For nearly fifteen years, Democratic politicians pitching themselves to the biggest donors in Napa Valley have found themselves in the luxurious wine cave of Craig and Kathryn Hall. “The room where it happens” includes a Swarovski crystal chandelier suspended above a cherrywood table with seating for three dozen.
As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said in Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate: “Think about who comes to that.”
Warren was referring to a fundraiser, billed as “An Evening in the Vineyards with Mayor Pete,” held last week in support of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, where $1,000 could purchase a photograph and $2,800 gained access to a dinner beneath, as Hall Rutherford winery describes it, “Donald Lipski’s magnificent ‘Chilean Red’ chandelier,” adorned with 1,500 Swarovski crystals.
Warren’s broadside was a defining moment not only of Thursday night’s debate, but of Buttigieg’s candidacy as well. Although he held his own in responding to Warren’s attack—noting that the Massachusetts senator transferred millions of dollars from past campaigns to fund her presidential, some of it raised at high-dollar fundraisers just like the ones she now criticizes—Buttigieg will have a hard time convincing Democrats that wealthy donors aren’t seeking to grease the wheels of democracy in their own favor.
Case in point: The history of the now-infamous “wine cave” itself.
The cave in question—more of a wine basement, if you want to get specific, built for storing and aging wine in barrels—has been a gathering place for Democratic politicians long before Warren pointed to it as evidence that Buttigieg is too close with wealthy donors to be able to deny them access, appointments and special favors down the road. Owned by Dallas billionaires Craig and Kathryn Hall, the cave’s fundraisers have benefitted at least a hundred Democrats over the years, in the estimation of California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“That cave’s been used by Democrats all across the country for fundraising,” Newsom told reporters in the spin room following Thursday night’s debate. “Probably a hundred congressional representatives have benefited from the use of that.”
After Thursday’s debate, however, the wine cave is serving as an entirely different kind of fundraiser after the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) purchased the domain PetesWineCave.com, which now redirects to Sanders’ donation portal.
Asked if he himself had attended a fundraiser at the wine cave—which, as the Associated Press first reported, features a “Chandelier Room” drowning in crystals—Newsom was straightforward.
“Are you kidding?” Newsom, himself a former vintner, said. “I’m in the business, so I know that place well.”
Other politicians who have attended fundraisers, receptions, and meet-and-greets at the Halls’ wine cave include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as current and former Reps. Leon Panetta, Reps. Ami Bera of California, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, and Patrick Murphy of Florida.
The long and lucrative political history of the cave and its owners bolsters Warren’s contention that big-dollar fundraisers have helped pave a path for wealthy financial backers to ask for favors—but also Buttigieg’s defense that everyone on the debate stage has benefited from these types of financial backers, including Warren herself.
Beyond the wine cave, the Halls’ largesse has made them some of the most important donors in the Democratic Party. According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, the couple have donated nearly $2 million to Democrats and progressive political action committees, including a $100,000 check to Hillary Clinton’s PAC in 2016 and a $50,000 check to the DCCC last year.
The Halls are the near-typification of what Warren described in the debate as “people who can put up $5,000 or more in order to have a picture taken, in order to have a conversation, and in order, maybe, to be considered to be an ambassador.”
In 1997, one year after donating hundreds of thousands to Democrats seeking reelection, Kathryn Hall was nominated and confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to Austria, a position for which she had been angling for close to a year.
“Kathryn had begun talking to people in Washington—especially our close friend, then-Senate leader Tom Daschle—about the possibility of being appointed to an ambassador position,” the couple recount in their book A Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21st-Century Winery, which documents their rise from mere real estate and financial tycoons to esteemed vintners. Among her qualifications: she had lived overseas, spoke German, and “enjoyed foreign affairs.”
“An ambassadorship isn’t something you apply for,” the Halls write. “You seek out people who are involved in the administration and let them know that you would be interested. Then you try to push that effort along any way you can.”
Hall Wines did not respond to a request for comment.
Although the practice of rewarding heavy-hitting fundraisers and donors with ambassadors is common—roughly a third of such positions are traditionally given to financial backers—Kathryn Hall’s four-year tenure in Vienna was not the only benefit of the couple’s close relationship with the politically powerful.
Craig Hall’s real-estate empire—facing massive debt as the Texas oil boom weakened in the late 1980s—was saved when then-House Speaker Jim Wright held up a bill meant to help recapitalize the struggling Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation in an apparent attempt to force federal regulators to let Hall’s company restructure its debt.
“Anybody who has worked in government for very long knows that when the soon-to-be speaker of the House of Representatives is asking you to look into it, it’s not just anybody,” Ed Gray, chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, would later tell investigators on the House Ethics Committee.
The eventual ethics investigation into Wright’s role in the savings-and-loan scandal would force him to resign from Congress. Hall would later pay $102.5 million to settle claims by a taxpayer-funded asset management company, which had paid out $364 million to cover insured deposits in Hall’s insolvent savings-and-loan operation.
Buttigieg’s campaign has defended the candidate’s attendance at the fundraiser and others like it, saying that “the only thing people are promised at an event with Pete is that he will use that money to beat Donald Trump.”
“Democrats are good at begrudging people,” Newsom told reporters after the debate, adding that he was wary of the Democratic Party attacking fellow candidates for high-dollar donations while Republicans show no such compunction. “I don’t know why someone that’s had success should apologize for it, or be embarrassed by it, or now no longer be allowed to participate in the democratic process… I don’t know if that’s healthy for the party and the country.”
As the debate over the role of money in progressive politics continued, one high-profile politician announced that he, too, would be headed to a gilded mansion in one of America’s bougiest towns. On Friday, the White House announced that President Trump—who has spent more than three months of his presidency at Mar-a-Lago—would depart for his Palm Beach mega-mansion on Friday evening for his year-end vacation.