The billionaire businessman has spent tens of millions of dollars to influence elections in Pennsylvania since 2010.
In the days leading up to the May 16 Democratic mayoral primary election in Philadelphia, television ads aired and mailers circulated attacking Helen Gym, the progressive candidate in the race. The line of attacks centered on a 2019 pharmaceutical sales bill that Gym, then on the City Council, voted against. At the time, her husband worked as a lawyer in the pharmaceutical industry, and some questioned the ethics of Gym not recusing herself from the vote. Gym sought advice from the Philadelphia Board of Ethics, who told her that there was not a conflict of interest that would require a disclosure, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
However, what drew attention wasn’t the content of the ads, but who paid for them: a new super PAC called the Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth.
In 2022, Yass — the richest person in Pennsylvania — emerged as one of the biggest political donors in the country to conservative politicians and causes. Along with his wife Janine, he has contributed close to $54 million to candidates and PACs in the 2022 election cycle, according to Inside Philanthropy. They have made contributions to controversial lawmakers such as Kentucky’s Republican Sen. Rand Paul, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Yass is also a major contributor to the powerful right-wing political organization Club For Growth. According to reporting by ProPublica, Yass has donated more than $32 million to the organization in recent years. Club For Growth’s super PAC has contributed to the campaigns of numerous controversial GOP politicians, including former President Donald Trump and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert.
Yass’ contributions are not limited to national politics. In his home state of Pennsylvania, he has used his vast wealth to influence state and local elections and the state’s charter school movement.
Last year, Yass spent at least $18 million in the lead-up to Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial primary election. Bill McSwain, a Republican candidate who lost to Doug Mastriano in the primary, was one of the biggest recipients of his money. The Commonwealth Leaders Fund political action committee, mostly funded by Yass, spent more than $10 million in ads to help McSwain’s campaign, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. When Jason Richey, another GOP candidate, dropped out of the race, he endorsed McSwain. Shortly after Richey dropped out, Commonwealth Leaders Fund gave his campaign a $250,000 donation, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Richey then reimbursed himself $150,000 from his campaign fund.
Students First PAC is one of the biggest recipients of Yass’ money, receiving at least $43 million since 2017. The political action committee, founded in 2010, supports school vouchers and privatization. The group has contributed tens of millions of dollars to state and local politicians who support charter schools. In 2021, Students First was a major contributor to Back to School PA, a conservative PAC that spent $700,000 on organizations that supported right-wing school board candidates across the state.
Students First is a primary financial supporter of two other PACs, the Commonwealth Leaders Fund and the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund PAC. Both PACs were founded by Matt Brouillette, the former CEO of the libertarian think tank the Commonwealth Foundation. Both drew scrutiny early on during the coronavirus pandemic for funneling dark money into a series of political rallies in Pennsylvania protesting COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders.
Despite Yass’ vast influence in Pennsylvania politics, he attempts to maintain a low profile. But his efforts to influence politics in his home state have not gone unnoticed, and progressive advocacy groups, lawmakers, and community leaders have repeatedly condemned his political activities. Most recently, a coalition of progressive advocacy groups in Pennsylvania issued a joint statement criticizing Yass’ financial involvement in the Coalition for Safety and Equitable Growth’s attacks on Gym.
“It should be consensus that Jeff Yass — someone who seeks to privatize our schools and funds elected officials who supported the January 6th insurrection — should not be allowed to buy our elections,” Diana Robinson, political director of Make the Road Action PA, said in the statement. “We won’t let billionaires stop our vision for Philadelphia — one where everyone has the right to affordable housing and fully funded public schools.”
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.
Correction June 7 at 5:03 PM: Updated to reflect that Gym’s husband was a lawyer, not a sales representative, and to clarify that Gym spoke with the ethics board prior to her vote.