Late last week, after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) obliterated much of what was left of President Joe Biden’s agenda by refusing to support his party’s scaled-back social safety net, climate, and tax package, some observers wondered what was in it for Manchin, the corporate Democrat who holds all the power in the divided Senate.
As The Lever has previously documented, the Democratic rotating villain role that Manchin is playing typically ends with a cushy landing spot on K Street working for big business. That’s certainly already true for one of Manchin’s longtime aides.
Jonathan Kott went from working as Manchin’s senior advisor to leading a well-funded dark money group that spent millions to crush Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (Ind.-Vt.) 2020 presidential bid, and then back to Capitol Hill. Now, Kott is a corporate lobbyist for health insurers, drug companies, the fossil fuel industry, and Fox News, while the media calls on the so-called “Manchin whisperer-for-hire” to offer commentary about what has motivated his former boss to repeatedly obstruct his party’s agenda.
Kott’s path through Washington’s proverbial “revolving door” showcases the lucrative career opportunities available to Democratic Hill staffers: If you work for conservative Democrats who protect corporate interests and loyally attack progressives, corporate America will come calling with a big bag of cash.
Kott did not respond to The Lever’s request for comment.
The trend of those working in Congress — whether as lawmakers or aides — leveraging their Capitol Hill connections and experience to work on behalf of wealthy special interests is not new, and the phenomenon has grown over time. The pattern is a stark reminder of the disingenuousness of the political establishment, which purports to prioritize the needs of constituents while getting rewarded by corporate interests for preserving the status quo.
A 2019 Public Citizen study found that nearly two-thirds of lawmakers who had retired or were defeated at the ballot box went on to work in the influence industry. Nearly 60 percent of these former members of Congress had taken up work for lobbying firms, consulting firms, trade organizations, or business groups to influence — and impede — federal government action.
Not surprisingly, staffers who move to K Street are likely to earn more money based on how many personal connections they retain on Capitol Hill, according to a 2017 study.
An Anti-Progressive Dark Money Project
Kott’s career path is a cautionary tale of how our political system — and its perverse incentives — chews up bright-eyed, bushy-tailed individuals who think they can effect change in the lives of real people through public service, only to get swept up in the game of trying to profit off their public sector experience through protecting the interests of the elite.
Kott’s career in public service began with an internship in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where he worked to address homelessness.
“When I went to HUD, I realized I could help homeless people get a place to live, and that’s what I thought I would spend my time in politics doing,” he told The Hill. “But I got drawn into the press side, and that’s where I wound up.”
Kott went on to intern for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and then served as a press aide for the presidential campaign of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the most notorious rotating corporate villain of the Obama era.
According to The Hill, Kott then went to work for the corporatist think tank Third Way, where he apparently “helped craft moderate messaging and policy.” Kott got the job by contacting Third Way co-founder Jonathan Cowan, who ran HUD while Kott interned there.
By 2013, Kott was back in the public sector, working as the communications director for Manchin, the coal-baron-turned-senator. For some time, he simultaneously worked for both Manchin and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a conservative Democrat and close Biden ally. Kott would go on to serve as Manchin’s senior advisor, too.
In the fall of 2019, Kott left Manchin’s office, according to Legistorm. He soon founded the Big Tent Project Fund, a dark money group focused on crushing Sanders’ presidential campaign.
The nonprofit spent $4.8 million on digital ads attacking Sanders, including those under the name United We Succeed. The ads criticized Sanders as a socialist who wanted to increase taxes on the middle class, saying that voting for him would mean Americans “losing our private health care.”
Kott told Politico of the ad campaign: “Despite over 50 years in public life, Bernie Sanders has never been fully vetted. The Big Tent Project will shed light on his record of politically toxic policy proposals starting in Nevada and South Carolina.”
The Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based campaign finance group, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in 2020 alleging that the Big Tent Project Fund’s primary purpose was defeating Sanders, and the group had thus violated election laws by not registering as a political committee and not publicly disclosing its donors. CLC last year sued the FEC for failing to take action.
