It carries the potential to cause more embarrassment for MLB, which already is dealing with criticism over a $5,000 donation the league made earlier this month to Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, as news circulated about an inflammatory joke the Republican had made invoking her state’s history of public hangings.
In a statement Wednesday to The Washington Post, MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said the league was suspending its political contributions “as we work on improving our internal process to put more rigorous vetting procedures in place.”
“In July of 2017, during a non-election year, lobbyists for Major League attended a fundraiser (for $1,000) as an opportunity to meet a new member of Congress who had been appointed to two committees with jurisdiction over matters relevant to Major League Baseball,” Courtney wrote. “At the time of this event, no one at Major League Baseball was aware of the offensive comments made by Mr. Lewis. . . . Had we been aware of Mr. Lewis’ comments, which are at odds with our values, we would not have supported him or attended the event.”
Since 2002, through the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball Political Action Committee, MLB has spent nearly $2.4 million in donations to candidates running for federal office, with a roughly even split between money spent on Democrats (about $1.3 million) and Republicans (about $1.1 million), according to a review of campaign finance records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Elected in 2016 to represent Minnesota’s 2nd congressional district in suburban Minneapolis and St. Paul, Lewis served two years and lost a bid for reelection earlier this month. His previous career in talk radio — as host of the Minneapolis-area The Jason Lewis Show, and as an occasional guest host for Rush Limbaugh — was no mystery when MLB lobbyists decided to attend his fundraiser in 2017. The Atlantic, in August 2016, detailed some of Lewis’s more provocative statements in a story titled, “Meet Minnesota’s Mini-Trump: Republicans are rallying behind Jason Lewis, a radio provocateur famous for racist and misogynistic rants who’s running for Congress.”
Lewis, 63, again became the focus of controversy earlier this year when CNN unearthed more recordings of his old radio shows in which, among other things, he termed people on welfare and other forms of public assistance as “scoundrels” and “parasites.”
“Now, you’ve got the modern welfare state that tells black folks and Hispanic folks and poor white folks: ‘Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you.’ What is the difference? You’ve substituted one plantation for another,” said Lewis, according to CNN.
A spokeswoman for Lewis declined to comment. Earlier this year, he defended his talk radio commentary as part of the job.
“I was paid to be provocative,” Lewis said in July. “There’s a difference between a politician and a pundit. That’s why going back six years, eight years, 10 years, 15 years misses the point.”
On Tuesday, while speaking at a public event in New York, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the league’s donation to Hyde-Smith, who went on to win a special election Tuesday night despite controversy over an awkward joke she had made weeks before, captured on video, in an apparent attempt to explain her appreciation for one of her supporters.
“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” said Hyde-Smith, who also drew criticism for legislation she had previously supported, and other public comments she’d made that embraced Mississippi’s Confederate history.
Manfred denounced Hyde-Smith’s comment as “completely at odds with the values that Major League Baseball has always embraced,” and portrayed the league’s lobbyists as operating largely autonomously from MLB executives in New York.
Among America’s major professional sports leagues, only the NFL maintains a similar level of financial support for members of Congress and those vying for office. The NBA and NHL occasionally pay lobbyists to represent their interests in D.C., records show, but do not operate political action committees that regularly donate to specific candidates and causes.
Earlier this year, MLB’s lobbying efforts appeared to pay off. As part of an approximately 2,000-page, $1.3 billion spending bill, Congress added a two-paragraph section that bolstered MLB’s legal fight against minor league players who have sued for higher wages.
Major corporations routinely support elected officials in both major parties, in the hopes of developing good relationships no matter who controls the levers of the federal government. It’s also a practice that has become increasingly risky from a public relations standpoint, according to Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, a nonprofit that just studied this issue for a report titled “Collision Course: The Risks Companies Face When Their Political Spending and Core Values Conflict and How To Address Them.”
In a phone interview, Freed attributed the increased risk to the hyperpolarization of American politics, and social media, which can easily be used to mobilize protests and boycotts of companies whose political spending generates controversy.
“Companies really have to pay much closer attention to where they’re giving and what they’re being associated with,” Freed said. “Political spending is like a ticking time bomb. A contribution, even several years ago, can come back and haunt a company.”