Peter Welch accepts thousands in campaign donations from sugar industry PACs

By Sarah Mearhoff

Despite his pledge last November not to accept “any corporate PAC money,” Vermont’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, who is running for the U.S. Senate, has continued to accept sizable campaign contributions from high-powered industry groups that frequently lobby Congress.

And according to his campaign’s latest quarterly finance report filed Friday with the Federal Election Commission, those contributions include at least $17,000 from political action committees, or PACs, representing the sugar industry.

Welch’s largest contributor in the sector was American Crystal Sugar Company PAC, which made headlines this month when the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington found that the Minnesota-based company ranked among the top campaign contributors to members of Congress who voted against the certification of the 2020 presidential election.

American Crystal Sugar Company PAC donated $10,000 to Welch’s campaign in the third quarter.

Welch is not the first Vermont congressional candidate to receive money from American Crystal Sugar this cycle. Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, a former Democratic candidate for Vermont’s open race to replace Welch in the U.S. House, took heat from her primary competitors this spring and summer for a $5,000 contribution she received from the company’s PAC before the August primary. (State Sen. Becca Balint secured the Democratic nomination.)

In an April campaign fundraising email titled “When it comes to influence in Washington, Crystal is king,” state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale — then a primary competitor for the U.S. House seat — said American Crystal Sugar “isn’t just any PAC representing corporate interests.”

“American Crystal Sugar is responsible for contributing to climate change with policy and practices that cause environmental destruction,” the email read, though it did not name Gray directly. The email also cited earlier reports of the company’s contributions to those who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s victory.

Later, in June, Balint’s campaign spokesperson Natalie Silver told VTDigger of Gray’s American Crystal Sugar donation, “If Becca had taken money from people who had supported overturning the election, I would tell her to give it back, and I think that Molly Gray should do the same.”

Ram Hinsdale and Balint have both supported Welch’s U.S. Senate bid. Neither Ram Hinsdale nor Silver could not be reached for comment on Monday. American Crystal Sugar did not respond to an interview request.

Welch also received donations in August from the Amalgamated Sugar Company PAC ($2,500), American Sugarbeet Growers Association PAC ($1,000), Florida Sugar Cane League PAC ($2,000), Sugar Cane Growers Coop Of Florida PAC ($500) and the Western Sugar Cooperative PAC ($1,000).

Welch’s campaign did not make the congressman available for a phone interview Monday, and in a written statement, did not address VTDigger’s inquiries about donations from the sugar industry.

Hank Butler, a spokesperson for Welch’s campaign, said, "Over the course of this campaign and throughout his time in Congress, Peter has been working hard to deliver for Vermonters and always puts their interests first.”

When asked about his industry donations during a U.S. Senate debate hosted by VTDigger in September, Welch answered, “Well, all of my contributions and all my expenditures are disclosed, and every one of my votes is based on my judgment about what's best for voters.” He pointed to his endorsement by End Citizens United, a campaign finance reform advocacy group, and decried “dark money” in politics.

Asked in a follow-up question how such industry groups represented the interests of everyday Vermonters, Welch said, “Well, it can be a labor PAC, where you've got individuals who are part of the unit who are contributing to the PAC. It can be farmers who are contributing to the PAC.”

“And keep in mind, that amount, the most it can be is $5,000 and it has to be disclosed,” Welch continued. “So I am proud to get contributions from people through their joint effort to contribute to my campaign.”

American Crystal Sugar gave $10,000 to Welch by donating $5,000 to his primary campaign, plus $5,000 to his general election campaign. Both donations were recorded on Aug. 9, the day of Vermont’s primary election.

Vermont is home to neither sugar cane nor sugar beet farmers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which keeps annual records on Vermont’s crop yields dating back to 1866, sugar beets were reportedly cultivated in Vermont only in 2012. A tropical plant, sugar cane has never been recorded to grow in Vermont.

The Welch campaign’s acceptance of industry PAC donations is not new. In April, VTDigger reported on Welch’s multi-thousand-dollar contributions from PACs associated with the medical, agricultural, real estate and retail industries, among others. 

In the most recent period, too, the Democrat received contributions from the likes of the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers PAC ($5,000), the National Association of Chain Drug Stores PAC ($4,000), the American Institute of Architects’ PAC ($2,500), the American Veterinary Medical Association PAC ($2,000), the International Dairy Foods Association PAC ($1,000), the American Health Care Association ($1,000) and more.

Such PACs are technically not corporate PACs, according to the FEC. They’re trade associations, defined as “a membership organization of persons engaging in a similar or related line of commerce, organized to promote and improve business conditions in that line of commerce.” While these groups do not represent individual corporations, they are often funded by corporate insiders.

In total, in the third quarter, Welch received $266,775 from political committees. Those can include industry PACs, as well as leadership PACs organized by members of Congress, PACs operated by labor unions and more. Across this election cycle, Welch has received $878,442 in such donations, compared to over $2 million from individual donors.

While he pledged not to accept corporate PAC donations this time around, Welch has received such donations in the past from the likes of General Electric, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Toyota, Ford, Home Depot and more. It was these donations and others that padded Welch’s U.S. House campaign account of $2.1 million, which he carried to his Senate campaign.

Welch’s foe in the U.S. Senate election, Republican political newcomer Gerald Malloy, did not start out with the same campaign finance edge, nor has he come close to catching up.

Malloy raised $10,000 from PACs last quarter: $5,000 each from leadership PACs affiliated with Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

In total, Malloy raised $104,625 last quarter, and ended September with $61,165 in cash on hand. In that same period, Welch received $548,818 in net contributions, according to his FEC filing, and ended the quarter with nearly $2.7 million in the bank.

Article courtesy VT Digger