Politics

'Pete's wine cave': Why Buttigieg's rivals are slamming his Napa fundraiser

Key Points
  • Democratic presidential contender Mayor Pete Buttigieg was put on the defensive over a fundraiser he hosted inside a Napa Valley "wine cave" earlier this month.
  • Rivals Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders seized on the event during Thursday night's Democratic debate to criticize his high-dollar fundraising practices.
  • "Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States," Warren fired off at the Los Angeles event.
Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks with a member of the media in the spin room following the Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019.
Martina Albertazzi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Democratic presidential contender Mayor Pete Buttigieg was put on the defensive over a fundraiser he hosted inside a Napa Valley "wine cave" earlier this month, after rivals Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders seized on the event during Thursday night's Democratic debate to criticize his high-dollar fundraising practices.

"We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms should not pick the next president of the United States. Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States," Warren fired off at the Los Angeles forum.

Surrogates for Sanders, a Vermont progressive, donned shirts displaying a URL that referenced the wine cave and linked to a Sanders donation page.

Buttigieg defended his fundraising practices, arguing that he was the only Democrat on stage who was not a millionaire or billionaire, and rejecting what he called Warren's "purity" test.

"Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine," he said to Warren. "We need the support from everybody who is committed to helping us defeat Donald Trump."

Businessman Andrew Yang, who generally avoids criticizing his rivals, noted at one point in the debate that if Americans had more disposable income, candidates wouldn't have to "shake the money tree in the wine cave."

Read more: Here are the top moments from the sixth Democratic debate in Los Angeles

Buttigieg has proven to be an effective fundraiser despite his little experience on the national stage before his presidential bid. He raised more than $19 million during the last reported quarter. Warren raised almost $25 million, while Sanders raised $25 million.

A Buttigieg spokesperson said that 98% of the campaign's donations are under $200 and that the average contribution last quarter was $32. The spokesperson said Buttigieg will pursue campaign finance reforms as president, such as pushing to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United and creating a small-dollar public financing system.

What to know about the wine cave fundraiser

The fundraiser in question took place Sunday at "Hall Wines," a property owned by Kathryn and Craig Hall, who are prolific Democratic Party donors. Kathryn Hall was ambassador to Austria under President Bill Clinton, while Craig Hall is a real estate developer.

Craig Hall played a role in the 1980s savings and loans crisis, The Associated Press has reported. His firm was rescued by a $300 billion federal bailout and Hall eventually paid a $100 million settlement in 1993, according to the outlet.

The fundraiser was partially open to a pool reporter, Mike DeWald, though he did not have access to the full event.

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A reporter for Recode shared photographs of the dinner on Twitter. The winery's website noted that the wine cave features a chandelier adorned with "1,500 Swarovski crystals" that are reflected in a cherry wood table with "illuminated onyx." The winery's cabernet collector set of six wines sells for $1,215.

Storing wine underground is sometimes preferred as an efficient way to control for temperature and humidity.

About 150 to 200 supporters attended the event, with those spending $1,000 getting a photo with Buttigieg and those spending $2,800 getting access to "a co-host dinner with Buttigieg," according to DeWald.

The fundraiser came after Buttigieg pledged to open such events to the press, under pressure from Warren. Sanders and Warren, who occupy the party's progressive lane, do not host big-dollar fundraisers, while former Vice President Joe Biden, a relative moderate, has had his events open to the press for months.

Buttigieg is in fourth place in national surveys but recently surpassed Warren in state polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, the first caucus and voting states. Buttigieg leads in Iowa and is in second in New Hampshire polls, behind Sanders.

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A lot of billionaires just don't want to pay taxes: Elizabeth Warren

Even ahead of the debate, Sanders was fundraising based on Buttigieg's winey event. In an email to supporters, campaign manager Faiz Shakir wrote that he was not "entirely sure what happens" when people pay to have dinner in a wine cave, "but I would guess they're not talking about standing up to the greed of the billionaire class of this country."

Buttigieg said during the fundraiser that the most pressing issues in his view were climate change, gun violence and the economy, according to DeWald.

"These issues that have gotten us to this point will be even more urgent and pressing than they are today," he said. "They're not taking a vacation for the impeachment process."

Following the debate, spokespeople for Buttigieg defended his fundraiser.

"In '16, we took a vow as Democrats to use everything in our arsenal to deny Trump a second term," one spokesperson, Rodericka Applewhaite, wrote in a post on Twitter. "Not primarily because we hate losing, but because that's how toxic we knew this incoming admin would be."