Recently released Federal Election Commission (FEC) fourth-quarter filings reveal that members of the Emory community contributed more than $340,000 to political campaigns during the 2020 election cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a public campaign finance database.
Among the top donors are Film and Media Studies Department Chair Matthew Bernstein ($172,098), Associate Professor of Law Fred Smith ($14,550) and Law School Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Julie Seaman ($7,600).
This analysis includes only 2020 election cycle donors employed by Emory. As a nonprofit organization, the University is prohibited from donating to political campaigns or committees.
A full list of professors and their donations can be found here.
Emory at Large
Contributions from Emory employees generally outrank those of the University’s peer institutions, such as Vanderbilt University (Tenn.), Washington University in St. Louis and Rice University (Texas). Unlike Emory, employees of these institutions typically did not contribute significantly to Senate or House races. Duke University (N.C.) and Northwestern University (Ill.) rank comparably to Emory employees’ 2020 campaign donations with $355,753 and $310,822 in contributions, respectively.
According to the CRP, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg collected $24,945 in total contributions from Emory employees, the highest dollar amount in donations of all presidential candidates. Contributions to candidates include direct donations; contributions made through ActBlue, a Democratic donation platform; and contributions made to political action committees, which were then disbursed to the candidate, the CRP said.
Although Buttigieg collected $5,741 more from Emory employees than the No. 2 candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), he ranked third in total number of direct contributions and contributions through ActBlue. Buttigieg’s more left-leaning opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), received the highest total number of contributions from Emory donors with 474 individual contributions. Warren came in close second with 378 contributions, and Buttigieg rounded out the group with 265. President Donald Trump received 58 donations from Emory employees.
“I try and tie 10 percent of my income [to charitable giving], and political candidates are more of a gamble than not-for-profits,” Department of Environmental Sciences Senior Lecturer John Wegner said. “So up until Obama, I was more giving to [charitable] causes and not to political causes.”
Since 2008, Wegner said he has become more inclined to donate politically, donating $1,150 in the 2020 election cycle alone. Initially, he gave money to several presidential campaigns — including Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sanders — and plans to support Sanders throughout the rest of the election cycle. He has also supported the congressional races of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
On the topic of Emory’s slant toward Democratic candidates, Wegner said he noticed an effect on the student body of the current political climate.
“Many of the students who are not Trump supporters tend to say things in a way that could offend some of the other students in … class,” he said. “I do sense that there’s some reticence on the part of some of the students to participate in class discussions because of their political leanings.”
Local candidates received a nod from Emory donors as well. Longtime U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who represents Emory’s congressional district, collected more than $50,000 from Emory faculty, the majority of which came from Bernstein. Leading candidates for Georgia’s contentious 6th and 7th District congressional races amassed several thousands of dollars as well.
Although many contributors donate directly to their preferred candidates, other contributors donate to party committees.
So far, the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) Services Corp has collected more than $80,000 from Emory employees, roughly $70,000 of which came from Bernstein.
“Giving to the DNC is something we decided to do recently because they were gearing up, setting up an operation, preparing for 2018 and 2020 under Tom Perez,” Bernstein said about himself and his wife. “[Perez] came in with this philosophy [that] we have to have offices in every state and we really have to create a very strong ground game. And that was very compelling to us.”
Matthew Bernstein: Emory’s Biggest Donor
Bernstein, a film professor and book author, joined Emory faculty in 1989 and has contributed more than $1.1 million to political campaigns since. In this election cycle, he has donated over $170,000. Bernstein’s 2020 political contributions surpass the next-highest donor by more than $150,000.
“I think it’s pretty clear from my giving what my wife and I value,” Bernstein told the Wheel. “We’re liberal democrats and we’ve just kind of found the way that our national government and local government is running … does not seem to be true to American democracy.”
His political support has not come without drawbacks, however.
“As you can imagine, our phone rings off the hook from people all over the country who are running,” Bernstein said. “I don’t think two or three days go by without getting [a phone call]. We actually got caller ID on our phone line because of the Democratic Party years ago.”
Bernstein said that because of the high volume of calls, he defers to party committees to decide which races merit donations.
“That’s where we’re saying we trust your judgement as to which candidates need the support,” he said. “It’s sort of like a mutual fund. Let the managers decide what to invest in.”
Bernstein also acknowledged the role that political donations play in his public perception as a professor, saying “I would prefer that students not perceive any kind of political bias in what I’m saying, but … there are other faculty I think who feel like it’s very appropriate and their responsibility to discuss.”
This analysis contains donors employed by Emory University, Emory Medical School Healthcare, the Law School and other affiliates. Because several donors gave donations through ActBlue, the Wheel further identified which candidates received the disclosed contributions.
Though Emory does not comment on employees’ political donations, the University “encourages all members of the community to exercise their rights as citizens and to participate in the electoral process if they chose to do so,” the Office of the General Counsel states.
Correction (2/5/20 at 11:00 a.m.): A previous version of this article stated that Matthew Bernstein joined Emory faculty in 1990. In fact, he joined the faculty in 1989.
Correction (2/5/20 at 1:56 p.m.): This article has been corrected to show that Matthew Bernstein donated $172,098 and Fred Smith donated $14,550.