02/27/17

A Closer Look – Charles Butt

Charles Butt is Chairman and CEO of grocery store chain HEB and is listed by Forbes as both the richest man in his hometown of San Antonio and among America’s billionaires. Though he has no children of his own, he considers supporting public schools among his highest priorities. He gave $1,975,500 to Texas candidates and PACs during the last political cycle.

Interestingly, in Texas, HEB stores receive an estimated $2.89 billion of federal monies through food stamp reimbursements. Mr. Butt gives to both Republicans and Democrats, but notably, does not donate to those Republican legislators who have been the most vocal calling for food stamp reform.

While Mr. Butt has voted in both parties’ primaries in the last handful of election cycles, he chose to vote in the Democrat primary in 2016.

Here’s an overview of Charles Butt’s giving from the last election cycle:

Charles Butt – A Closer Look
Total Donations $1,975,500
Total Number of Donations 206
Average Donation Amount $9,589.81
Donations to Republicans $1,586,500
Donations to Democrats $161,500
Donations to Texas House Candidates $917,000
Percentage of Donations to Texas House Candidates 46.42%
Donations to Texas Senate Candidates $181,000
Percentage of Donations to Texas Senate Candidates 9.16%
Donations to Statewide Candidates $645,000
Percentage of Donations to Statewide Candidates 32.65%
Donations to Advocacy Groups $230,000
Percentage of Donations to Advocacy Groups 11.64%
Donations Given Inside Home District $15,000
Percentage of Donations Inside Home District .76%
Donations Given Outside Home District $1,960,500
Percentage of Donations Outside Home District 99.24%

Key takeaways from Mr. Butt’s giving:

  1. Focusing on the Texas House of Representatives.
    Nearly 50% of Mr. Butt’s giving in 2016 went to Texas House races. While many of Texas’ high-profile political donors give to various candidates for the Texas House, very few of them contribute the largest chunk of their funds to House races. The candidates supported by Charles Butt tended to be incumbents facing tough re-election efforts, such as Former State Representative Wayne Smith and State Representative Byron Cook. Mr. Butt also contributed in open races to those candidates perceived to be most aligned with Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, such as Kevin Downing from House District 60 and State Representative Ernest Bailes from House District 18. Mr. Butt’s substantial giving to more moderate members of the Texas House, coupled with his $100,000 gift to the Texas House Leadership Fund, which supports incumbents aligned with the Speaker, signals Mr. Butt is a fan of the House’s more moderate approach to governance.
  2. Betting against top Texas House conservatives.
    Mr. Butt invested over $100,000 in the failed campaigns of challengers to State Representative Matt Rinaldi and State Representative Jonathan Stickland. State Reps. Rinaldi and Stickland are ranked as the first and second, respectively, most conservative members of the Texas House of Representatives by Rice University political analyst, Mark Jones. State Rep. Rinaldi faced a rematch with Former State Representative Bennett Ratliff in one of the most heated primary battles of the campaign season. State Rep. Stickland was challenged by Scott Fisher, in a race that turned deeply personal. Mr. Butt’s significant financial support of challengers to some of the most conservative members of the Texas House signals a strong disdain for those who rock the boat in the Capitol’s lower chamber.
  3. Supporting Governor Greg Abbott despite disagreements.**
    In the 2016 cycle Mr. Butt gave $500,000 to Governor Greg Abbott. This largesse is particularly interesting since the two men disagree on what is considered Mr. Butt’s primary issue: whether or not to allow comprehensive school choice in Texas. Gov. Abbott has spoken publicly in favor of allowing an array of school choice options, saying they would offer students and parents more options and would lead to better results for all Texas children. Mr. Butt, on the other hand, is adamantly opposed to private school choice and has funded multiple candidates and PACs willing to fight private school choice at every turn. To the surprise of many, during his State of the State Address, Gov. Abbott did not list any type school choice initiative as an emergency item. Many politicos in Austin wondered if financial contributions from anti-education-choice mega-donors like Charles Butt had influenced Abbott’s decision.

Most interesting donation:

Mr. Butt’s decision to sit out one of the most high profile races in the 2016 cycle is noteworthy, as it occurred in his own backyard. Mr. Butt resides in State Senate District 26, a Democrat stronghold, where State Senator Jose Menendez defeated Former State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer (both men were serving in the Texas House at the time of the race). State Sen. Menendez was seen by many as the business-friendly Democrat, while State Rep. Fischer had made a name for himself as a bomb thrower, often at odds with House leadership. Mr. Butt did not take a side in the race, giving to State Sen. Menendez only after he’d won both the primary and the general election. As a resident of SD 26, and as one of the most prolific donors in all of Texas with over 200 donations in the last election cycle, it seems odd Mr. Butt would stay on the sidelines of one of the most important races of 2016.

 

**Correction: a previous version of this post noted that Mr. Butt is against public school choice. Statements made by Mr. Butt and his financial support of various organizations point to his openness to public school choice, but not private school choice.

 

Our A Closer Look series provides a breakdown of a particular donor’s giving habits within Texas politics. We specifically analyze to whom money is given and when, providing context so citizens can determine the motivation behind the donor’s giving. Stay tuned for the next installment.

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