The son of a billionaire, who has spent tens of millions of dollars to support various political causes the past five years, said Friday that money doesn’t buy politics.
“You can’t buy anything,” said Charles Munger Jr., a Stanford physicist and son of billionaire businessman Charles Munger Sr. “All you can buy is a right to make a case.”
Munger was one of several speakers invited to speak at Cal Poly on Friday in an event sponsored by the university’s Advanced Technology and Public Policy Institute. The organization, founded by former state legislator Sam Blakeslee, purports to develop practical solutions to social issues through the use of advanced technology.
During its first major public event, attended by roughly 150 people, the keynote speaker was Munger, who made headlines in 2012 by spending $35 million in unsuccessful attempts to defeat Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative to increase school funding with tax increases on the wealthy and a ballot measure that would undercut the political power of public employee unions.
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His half sister, Molly Munger — who has tended to support more liberal causes — also spent $33 million to oppose Brown’s initiative, but she supported an alternative proposal that would have increased tax rates for nearly all taxpayers in order to fund education.
Ultimately, Brown’s initiative won. But the media coverage of the battle revealed Munger as an increasingly heavy hitter in state politics.
“I think coverage of this sort of thing is good,” Munger told The Tribune after Friday’s event. “I think coverage of where the money comes from in campaigns is good. My sister, Molly, and I get a lot of it because it’s just sort of an interesting individual story. But, frankly, I think it’s far more important and less interesting to go, ‘Well, fine, people are opposing my sister’s initiative — but where did all of that money come from?’”
Munger’s father, Charles Sr., is vice president of holding company Berkshire Hathaway, and is often referred to as Warren Buffet’s right-hand man. During his talk with Blakeslee, Munger Jr. admitted he was able to donate large sums of money because of his wealthy heritage. And while much of the event’s previous talk dealt with the potentially corrupting influence of money in politics, Munger said he’s OK with it — as long as there’s transparency.
“I stand as a representative of money and politics,” he told the crowd, later elaborating to The Tribune, “All I can say is, I believe in disclosure laws. I believe they should be much more extensive. I think the PACs need to have their contributions disclosed. I’d like to move to an era where the candidates once again control the vast bulk of the monies that are spent on their campaigns. Either that or the political parties.”
While Munger’s money couldn’t defeat Brown or the unions, he has had success with supporting new redistricting and primary election laws.
When asked by Blakeslee if he planned to throw his money toward other political causes, Munger suggested he might — but only with “an army of supporters.”
He did not believe he had enough support from the Republican Party in the failed initiatives.
“If you’re going to do a major reform, you have to have some large group — whether it’s the Democratic Party, the Legislature or a charismatic governor — you need someone in your corner other than, ‘I have a good idea, and I’m going to start talking to citizens directly,’” he told The Tribune.
While he wouldn’t say whether he supported Abel Maldonado’s bid for governor or even a possible Blakeslee run in the future, he said he wanted to keep his support private. In the past he has donated to an exploratory campaign for a possible Maldonado run. And he has previously said Blakeslee is a “smart cookie” who is a natural for the job.
He also reportedly donated $750,000 to Blakeslee’s California Reform Institute, a think tank that some have called a launch pad for a future gubernatorial run.