Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s Democratic presidential campaign had just one full-time employee in the first three months of the year.
A review of Federal Election Commission records show Gabbard’s campaign made a single payment of less than $2,600 to field staffer Amaury Dujardin. Every other member of Gabbard’s campaign staff, including her campaign manager, was paid as a consultant, not a full-time employee. By contrast, the campaign spent $30,850 on billboard advertisements over the same period.
It’s not uncommon for campaigns to structure their payrolls that way. Classifying staff as contractors instead of full-time employees allows them to avoid payroll taxes and the costs of providing benefits to its employees, which can be substantial.
Kim McMurray, a spokesperson for the Campaign Workers Guild, a union that represents political campaign workers, said Gabbard’s apparent reliance on freelancers in lieu of salaried employees is “disappointing, [but] it is not surprising.”
“Hiring consultants is very common on campaigns and consultants can play a very valuable role,” McMurray said in an email. “However, too often employees are miscategorized as consultants so the campaign can avoid providing benefits or because they simply have failed to set up a functional payroll system.”
The move may have already saved Gabbard’s campaign tens of thousands of dollars. Primary rival Elizabeth Warren, who had the largest staff among all 2020 candidates in the first three months of the year, has forked over more than $550,000 in payroll taxes, according to her most recent quarterly FEC filing. Even longshot contender Andrew Yang paid more than $70,000.
Gabbard did not report a single cent in payroll tax through the first three months of 2019, though her campaign denied that they structured her staff to avoid such payments or to avoid paying benefits as well.
“Everyone working full time in a paid position for the campaign has the option to go on payroll, and everyone on payroll has health care including dental and vision,” said Cullen Tiernan, a spokesman for the Gabbard campaign. “Some prefer to be paid as independent contractors or through consultancies they operate.”
In a Democratic primary, Gabbard’s decision to not pay aides as actual staff comes with liabilities. Campaigns are increasingly trying to showcase that they are worker friendly environments, with a number of candidates saying they’d embrace the unionization of their staff. Gabbard, by contrast, has had no staff to unionize.
During the first quarter of 2019, she paid her campaign manager Rania Batrice through Batrice’s consulting firm, Batrice & Associates. The payment was categorized as a “campaign management fee.” Batrice, reportedly, left the campaign amid a shakeup. The last and only payment to her firm was for $3,000 and came on January 25.
Two weeks after that, the Gabbard campaign began paying Noland Chambliss, a consultant with previous work for democratic activist Van Jones, a fee for “Campaign Management Services.” Chambliss was paid twice in all of February and March for a total of $17,901. Gabbard’s campaign paid Erin McCallum as a “communications consultant;” and Caitlin Rose Pomerantz (who appears to be an environmental activist) for “consulting - writer” and “copywriting.” The Gabbard campaign also paid the candidate’s husband, Abraham Williams, about $1,800 for “media production.” None of the payments were categorized as salary, payroll, or wages.
Tiernan acknowledged that many of the current individuals helping out the candidate were doing so as “part or full time volunteers” and as “independent contractors.” But he also said that payroll had begun to increase as the campaign staffed up. Tiernan himself was not listed on the campaign’s Q1 expenditures but that was, he said, because he came on at the start of April.
Gabbard’s House campaign committee also appears to structure most of its payroll as consultant fees instead of salaries or wages. It reported a salary payment to just one employee during the 2018 election cycle, spokesperson Erika Tsuji, who is now handling communications for Gabbard’s presidential campaign.
In contrast, the House campaign reported nearly $150,000 in “consulting” payments, including three to Tsuji herself, as well as regular payments to Batrice’s firm.