The Non-Denial Denial: Kathleen Matthews and Marriott's Government Affairs
-by Jeffrey Hearn
When Zephyr Teachout called Kathleen Matthews a corporate lobbyist, it clearly struck a nerve.
The occasion was an endorsement of Jamie Raskin, the progressive who is Matthews' chief rival for the Democratic nomination in Maryland's Eighth congressional district, by MAYDAY.US, the Super PAC dedicated to advancing campaign finance reform by attracting grassroots support to "champions of democracy" who can be counted on to lead the fight for such reform in Congress.
"So, here we have, really, the lion for the anti-corruption forces, Jamie Raskin," said Teachout in the endorsement video, "against old, entrenched, connected, D.C. lobbyist politics."
"Raskin, in the Maryland Statehouse, has always been fighting for a better, and a more open, democracy," said Teachout, while Kathleen Matthews "has been a corporate lobbyist in D.C. She is running for Congress and isn't talking about the most central crisis we're facing today, which is our crisis of corruption."
The response from the Matthews campaign came swiftly. MAYDAY.US was engaging in "untrue, negative attacks," they said, "distorting Kathleen's record and making outrageous false claims." Kathleen Matthews, the campaign was reported to have said, had never been a registered lobbyist while working for Marriott International.
And then, of course, they attempted to fundraise off the incident.
One problem. No one had accused Mathews of being a "registered lobbyist." When MAYDAY.US characterized Kathleen Matthews as a "corporate lobbyist," the Matthews campaign had responded with a classic non-denial denial.
So, what is a non-denial denial, exactly?
"A non-denial denial is a statement that, at first hearing, seems a direct, clear cut and unambiguous denial of some alleged accusation, but on carefully parsing turns out not to be a denial at all, and is thus not explicitly untruthful if the allegation is in fact correct. It is a case in which words that are literally true are used to convey a false impression"
Why didn't the Matthews campaign offer up a real denial that Kathleen Matthews had had anything to do with lobbying at Marriott? Because they couldn't truthfully say such a thing. The fact is that Matthews oversaw the lobbying at Marriott during her entire nine years there.
And not just the lobbying. The Marriott International Political Action Committee, too.
Matthews' title at Marriott International was Executive Vice President, Global Communications and Public Affairs. Her portfolio there included "[l]eading brand public relations, corporate communications, social responsibility, international public affairs, and government affairs." But she hasn't had much to say about that last area of responsibility-- government affairs-- in the course of her run for Congress; in spite of the fact that it is so obviously related to the job she now seeks.
So, what does "government affairs" at Marriott entail? Here's a description from Marriott itself:
The Government Affairs Office, located at Marriott International’s corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, has responsibility for:
(i) monitoring, analyzing and influencing federal, state, and local legislative and regulatory activity impacting corporate operations;
(ii) managing relationships with industry professionals, trade associations and advocacy coalitions promoting legislation and public policies benefitting Marriott and its associates;
(iii) serving as a liaison between operational units and federal, state and local government officials and agencies; and
(iv) administering the Political Action Committee (MARPAC) and approving all corporate political campaign contributions.
The Government Affairs Office is where the lobbyists are located at Marriott (the in-house ones, anyway). That office reported to Matthews when she worked there, and while she has recently attempted to distance herself from the Marriott lobbyists, she has elsewhere acknowledged that she not only oversaw their work, but also "advocated" herself on occasion. "Overseeing Government Affairs," she wrote last year in her blog Do a Latte, "I advocated for immigration reform and smart, secure travel policy." Indeed, she was "Marriott’s point person in the travel industry’s campaign to accelerate and widen the government’s visa waiver program, easing some of the post-9/11 restrictions on foreigners wishing to visit the United States," according to one source.
But Government Affairs at Marriott was active on many fronts. Take labor issues for instance. Soon after Matthews arrived at Marriot, opposing the Employee Free Choice Act became a priority for the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), the trade association that has described Matthews as a "key member," and Marriott was actively involved in the fight. Melissa Froehlich Flood, Vice President, Government Affairs at Marriott International, was literally the Marriott "registered lobbyist" working in opposition to this bill, but Flood reported to Matthews.
Opposition to the raising of the minimum wage was another important labor issue that emerged during Matthews' tenure at Marriott. The AHLA opposed such efforts furiously whether they took the form of a proposed raise in the federal minimum wage or one of the many municipal ordinances being considered in various cities across the United States. But opposition to raising the minimum wage was such an unpopular position to take that the fight was mostly left to trade associations like the AHLA. Marriott registered to lobby on the issue, but would not admit to lobbying against it, claiming that it was merely "monitoring" the issue. Nevertheless, CEO Arne Sorenson's comments at the time seemed to make it clear that the minimum wage was the biggest policy issue of the day for Marriott, and that they were by no means advocating in support of efforts to raise the minimum wage.
A question occurs: If Marriott's Government Affairs Office was engaged in such work on Matthews watch, what does it tell us about the role Matthews played in Marriott's government affairs? Was she really the "progressive business leader" she has claimed to be at Marriott?
When her departure from Marriott was announced last year, Arne Sorenson credited Matthews with "invigorating the company’s outreach in government affairs." One measure of her impact can be seen in the dramatic rise in Marriott PAC contributions received from employees.
Another measure of Matthews' impact, however, is to be found in what the Marriott PAC did with all that money: they spread it around. Widely. "[M]ore than $1.4 million to candidates between 2008 and 2014, including nearly $700,000 to Republicans," reported the Washington Post last week.
