There’s a long list of sponsors for the Harris County Democratic Party’s annual Johnson Rayburn Richards Luncheon, a marquee fundraiser that this year boasts Hillary Clinton as the speaker. The event this Friday features the typical benefactors of party functions, including elected officials, party donors, operatives and activists.
But one of those names is not like the others: Tony Buzbee, the uber-wealthy trial lawyer and controversial persona who is taking on Sylvester Turner, the Democratic mayor of Houston.
Like most political fundraisers, the luncheon offers donors various titles depending on their level of generosity. At the top is “The Glass Ceiling Sponsor,” followed by “The Persistent Women.” Buzbee is in the third tier of sponsors, listed as a “White Pantsuit Sponsor” along with Houston’s three Democratic U.S. Representatives.
Oddly enough, Buzbee was also a megadonor for Donald Trump, cutting a check to the Trump Victory fund for $250,000 and giving the Republican National Committee more than $160,000. He even hosted a rollicking fundraiser for Trump in the summer of 2016 at his $14 million River Oaks mansion.
Then, Buzbee declared that he no longer backed the Manhattan billionaire after the release of the Access Hollywood video in which Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women. “Sorry Donald. I’m done with you. Completely,” he declared on Facebook. His concern didn’t last long. After Trump won, Buzbee gave $500,000 to the president-elect’s inauguration fund.
Now he’s running as an outsider candidate against Sylvester Turner. The race is technically nonpartisan, but Turner is a Democrat; Buzbee calls himself an independent.
“I’m buying tables at every political event. Republican. Democrat. Green Party. Independent. Libertarian. I don’t care,” Buzbee told the Observer in an interview. “This ain’t a Democrat-Republican race.” He declined to say whether he still supports President Trump, saying that, as a matter of policy, he is not endorsing or supporting any political candidates.
Buzbee’s “White Pantsuit” sponsorship cost him $5,000 and got him four VIP tickets, which include a reception with party elites. Buzbee said he doesn’t think he’ll be able to attend because of a prior scheduling conflict, but he plans to send supporters in his stead.
Buzbee used to be chair of the Galveston County Democratic Party and once ran as a Democrat for a state legislative seat. After striking it rich through his work on a handful of high-profile class action suits, Buzbee became a major political donor. He’s plied Democrats and Republicans alike with big money.
In fact, he gave $110,000 to the Harris County Democratic Party during the 2018 cycle, along with a lot of donations to Democratic judicial candidates, who ended up sweeping out every sitting Republican judge in the county.
“That much money can fund an entire program like vote by mail,” said Sherrie Matula, president of the Bay Area Association of Democratic Women. “I believe that with any amount of money like that there are strings attached. I just haven’t figured out where the strings are.”
“The reputation is that [Buzbee] never gives freely of his money,” she added.
Buzbee has given $80,000 to Rick Perry, who he successfully defended in an abuse-of-power case. Prior to that, the former governor had appointed him in 2013 to the Texas A&M Board of Regents. Buzbee also plowed more than $300,000 to Governor Greg Abbott’s coffers. But he hasn’t supported anyone like he did Trump.
Asked if he was concerned about losing Democratic support in a blue city because of his past support for Trump, Buzbee said, “I am who I am. I’ve never changed.”
Grassroots activists — those who help raise money and knock doors for Houston candidates — are upset that the party is willing to take Buzbee’s money and give him a prominent billing.
“This kind of contrary-to-the-cause donor system where [donors] just give and get their name printed no matter what — it is why I think so many people get sour on politics,” said Art Pronin, a longtime party activist and president of the Meyerland Area Democrats Club. “Why would you have a guy like that there if he’s giving all that money to Trump?”
“He’s doing it just because he’s another Trump,” John Cobarruvias, a longtime activist with the Bay Area New Democrats who was the first to flag Buzbee’s sponsorship of the fundraiser, added. “There’s nothing worse than somebody who plays both sides. He’s clearly trying to play us.”
The Harris County Democratic Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment.