Since the initial announcement of the largest gift in Yale’s history in October, the $250 million that will propel two new residential colleges toward construction have received far more publicity than the man who provided them, Charles Johnson ’54. Johnson has kept a low profile at the University, making no notable public appearance at the inauguration of University President Peter Salovey this fall and declining interviews about his gift.
Johnson has long maintained a similarly low profile in another realm where he exercises significant influence — politics. Johnson is one of the biggest political spenders in the country.
Over the past 15 years, Johnson has poured nearly $900,000 into the American political sphere, according to the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics. Due to laws that do not require certain groups to disclose their donors, the actual total amount given by Johnson to political organizations could be far higher. His recorded contributions have been almost exclusively to Republican candidates and organizations.
Although seemingly paltry when compared to his recent $250 million gift, Johnson’s political contributions place him in the top echelons of American political donors. As a former chairman of Franklin Resources, best known as the $840 billion Franklin Templeton mutual fund, Johnson’s net worth stands at $5.6 billion, according to Forbes.
Over the past three months, Johnson has not responded to the News’ requests for comment, and he has not made any political statements that can be found on public record.
Despite recently relocating his primary residence to Florida, Johnson has spent most of the past decade living in California, a state dominated by Democrats. In San Mateo County, where Johnson lived until recently, Republicans comprise 19 percent of registered voters, said Ellen Mernick, the executive director of the county’s Republican committee.
“A lot of the Republicans here [in California] are on the quiet side,” Mernick said. She further said she could not comment on Johnson’s role in the local political scene, beyond the fact that he did not interact with the local committee.
Despite the subdued presence of Republicans in California, the impact of Johnson’s political allegiance has been far from quiet. The 80-year old has played a major role in bringing in contributions from other wealthy individuals to national conservative causes in the past several election cycles.
In May 2012, Johnson and his wife Ann hosted a fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney at their home in Hillsborough, Calif. — a 98-room, 65,000-square-foot mansion. Tickets for the event, which included a dinner with Romney, ran as high as $50,000 each.
The Romney event was held in addition to major spending by Johnson himself in the 2012 election cycle. Johnson gave at least $250,000 to Republican causes that year, according to the FEC.
And while he has given extensively to candidates — including U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Tea Party-backed Arizona Representative Ben Quayle, who lost his seat in November 2012 — Johnson has primarily channeled his considerable wealth toward parties and political action committees. Though political candidates are bound by donation limits of usually $2,600, the latter two categories do not face such strict limits. Under the ruling of the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, PACs can accept unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals.
In 2012, Johnson gave $200,000 to American Crossroads, a PAC founded by Karl Rove, a former adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush ’68. He gave an additional $50,000 to Restore our Future, the PAC closely associated with Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. The groups were two of the largest spenders in the 2012 cycle, with American Crossroads and a sister group spending over $176 million.
Both American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS did not respond to requests for comment.
The 2012 donations from Johnson — who is described on the Yale Class of 1954’s website as the class’s “only billionaire” — are merely the continuation of a long-standing pattern.
In 2008, Johnson gave a recorded total of $239,900, making him the 34th largest political donor in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2010, Johnson once again stood at 34th with a similarly large total. In both cycles, nearly all of Johnson’s giving went to Republican candidates and groups.
Johnson has already put significant funds into the upcoming 2014 election cycle. With $130,000 already spent, Johnson is currently the 51st largest donor for the cycle.
Yet Johnson’s publicly disclosed gifts may be only the tip of the iceberg. Organizations that are registered as 501(c)(4) non-profits are allowed to redact the names of their donors in publicly filed forms, effectively allowing for unlimited, anonymous contributions. In recent years, a slew of politically affiliated groups have filed as such non-profits, leading in part to a massive increase in non-campaign spending and marked decrease in the disclosure of donors during the past four election cycles in the country.
American Crossroads, the group to which Johnson gave $200,000 in 2012, has a sister 501(c)(4) known as Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategy. Robert Maguire, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, said it is impossible to know exactly how many of American Crossroad’s donors give to Crossroads GPS.
“My educated guess is that it’s probably quite common for some of the larger donors to give to both the super PAC and the 501(c),” Maguire said, attributing some of Crossroads GPS’ high revenues — which outpaced the super PAC’s — to the lack of disclosure requirements.
Johnson’s political involvement stands in contrast to that of other individuals affiliated with Yale. Although the University itself made no political contributions, Yale-employed individuals gave $573,000 during the 2012 election cycle — and of that, $481,000 went to individual candidates, with only 3.7 percent of those funds going to Republicans. In the last cycle, U.S. President Barack Obama, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and Connecticut Representative Elizabeth Esty pulled in the most disclosed contributions from members of the Yale community.
Despite the magnitude of his donation figures, Johnson’s national political influence remains relatively unknown on campus. Elizabeth Henry ’14, president of Yale Republicans, said Johnson has had no interaction with the campus group, and that she was unaware of his status as a major political donor.
Of 10 other students interviewed — including some who are politically active at Yale and beyond — all said they were similarly unaware.