Especially noteworthy, given Matthews claim to have been a "progressive business leader" at Marriott are the contributions to Republican leaders and leaders-to-be like Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, and Steve Scalise. But Matthews' Marriott PAC was also rewarding Ted Cruz's closest ally in the Senate, Mike Lee, and other controversial Republican members of Congress, like James Inhofe, David Vitter, Joni Ernst, and Darrell Issa.
Another such recipient of Marriott PAC money was Roy Blunt, the last of the Tom DeLay-Denny Hastert-era Republican House leadership, now serving in the Senate. There's almost nobody Marriott's PAC was more generous to during the Matthews era than Roy Blunt. They gave him $24,000 during Matthews' time there. And Kathleen Matthews even threw more than a little of her own money into the kitty for good measure.
In attempting to explain her "maxed out" personal contribution to Blunt during this 2016 election cycle, Matthews has claimed the contribution was meant to reward Blunt for his help with a bipartisan piece of legislation important to her industry that he worked on with Democrat Amy Klobuchar. Interesting to note, then, that Marriott's PAC gave a great deal more to Blunt than it did to Klobuchar while it was reporting to Matthews. And while Matthews did give a campaign contribution to Klobuchar in 2011, she hasn't seen fit to make a personal contribution to Klobuchar this cycle, as she did to Blunt. (source: FEC).
What is one to make of the less than even-handed rewards being doled out here? Is it possible that it wasn't bipartisanship, exactly, that these contributions were meant to reward? That's what MAYDAY.US thinks. Looking closely at the timing of these contributions, they believe they have found "an unsettling pattern of pay-to-play politics" by the Matthews-era Marriott PAC.
But if pay-to-play was what was going on here, is it fair to suggest that Kathleen Matthews was a party to it? She has claimed that the lobbyists at Marriott made the specific decisions about PAC contributions, but those lobbyists reported to her, and the "policies and practices" of the Government Affairs Office were reviewed semi-annually by the Marriott International Board of Directors. It seems unlikely that Kathleen Matthews, an Executive Vice President who reported directly to the CEO, was merely an innocent bystander, out of the loop when it came to Marriott's lobbying and PAC activity. And even if she was out of the loop, wouldn't that tell us something just as important about the gap between her campaign rhetoric and the reality of her record at Marriott?
One more thing interesting to note in this regard: while eyebrows have been raising left, right, and center recently in response to the news (here, here, here, here, here, and here, just for starters) that dozens of Beltway insiders who have appeared on husband Chris Matthews' show Hardball have made contributions to the Matthews campaign-- "the donations from Washington A-listers raise questions about whose interests Matthews will represent if she wins the April 26 primary and is elected in November," was how the Washington Post put it-—nobody seems to have noticed that there are also at least eleven recipients of Marriott International PAC contributions during Matthews time who are now contributing to or endorsing her campaign.
Then there is the case of Viviana Janer. Janer, an internal auditor with eleven years of service in at Marriott Vacations Worldwide, a spinoff of Marriott International, ran for Osceola County Commissioner in Florida in 2014. Marriott International PAC was backing the Republican incumbent in the race, however, and had given him $1000. When Marriott Vacations Worldwide discovered Janer had won the Democratic nomination, they told her that she could either withdraw from the race and keep her job, or stay in the race and quit her job. She refused the choice and was fired. And two days after the firing Marriott's PAC contributed an additional $1000 to her Republican opponent's campaign.
No doubt the decision to make the first contribution to Janer's opponent in a county commissioner race was made by a lobbyist in the Marriott Government Affairs Office, as Matthews has claimed was the rule. But as the chief public relations person for Marriott International, the single person most responsible for protecting the company's brand, how could she not have known about what was happening down in Florida after Janer was fired? Did she make any effort to keep the Marriott PAC from doubling down in support of Janer's opponent in the wake of the bad publicity? And, again, if Matthews was the "progressive business leader" she has claimed to have been at Marriott, how did this happen on her watch?
Kathleen Matthews has received more money from lobbyists than any Democrat running for the House in 2016 anywhere in the country (source: Center for Responsive Politics)
Kathleen Matthews has received more lobbyist money than any non-incumbent of either party running for the House in 2016 anywhere in the country (source: Center for Responsive Politics)
Kathleen Matthews has received almost three dozen contributions-- totaling over $100,000-- from corporate PACs, as of December 31, 2015. This is more corporate PAC money than any non-incumbent of either party running for the House in 2016 anywhere in the country has received.
(Methodology: Go to the FEC website here. Click on each state, one by one, clicking on "Total" under "House Campaign Finance Map for each, and scan the list of PAC contribution totals for non-incumbents. Compile your list, delete non-corporate PAC contributions for each, compare and contrast.)
So, the question becomes: why is Kathleen Matthews so popular with lobbyists and corporate PACs? Could it be that they know one of their own kind when they see one?
"[O]ld, entrenched, connected, D.C. lobbyist politics."
Perhaps Zephyr Teachout had it right all along.
The scene is from All the President's Men.
Ben Bradlee: All non-denial denials. They doubt our ancestry, but they don't say the story isn't accurate.
Bob Woodward: I mean, did you understand one thing he was saying?
Carl Bernstein: What I can't figure out is, what is a real denial?
Ben Bradlee: Well, if they start calling us goddamn liars, we better start circling the wagons.
Carl Bernstein: When do you think they'll start doing that?
Ben Bradlee: When they get out of Tampa.
Which is to say, after they've got the nomination in hand.
Sometimes it's all about getting the nomination.
"Kathleen Matthews: AKA Kathy Cunningham, Republican Political Operative."
Jeffrey Hearn is an historian by training. He is also a longtime movement progressive a longtime resident of Maryland’s Eighth District, and a Jamie Raskin supporter, something he has previously blogged about here.
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