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Jeff Bezos donates $10 million to veteran-focused super PAC in first major political venture

Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie, are donating to the super PAC, With Honor, which works with candidates across political parties. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg) founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, are making their first major political contribution with a $10 million gift to a super PAC focused on electing veterans to public office.

The super PAC, With Honor, works with candidates across political parties. Unlike other mega-donors who have poured tens of millions of dollars into Republican or Democratic campaigns, the Bezoses chose a group whose 2018 mission includes reversing “the trend of veteran decline in Congress."

Earlier this year, Forbes ranked Bezos — who owns The Washington Post — the richest man in the world, with a net worth of more than $150 billion. On Tuesday, Amazon became the second publicly traded company in the United States to reach a value of more than $1 trillion.

Bezos’s first major foray into electoral politics comes at a time of his rising influence and wealth.

Last year, Bezos announced plans to increase his charitable giving, tweeting a “request for ideas” to his followers, saying he is “thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time.”

In recent years, Blue Origin and have increased their spending on lobbying, to influence rule-making and policymakers on air transport and internet policies, according to records analyzed by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Now Bezos is wading directly into electoral politics, pouring heavily into a bipartisan group to elect members of Congress. Among the candidates the group is supporting are Democratic veterans in some of the most competitive House races this fall. But the group also is supporting Republicans in House races across the country.

Bezos’s most notable political donation prior to this cycle was in 2012, when he gave $2.5 million to the campaign to defend gay marriage in Washington state. Bezos has previously given to both Republican and Democratic candidates for Congress. He and his wife have given to the political action committees of and Blue Origin, the commercial space company that Bezos founded. Both of those committees have supported Democrats and Republicans, including this election cycle.

Prior to their new $10 million donation to With Honor, the Bezoses gave sporadic contributions to federal campaign committees. Since the 2014 election cycle, the Bezoses gave $37,600 to four federal candidates, FEC records show: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

The contribution, first reported Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal, was confirmed by an Amazon spokesperson and With Honor. Bezos declined to comment through the Amazon spokesperson.

The politics of Jeff Bezos

With Honor's website says that the “country has been ripped apart by hyper-partisanship,” and that “Americans know that extreme partisanship has corroded our national legislature.” The fund argues that no national institution suffers from an absence of mutual trust more than Congress.

According to With Honor, veterans represented more than half of Congress for much of the late 20th century. But the decline of veterans in Congress has far outpaced the decline in veterans in the overall U.S. population, according to the group. The Brookings Institution tallied that veteran representation in Congress is at 19 percent — a near-historic low.

With Honor will endorse at least 25 candidates in 2018 based on their leadership history and alignment with the fund's pledge of integrity, civility and courage. That pledge includes meeting with someone from a different political party at least once per month and sponsoring legislation with a member of an opposing party at least once per year.

The super PAC previously received about $2 million from Bezos's parents, Jacklyn and Miguel. This is the first election cycle the Bezos family has spent heavily on super PACs, Federal Election Commission records show. In previous years, Bezos's parents supported individual candidate committees, donations to which are capped at $5,400 per cycle.

With the latest donation to With Honor, Bezos and his wife are now among the biggest donors to super PACs this cycle.

The $10 million donation marks the largest contribution to the super PAC so far this election cycle. Previously, the biggest donors to the super PAC were the retail magnate Leslie Wexner and his wife, Abigail, a lawyer and philanthropist, who gave $2.8 million to the group, FEC records show.

With Honor has supported a slew of veterans running for Congress, and the bulk of its spending so far has paid for ads in support of veterans running for Congress, or ads against their opponents, FEC records show.

As of Wednesday, With Honor listed 33 candidates for House races nationwide. Among candidates the group is supporting are some of the most high-profile veterans from both parties this cycle, such as Democrats Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey, MJ Hegar in Texas, Amy McGrath in Kentucky and Republican Jim Baird in Indiana.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management, said chief executives of public companies have a "civil responsibility," and that on issues of trade and immigration, some corporate leaders are "finding their voice again." Sonnenfeld said that while wealthy executives "don't have to be flame throwers," they do owe it to their customers and investors to engage in debates facing the nation.

"They can't be neutral," Sonnenfeld said. "Their silence is taking sides."

Bezos' choice of a super PAC that aims to elect veterans who will reach across the political aisle sends a message about his values, said Jason Schloetzer, a professor at Georgetown University who studies CEOs.

But the decision was probably heavily vetted given his dominance and "people watching every move that you make," he said.

"I don't think that too many CEOs have done well coming out very strongly on one side or the other in terms of politics, so you definitely need to step carefully," Schloetzer said.

Schloetzer said Bezos' wading into political waters is different from Amazon as a company inserting itself into a political or social cause, and that the personal donation wouldn't be inextricably tied to the Amazon brand "just because it has his name associated with it."

But Tom Lin, a law professor at Temple University who has studied corporate governance, said it can be difficult to "separate Amazon from Jeff Bezos, and Jeff Bezos from Amazon."

Lin said companies and their leaders have to be mindful of how any political affiliations can harm their businesses and risk alienating customers and investors, or even energize activism against the company. Lin also noted that companies and their leaders have come under direct attack by President Trump in tweet storms that ignite online vitriol.

On Monday, for example, Nike revealed that Colin Kaepernick — the out-of-work NFL quarterback who generated controversy for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality — would be featured in the company's "Just Do It" campaign. On Wednesday morning, Trump doubled down on his criticisms of Nike and the NFL, tweeting that the sportswear giant was “getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts."

"Just as our politics has divided the country into red states and blue states, and red counties and blue counties," Lin said, "you can see that political engagement by executives can fragment the marketplace into red businesses and blue businesses."