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Duke officials donate during election season

Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign has received the most money from Duke employees

This is part one of a two-part series about political contributions from Duke employees. The second part can be viewed here.

Only a few Duke employees have donated the maximum amount of money allowed under federal law to election campaigns since January 2015, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.

The publicly available Federal Election Commission data discloses all contributions to federal campaigns that are greater than $200. The Chronicle obtained data from the beginning of last year for all contributors who listed Duke University as their employer. 

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign received the largest amount of money from these donors, and North Carolina Congressman David Price’s campaign received the largest number of contributions. Six individuals—including Dr. A. Eugene Washington, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of Duke University Health System, and Phail Wynn, vice president for Durham and regional affairs—donated the maximum amount allowed under federal law to a campaign.

“We have an obligation to try and elect the best possible candidates who are willing to run and willing to do public service,” said William Eacho, professor of the practice of public policy. “The simple fact is that it’s expensive to run campaigns, and they need our help.”

Eacho—who came to Duke after a career in the private sector and an appointment as ambassador to Austria from 2009 to 2013—has collected donations, or “bundled,” for several political candidates, including President Barack Obama. Eacho has given $2,700 to the campaigns of Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner in the past year. In total, Eacho has himself contributed more than $100,000 to various federal campaigns, political organizations and political committees since the late 1990s.

Several other individuals working at the University have also given $2,700—which is the maximum an individual is allowed to contribute to a campaign under the federal campaign finance law—to various candidates. Approximately 25 individuals listing Duke as their employer have contributed $1,000 or more to a federal campaign, and approximately 100 have given $200 or more.

Washington is the most senior University official to have contributed more than $200 to a federal campaign since the beginning of 2015. He contributed $2,700 to the Hillary Clinton campaign in November and has previously contributed to Obama’s presidential campaigns. Through a spokesperson, Washington declined to comment for this story.

Wynn contributed $2,000 to the campaign of Deborah Ross, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina. Wynn did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

Sarah West, Duke Forward associate vice president for strategic planning, contributed $2,700 to Clinton’s campaign in April 2015. West also declined to comment for this story.

Few contributions of more than $200 from Duke employees have gone to Republican candidates or committees. None of the current Republican presidential candidates have received disclosed contributions from individuals listing Duke University as their employer. 

Olaf Von Ramm, Thomas Lord professor of engineering, was the largest Duke contributor to a Republican party or campaign since 2015, having donated a combined $2,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in January and August 2015. Von Ramm did not respond to a request for comment.

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has also received more and larger disclosed campaign contributions than Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Seventeen individuals listing the University as their employer have contributed more than $200 to Clinton’s campaign, and six of them contributed more than $1,000. 

Only seven individuals listing the University as their employer have contributed more than $200 to the Sanders campaign. Of those, only one—Dan Ariely, James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics—contributed more than $1,000 to the Sanders campaign. He initially contributed $5,000, but was refunded $2,300 since his contribution was in excess of the $2,700 federal limit. Ariely declined to comment except to confirm that he initially contributed more than $2,700 because he was not aware of federal contribution limits and later received a partial refund.

Eacho said that he understands why only a relatively small portion of Duke employees have contributed more than $1,000 to federal campaigns.

“University professors don’t make a lot of money,” he said. “I’d be surprised if that many were willing to write the full $2,700 maximum to a candidate. I can afford it, so to me it’s important, and I’ll write my checks and do what I think is the right thing to do.”

Heather Setzler, a critical care physician assistant at the medical center, disagreed with Eacho, however. Setzler contributed $2,700 to Clinton’s campaign last year and volunteered for the campaign. She noted that although the contribution was a “real stretch” for her, she was surprised that political passion does not translate into financial contributions more often.

“I’m actually quite surprised that more people don’t give the maximum amount, especially people that have a lot more money,” she said. “A lot of people say ‘rah-rah,’ but you can’t get them to volunteer and you can’t get them to contribute.”

Setlzer added that although she was initially unsure about donating a large amount of money to a political campaign, she thought her contribution was worthwhile after meeting Clinton at a fundraiser for donors.

“I thought long and hard about [the contribution] because to be honest with you, it’s way above my price range,” she said. “I’m so glad that I did it. It was worth every cent.”

Eacho noted that although he was not surprised to see small numbers of Duke employees contributing large amounts to federal campaigns, he wishes to see faculty more engaged in political discussions on campus.

“I would love to see even more political engagement on the part of the faculty. I think people shouldn’t be afraid to voice their opinions,” he said. “I think citizenship is a responsibility. Part of that responsibility is not just getting out to vote but giving back, doing public service when you’re asked and supporting the political campaigns you think will do a good job when they’re elected.”

Eacho added that he was not concerned that his political contributions would have an impact on his teaching or on his students’ perception of him.

“I’m sure [my students] have all Googled me and read my Wikipedia page and figured out that I was involved in political fundraising, but to be honest it’s never come up. They’ve never asked about it,” he said. “The great thing about a University setting is that everybody’s respectful of others and you listen to all points of view. It’s up to students to develop their own.”

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