According to a copy of its tax return obtained by The Lever, the Big Tent Project Fund raised more than $12 million in 2020.
While the organization is not required to disclose its funding sources, its tax return makes clear it was financed by just a dozen donors. More than 80 percent of its cash came from just three donors who gave at least seven figures, including one who donated more than $6 million.
In addition to its anti-Sanders ads, the Big Tent Project Fund reported donating nearly $3 million to Center Action Now, a dark money group created by Tim Miller, a past campaign aide to Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
Center Action Now’s digital ads were designed to target center-right Republicans and independents with messages attacking Sanders and boosting then presidential candidate Joe Biden as the moderate choice. Some of the ads contained general messages encouraging people to vote. The group never filed independent expenditure reports with the Federal Election Commission.
The Big Tent Project Fund also reported donating $1.3 million to the Progressive Policy Institute, a corporate-aligned, ostensibly centrist think tank.
The only independent contractor Big Tent Project Fund listed in its tax return is a Delaware-based company called CMP Partners, LLC, which Big Tent paid $4.9 million. According to Delaware incorporation documents for CMP Partners obtained by OpenSecrets, the company listed “Terrence Walsh” as its authorized representative.
Terrence Walsh appears to be Terry Walsh, president of the The Strategy Group, who was a top campaign advisor to former President Barack Obama.
CMP Partners’ only other appearances in FEC records have been related to two additional outside groups attacking progressive candidates: The company handled direct mail for Americans For Tomorrow’s Future, a super PAC that attempted to defeat Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in the 2020 primary, and also ran digital ads for Third Way against progressive Nina Turner in 2021, according to FEC independent expenditures filings.
Walsh did not respond to a request for comment.
“Slogans And Yelling Isn’t The Way It Works”
After the 2020 primary campaign, Kott returned to Capitol Hill, serving once again as a top aide to Coons. He soon decamped for K Street, becoming a partner at the corporate lobbying firm Capitol Counsel last June.
“Jon was a very effective communications director and trusted senior advisor for seven years,” Manchin said in a press release issued by the firm. “He is a thoughtful communicator and tactician with a true understanding of the importance of bipartisanship. I’m excited for him to be taking on this new role.”
Coons, for his part, said in the press release, “I’ve relied heavily on [Kott’s] candid advice, strategic insights, and vast media and political network. I wish him the very best in his new role at Capitol Counsel and look forward to maintaining our close friendship.”
In this new role, Kott has lobbied for oil and gas giant ExxonMobil as well as the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a lobbying group that represents oil, gas, and chemical interests.
He’s also lobbied for the Healthcare Leadership Council, a group representing prominent health insurers and drug companies opposed to universal health care, and pharmaceutical company Biogen. Kott’s work for Biogen has involved lobbying on efforts by Democrats to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.
Kott is hardly the only recent example of a corporate Democratic aide who traded in public service for an influence industry gig. For instance, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Ariz.) former communications director John LaBombard left her office to become senior vice president at ROKK Solutions earlier this year — moving from an office allied with the drug industry to a public relations firm that has worked for Big Pharma.
While Kott now works as a corporate lobbyist, news outlets have regularly invited him on their programs to defend his former boss, Manchin, as the senator works to impede the Democratic Party agenda on issues like climate change and health care.
In a January appearance on CNN, Kott sought to explain away Manchin’s refusal to end the Senate legislative filibuster, a rule that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation. This position puts Manchin on the side of powerful corporate lobbying groups, but Kott framed Manchin’s position as “looking to preserve how the Senate works and force them to work in a bipartisan way.”
He added, “Slogans and yelling isn’t the way it works.”
Kott told The Daily Beast in April that Manchin “doesn’t really care about party affiliation and is just focused on what he’s hearing from his constituents. And that’s basically how he handles his votes. He goes home most weekends. He talks to as many people as he can, comes back and decides how he’s gonna vote. And that’s basically what he does.”