April 30, 2014 at 9:36 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Eldridge self-funds congressional campaign with nearly $1 million
Sean Eldridge, Chris Hughes, gay news, Washington Blade

The Sean Eldridge campaign for Congress is 42 percent funded by his own money. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A gay congressional candidate in New York who has billed himself as “an independent voice” is taking that slogan to new levels in terms of financing for his campaign, which is significantly self-funded in its early stages.

Campaign finance reports for the first quarter of 2014 reveal that Sean Eldridge, a Democrat who’s running to unseat Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) in New York’s 19th congressional district, has contributed $965,000 of his own money to that effort, which accounts for 42 percent of the $2.3 million he’s raised.

Eldridge has pledged to match donations to his campaign dollar-for-dollar. Eldridge is married to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who has an estimated net worth of $600 million.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said being significantly self-funded can serve as a “double-edged sword” especially in a race like Eldridge’s, which is deemed by many political observers as a toss-up in the upcoming mid-terms.

“If you’re self-funded, you can sell yourself on the tagline, ‘I don’t have to go to special interests,'” Rothenberg said. “On the other hand, you meet people by asking them for money. It’s how you sell yourself.”

In comparison, Gibson has self-funded none of his campaign according to his financial disclosures, but $750,000 of the $1.4 million he’s raised comes from contributions from political action committees. The Eldridge campaign has refused donations from corporate PACs.

In a statement to the Washington Blade, Eldridge praised the numbers for the first quarter of 2014, saying more than 75 percent of the contributions came from donors who contributed $50 or less to the campaign.

“I’m proud to have received support from every corner of NY-19,” Eldridge said. “More than 75 percent of our contributions this year were $50 or less, and unlike my opponent, we are not accepting contributions from corporate PACs that have too much influence in Washington already. The majority of my opponent’s support comes from PACs and corporate PACs. I will be an independent voice for families in NY-19 and accountable only to the voters.”

Further, Eldridge said the problem with campaign finances lies with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which allows for unlimited donations by corporations and unions to “super PACs” not overseen by the candidates they support.

“There’s no question that there is too much money and corporate influence in our political system,” Eldridge added. “I have been a loud advocate for campaign finance reform that would overturn Citizens United, strengthen transparency in our political system, and elevate the voices of everyday New Yorkers. Unfortunately Congressman Gibson and Speaker Boehner have not acted to overturn Citizens United and pass badly needed campaign finance reforms, which is why we need new leadership in Washington.”

An informed source said PACs that have donated to Gibson include the Bank Of America Corporate Federal PAC; Exxon Mobil Corp PAC, Goldman Sachs Group, Inc PAC and AT&T Inc. Federal PAC. Additionally, Gibson has received $5,000 each from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Eldridge has endured criticism during the campaign for perceived carpetbagging, among other critiques.

As the Washington Blade previously reported, nothing on his website mentions his sexual orientation or his marriage to Hughes, despite the fact that both appeared on the cover of The Advocate as supporters of the marriage equality movement. His campaign materials mention that Eldridge worked at Freedom to Marry in 2011 at the time the organization successfully pushed through marriage equality legislation in New York.

Eldridge, who has no experience in political office, was the subject of a scathing article by Politico on the congressional race. The report denotes the wealth distinction between Eldridge and Gibson, saying many of the companies within the district are also recipients of money from Hudson River Ventures, his small business investment fund.

Further, the article, titled “Chasing Sean Eldridge,” also says Eldridge has not made himself available to the media. Eldridge has refused the Washington Blade’s repeated requests for an interview about his congressional bid.

Eldridge also has been criticized as a carpetbagger who moved into New York’s 19th congressional district two years ago so he could run for office. In 2011, Eldridge and Hughes bought a $5 million home within the 18th congressional district; that seat was occupied by a Republican at the time. But when another gay Democrat — Sean Patrick Maloney — won that seat in 2012, the couple paid $1.9 million in cash for a home in Shokan, N.Y., which lies within the 19th congressional district.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said the significant portion of Eldridge’s campaign that is self-funded is the least of his problems as he pursues his congressional bid.

“Sean is free to do whatever he likes with his husband’s money — this is one of the benefits of marriage equality, after all,” Angelo said. “If I were a voter in the district, I’d be more concerned with Eldridge’s lack of a record and the undeniable carpetbagging that allowed him to be a candidate in the first place.”

Although Eldridge’s opponent, Gibson, earned a score of “0” on the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent congressional scorecard, he is more pro-LGBT than many other members of his Republican caucus. He’s among the Republican co-sponsors of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act. Gibson does not support marriage equality.

Meanwhile, Eldridge on his website suggests support for ENDA, saying he’ll work “to ensure that every American receives equal protection under the law and that no one is fired from their job or denied housing because of who they are or who they love.”

Eldridge is among the congressional candidates that the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund has endorsed in the 2014 mid-term elections. Others among the candidates are North Carolina candidate Marcus Brandon, who’s running in North Carolina’s 12th congressional district, and Adam Ebbin, who’s running in Virginia’s 8th congressional district.

Steven Thai, spokesperson for the Victory Fund, said his organization supports its candidates 100 percent, but declined to comment further on Eldridge’s first quarter numbers.

“The finance numbers are what the finance numbers are,” Thai said. “We support our candidates no matter what.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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