO Max — that goes deep on recasting today’s druglords as Big Pharma billionaires in a suit and a tie. The filmmaker is determined to push our outrage buttons on who’s behind 500,000 U.S. overdose deaths in the 21st century, and Gibney hits a lot more than he misses.

Ask me anything

Question: Did you ever think you would miss Jimmy Carter? ... lol. — Via Mike Huntsman (@MikeHuntsman4) on Twitter

Answer: LOL, indeed. Mike is a longtime self-described troll on my Twitter feed and — despite what they say about trolls — today I’m going to feed this one. Conservatives like Mike are eager to tarnish President Biden by comparing him to the 39th POTUS, whose late 1970s’ term was dragged down by a bad economy, gas lines, and the Iran hostage crisis. Right now Biden has a 62% approval rating, so hardly anyone buys this. And while the moralistic Carter’s four years were marred by his lack of political skill, I look back today and see a man who was 100% right on fossil fuels and the need for peace in the Middle East, and whose Nobel Peace Prize for a life of commitment to human rights was well-deserved. I don’t “miss Jimmy Carter” because he’s still a powerful role model at age 96.

Backstory

The media world was buzzing Monday morning over reports in the Wall Street Journal and on CNN suggesting again that the coronavirus may have originated from a Chinese government lab in the city of Wuhan — a long-running theory that is both plausible and unproven. For the sake of public health, it’s important to learn everything we can about COVID-19, including its origin story. We’ve already seen how speculation about the virus’ origins fueled a deplorable surge in anti-Asian hate here in the U.S. But the notion that the Chinese government might have somehow created or accidentally released the lethal virus into the world, and then massively covered up the truth, seemingly raises the stakes. If confirmed, the Wuhan lab theory would reveal the Beijing government as corrupt, dishonest and arguably evil, to which I can only say: Where have you been for the last 32 years or so?

» READ MORE: Does ‘Never Again!’ mean anything if we do nothing about China’s concentration camps? | Will Bunch

It was September 2019 — or just a couple of months before “coronavirus” became a household word — when the world saw photographic evidence that Chinese government officials had shaved the heads, blindfolded and handcuffed men from the nation’s Uighur Muslim minority and boarded them on trains, presumably bound for a network of concentration camps. In recent years, it’s been estimated that as many as 1 million Uighur people from the nation’s remote western Xinjiang region have been forced into a growing archipelago of what the Chinese insist are “re-education” or “vocational training” facilities, just part of one of the worst campaigns of ethnic repression that our planet has seen since World War II. And yet the American and global response to Beijing’s ethnic cleansing has been empty words and a collective shrug. So we already know about the regime of Chinese president Xi Jinping and its complete lack of morality. Our obsession with a Wuhan lab and our apathy about the plight of the Uighurs is just a sad commentary on our own ethics.

Inquirer reading list

  • In my Sunday column, I looked at the U.S. Supreme Court’s surprising move to take on a hot-button Mississippi abortion case — one with the potential to significantly weaken or even overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure in all 50 states — in its 2021-22 session, and the possible political fallout. Specifically, could the case re-ignite college-educated women who led Democrats to victory in 2018′s midterms?

  • Over the weekend, I wrote about the increasingly animated fight over Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, her 1619 Project on race in America, and her denial of tenure by conservative trustees as she accepts a teaching post at the University of North Carolina. I tried to place the battle as an escalation in a Republican war against free speech on campus that started with Ronald Reagan in the 1960s.

  • Everyone loves to read what we in the business call “a feel-good story.” Right now, for me, that story is watching Philadelphia’s reactionary Fraternal Order of Police getting crushed at the ballot box in its failed effort to replace DA Larry Krasner with someone who’d go easier on cop misconduct. The Inquirer’s Sean Collins Walsh, Chris Brennan and Julia Terruso told the story of how the FOP miscalculated — capping weeks of stellar coverage of an election that determined the future of criminal-justice reform. It would almost be a crime to hold a local election without a great local newspaper. Help The Inquirer continue doing this, by subscribing today.