Employees give big bucks to politicians despite CEO's call to boycott Washington gridlock

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OLYMPIA — If Starbucks chief Howard Schultz wants voters to withhold campaign cash from federal politicians, he might start with trying to halt the flow of donations from people who work for him.

Starbucks leadership, employees and the company’s lobbying firm have continued to contribute thousands of dollars to federal officeholders despite Schultz’s urging, according to campaign records. He had invited Americans to join him in withholding campaign contributions until politicians could reach a bipartisan deal to stabilize the nation’s fiscal situation — an appeal that Fortune magazine cited in naming Schultz its “Businessperson of the Year” last week.

There’s no evidence the “withhold” movement has had an impact on the flow of money in politics, as third-quarter donations to congressional campaigns were higher than during the past election cycle. In the six weeks after the coffee guru announced his pledge with the support of dozens of other business executives, donations continued among many of those companies, including AOL, Juniper Networks and Nasdaq.

Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods and a top supporter of the movement, gave an in-kind donation to a congressional campaign in September after taking Schultz’s vow. He said through a spokeswoman that he already had committed to providing food and beverage to Democrat Jared Huffman, a candidate in California’s 2nd Congressional District, and that he decided to stick with it even though it had been delayed until after the Schultz pledge.

The lobbying firm that handles much of Starbucks’ work in the nation’s capital, K&L Gates, has continued to donate through its political-action committee to current and prospective members of Congress — some $40,000 from the start of the pledge through the end of September.

Meanwhile, two members of the company’s board of directors, which Schultz leads as chairman, also gave donations after the vow was announced. Mellody Hobson, a Starbucks board member who donated $1,500 to Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said she has not signed the pledge. Sheryl Sandberg, a Facebook executive who serves on the Starbucks board and recently gave donations to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., declined comment through a spokesman.

Schultz personally donated campaign cash in the months before his announcement, giving $5,000 to Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. He has not given since, according to campaign records. Arthur Rubinfeld, one of Schultz’s closest aides as president of global development at Starbucks, gave a $500 donation to Cantwell a few days before Schultz went public with his plan.

At least three other Starbucks employees have given donations since Schultz promoted the pledge, including Steve Johannesen, a director of international development who gave $2,000 to President Obama’s re-election campaign in September.

Jim Olson, a Starbucks spokesman, said Schultz fully respects personal decisions of employees and board members.

“Howard’s pledge was a personal request, not a company initiative,” Olson said.

In mid-August, after Congress struggled for a compromise plan to raise the debt ceiling, Schultz said in a public letter that elected officials from both parties had failed to lead and threatened the economy. He sought to encourage elected officials to act with civility and seek a deal on debt and spending long before the supercommittee deadline this week.

There’s no sign that the pledge slowed the flow of money in the third quarter. Congressional candidates brought in some $177 million, up slightly from the same quarter in 2009, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records. Obama raised $43 million for his campaign and an additional $27 million for the national party.

Olson said the effort was designed to increase confidence and draw attention to accountability.

“We have never claimed we would turn this country around by ourselves and know we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Olson said. “But we are very proud of the progress we are making and that we are trying to do something and setting an example for others.”