CHARLOTTESVILLE — About 24 hours after presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke released his tax returns from the past decade, a University of Virginia student asked him why he didn’t donate more money to charities.
O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso, and his wife reported in their 2017 tax return that they donated $1,166 — which was one-third of 1 percent of their $370,412 of income that year. O’Rourke told reporters on Wednesday that, over the years, he and his wife have donated “thousands of dollars” more that they did not itemize “because it wasn’t important for us to take the deduction.” The campaign has yet to provide updated numbers.
“I’ve served in public office since 2005. I do my best to contribute to the success of my community, of my state and, now, of my country,” O’Rourke said in responding to the student on Tuesday night. “I’m doing everything that I can right now, spending this time with you — not with our kiddos, not back home in El Paso — because I want to sacrifice everything to make sure that we meet this moment of truth with everything that we’ve got.”
O’Rourke is not the only Democratic candidate who has had personal finances questioned at a time when many voters are frustrated by the ever-growing economic divide in the country. One by one, Democratic candidates have released their tax returns — something that President Trump has refused to do — in an attempt at transparency.
But that openness also invites judgment, most recently about the level of charitable donations by those seeking to lead a party which has taken a sympathetic approach to the needy and criticized Republicans for failing to support them. While many Democratic candidates and the voters who support them are alarmed by attempts to turn government responsibilities over to nonprofits and charities, donating to charity has long been considered a civic duty.
“While voluntary charitable donations are commendable, they can never replace ongoing public investments in major social programs and services that improve people’s lives,” said Arianna Jones, a spokeswoman for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his wife, who donated about 3.4 percent of their income last year, a rate his campaign said does not include proceeds from one of his books that went to charity.
Some observers said on Wednesday that it was unfair to look only at the amount of charitable donations given by the candidates. Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” said on Twitter that the percentage of donations from public officials “who make a living working to improve the institutions we share in common….cannot be compared with that of businesspeople who harm the public good” but are larger charitable givers.
Households that earn more than $100,000 give about 2 to 3 percent of their income to charity, according to Ashley Post, spokeswoman for Charity Navigator, the nation’s largest independent philanthropy evaluator.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and her husband donated 5.5 percent of their income last year, while Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and his wife donated about 4 percent. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and her husband were just under 2 percent, as was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and her husband. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and her husband were at 1.4 percent.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) released 15 years of his returns in 2013 when running for Senate but has yet to make more recent years public. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) and Julián Castro (D), the former mayor of San Antonio, have yet to release their returns. O’Rourke has not released his 2018 return, which was due on Monday, but his campaign said he will soon do so.
Former vice president Joe Biden, a Democrat contemplating a presidential campaign, faced criticism during the 2008 campaign when his tax returns showed he and his wife had donated only $3,690 to charity in total over the previous 10 years.
Trump has bragged repeatedly about his generosity — but he has never released his own tax returns or provided other proof of his donations to charity. In 2016, The Washington Post spent months looking for that proof, and found little evidence that Trump had made major charitable gifts in the recent past.
Between 2009 and 2015, The Post could only find one donation made out of Trump’s own pocket, and that was for less than $10,000. In that period, Trump did not give any money to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, the charity he started in 1987.
During the same period, The Post found Trump used the money in the Trump Foundation to buy large portraits of himself, to pay off legal settlements for his for-profit businesses and to make a prohibited political donation. The New York attorney general sued Trump in 2018, alleging he’d allowed “persistently illegal conduct” at that charity. The suit is pending, but Trump has agreed to shut the charity down.
Since The Post began covering Trump’s charitable giving, it appears to have increased: Trump gave donations for flood relief during his presidential campaign, and since taking office he has donated his presidential salary.
The issue of tax returns has been a partisan weapon as the 2020 campaign begins, with Democrats suggesting that Trump’s refusal means he must have something to hide. But that in turn put pressure on Democrats to conform to the tradition of releasing their own returns, which spurred the sharp look at their charitable giving.
O’Rourke said in addition to the donations listed in his tax returns, he and his wife have donated thousands more dollars that they did not itemize. He said he is in the process of reaching out to charities to calculate the total amount he has donated over the past decade.
In O’Rourke’s 2017 return, he and his wife itemized $1,166 in donations: $1,000 to the Annunciation House, which assists migrants and asylum seekers; $100 to the college Amy O’Rourke attended; $50 to Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which provides legal services to immigrants who have been detained; and $16 to an organization identified as “FROM K-1 - CAMPR II LIMITED.” The campaign has yet to explain what that organization does.
In previous years, the couple’s itemized donations ranged from $530 in 2008, up to $12,900 in 2013, but were usually in the lower end of the range. Except for 2013, the couple’s itemized charity donations totaled less than 1 percent of their income.
O’Rourke’s donations spiked in 2013 when the government shut down for 16 days and he joined other lawmakers in donating his salary over that period to charity. That year, the O’Rourkes reported giving $5,000 to Annunciation House, $4,800 to four veterans groups, $1,200 to an El Paso addiction recovery center, $1,000 to the El Paso Children’s Hospital, $800 to the local public university and $100 to the El Paso Community Foundation. These donations totaled 4.3 percent of the couple’s income.
O’Rourke — who served on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for six years — said he cannot remember if he donated to veterans groups in years other than 2013.
“The honest answer is I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t remember how much we gave.”
He added that he devoted much of his time as congressman to veterans issues, trying to increase access to mental health services and reduce wait times at the El Paso VA Health Care System.
“Again, beyond the donations measured in dollars, we’ve donated our effort, our time, and it changed policy and practices and outcomes for veterans in El Paso,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke said he welcomed the scrutiny and hopes all presidential contenders release their returns, including Trump. In addition to questions about his charitable giving, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the O’Rourkes appeared to have underpaid their taxes by several thousand dollars in 2013 and 2014 — a mistake that the campaign said the couple is correcting.
“You deserve to know where we derive our income, how we have spent our money — and we should see that also from the president of the United States. It should be U.S. law, but it’s not now, and the best way to move forward on it is to try to lead by example,” O’Rourke said. “So I welcome the scrutiny, the questions, the opportunity to respond to them. . . . I think that should be part of anyone’s candidacy for the highest, most important office in the country.”
David Fahrenthold, James Hohmann, Chelsea Janes and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.