Anita Dunn by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr
Senior Biden White House advisor Anita Dunn recently reported her personal finances in a 93-page disclosure revealing an investment portfolio worth as much as $48.2 million and a list of more than a dozen clients representing the heights of corporate power, including AT&T, Lyft, and Pfizer. Dunn is a co-founder of the public relations and lobbying firm SKDKnickerbocker, and was a close advisor to former president Barack Obama as well as the Biden presidential campaign. Prior to her current appointment, which requires financial disclosure, Dunn and the Biden administration exploited a loophole exempting temporary employees from disclosure by classifying her as a “special government employee” during stints in the Biden White House in 2021 and early 2022.
Now, as senior advisor to the president, Dunn will have to divest her multi-million dollar stock portfolio as well as recuse herself from issues affecting her former clients. However, Dunn’s long client list and financial ties to corporations at the center of the most important policy debates in the US – including the fossil fuel, financial, healthcare, and technology sectors – prompted watchdog organization the Revolving Door Project to ask: “What the hell is Anita Dunn even allowed to work on?”
Following Dunn’s financial disclosure and the Biden administration’s pledge that Dunn would recuse herself from work that could create a conflict of interest, Revolving Door Project Director Jeff Hauser noted how SKDKnickerbocker’s Democratic Party ties aid its work for corporate clients. In Revolving Door Project’s August 12, 2022 statement, Hauser said: “Whenever a corporation is in serious danger of new regulations or prosecutions by a Democratic administration, they start cutting checks to SKDKnickerbocker, which sets its star players to work neutralizing the threat.”
This dynamic can be seen in SKDKnickerbocker’s work in New York State, where Democrats control both legislative houses as well as the governor’s office. SKDK has millions of dollars operating front groups in New York for corporations in direct conflict with Democratic Party priorities on climate, labor rights, and housing justice.
In addition to raising the question of what Anita Dunn can reasonably work on without creating a conflict of interest, SKDK’s corporate advocacy in New York raises a deeper question: How can the Democratic Party credibly claim to prioritize climate, labor, and housing issues while being advised at the highest level by the leader of a firm actively working against the party’s ostensible goals?
Opposing workers’ rights
In December 2020, we reported on efforts by gig work companies – led by app-based taxi corporations Uber and Lyft – to pass a law in New York misclassifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees and thus entitling gig workers to a lower standard of workplace protections.
In addition to multi-million dollar lobbying and Super PAC expenditures, this campaign entailed the operation of a front group, then called Flexible Work for New York, masquerading as a grassroots coalition supporting gig work companies’ position. As part of its efforts, Flexible Work for New York enlisted religious leaders from across the state to pressure legislators not to grant labor protections to gig workers.
Lobbying filings for Flexible Work for New York state that SKDKnickerbocker operated the group for Uber and Lyft “on a pro bono basis”, suggesting that SKDK’s lobbying was an incidental part of a larger paid public relations effort.
Defending big landlords
In April 2022, we reported a multi-year, multi-million dollar effort by lobbying groups representing large New York City landlords to fight against expanding tenants’ rights and to preserve lucrative development subsidies. As with the gig work companies, this campaign entailed millions of dollars in spending on political donations and Super PAC attack ads, an army of lobbyists from firms with deep ties to the political establishment, and a front group operated by SKDKnickerbocker.
Taxpayers for an Affordable New York emerged in 2019 when the New York State legislature, newly controlled Democrats, was considering a package of bills advanced by housing justice activists to expand tenants’ rights against eviction and to allow for municipalities across the state to establish rent controls. Taxpayers for an Affordable New York was backed by the Real Estate Board of New York, the Rent Stabilization Association, and the Community Housing Improvement Program, three lobbying groups representing the owners of thousands of properties throughout New York City valued at millions of dollars.
Lobbying filings showed that Taxpayers for an Affordable New York paid $2.8 million to SKDKnickerbocker from January through August of 2019, the only year the group was active.
Obstructing climate action
In May 2022, we wrote about a front group backed by utility and fossil fuel corporations to frustrate New York’s efforts to mitigate climate change mandated by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
This group’s name, New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, bears a striking similarity to the front group for New York City landlords. It is steered by a committee that includes the American Petroleum Institute, pipeline companies Enbridge and Williams Companies, and gas and electric utilities National Fuel and National Grid. Other backers include the statewide and regional chambers of commerce as well as operators of fossil fuel power plants.
New Yorkers for Affordable Energy is lobbying on a proposed statewide ban on new gas hookups, against a proposal to tax polluters to fund climate mitigation efforts, and against a bill to require all new passenger cars and trucks sold in New York to be emission-free by 2035.
Additionally, New Yorkers for Affordable Energy has coordinated efforts with the state Republican Party to water down climate action by mobilizing people to submit comments opposing climate action to the Climate Action Council, the public body tasked with implementing the Climate and Community Protection Act.
Like the Flexible Work for New York front group, New Yorkers for Affordable Energy’s lobbying filings indicated that SKDKnickerbocker is lobbying for the group “on a pro bono basis”, which, again, likely means that the firm’s lobbying work is part of a larger public relations contract.
Operating front groups is just one component of the broad suite of public relations and political influence activities SKDKnickerbocker conducts on behalf of its corporate clients. However, it is a particularly insidious tactic as it misrepresents an extractive corporate policy agenda as a grassroots movement. As can be seen from these examples, SKDKnickerbocker has made millions of dollars running this strategy over and over again to fight against labor rights for gig workers, protections for tenants, and the regulation of climate-changing carbon emissions. This work on behalf of corporate clients in the midst of the interconnected crises of housing affordability, climate change, and labor exploitation – and particularly the deception at its core – raises serious concerns about SKDK co-founder Anita Dunn’s influence over the Biden White House.