Lt. Gov. Molly Gray speaks to a crowd at the Amtrak station in St. Albans in July. File photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

The four Democratic candidates vying to represent Vermont in the U.S. House have all taken the same pledge: no money from corporate political action committees, known as PACs.

The promise — made by the campaigns of state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale and former congressional aide Sianay Chase Clifford — is meant to signal grassroots bonafides in a primary race confined mostly to the left lane.

But while the candidates say they won’t take money from PACs representing big business, at least one is receiving significant support from some of the lobbyists who represent their interests in Washington.

“We’re building a campaign for Vermonters, with Vermonters. No special interests. No big corporate PAC money. Just us, fighting for the state we love,” Gray’s campaign Facebook account posted on Jan. 31. “Can you chip in $5 before midnight to help us reach our end-of-month goal?”

A little over a month later, Gray made her fundraising pitch to a different crowd at Capitol Hill events hosted by Luke Albee and Ed Pagano, two former chiefs of staff to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who have both spent years as corporate lobbyists. Neither the campaign nor Albee and Pagano were willing to discuss the details of the events, including where, precisely, they were held, or who was invited. 

“Molly feels it is important to be transparent about who is supporting her campaign. We will report every penny raised on our quarterly (Federal Election Commission) filing in full compliance with federal law. The next filing will be on April 15th,” Gray’s campaign manager, Samantha Sheehan, wrote in an email. Gray was in Washington, D.C., for a lieutenant governors’ conference Tuesday and was not available for an interview.

Albee and Pagano’s ties to Vermont politics run deep, and Pagano sits on the University of Vermont’s board of trustees. But since leaving public office, they also have taken a spin through Washington’s revolving door.

Pagano’s recent client list has included firearms manufacturer Sig Sauer, tobacco company PMI Global Services and corporate beermaker Anheuser-Busch, according to federal lobbying disclosures. Albee’s recent portfolio has included representing several left-leaning advocacy organizations, including the massive Democratic dark money group Sixteen Thirty Fund, as well as Meta, Facebook’s parent organization, and manufacturers of personal protective equipment.

Other co-hosts at the Gray fundraisers included Peter Jacoby, a former longtime top AT&T lobbyist, and Marla Grossman, another former Leahy staffer-turned-lobbyist specializing in intellectual property.

Asked about the fundraisers and how they squared with Gray’s pledge not to accept corporate PAC support, Sheehan said Gray’s ties to the hosts were personal.

Gray has known Albee since 2006, when they both worked on the campaign to elect Peter Welch to the House seat she is now running for. And she met Pagano in 2007, according to Sheehan, when Pagano was Leahy’s chief of staff and Gray was working in Welch’s office in Washington. 

“They are among a number of current and former Leahy and Welch staffers who have, and continue to, support Congressman Welch and Lt. Governor Gray in their respective campaigns to serve Vermont,” Sheehan said. 

Asked if he might lobby Gray on behalf of his clients if she were elected to Congress, Pagano wouldn’t outright rule it out.

“I have no idea. I’m not — I’m supporting her as a personal friend,” he said.

Albee, for his part, said he would “absolutely not” do so.

“I’ve been involved in many, many, many Vermont campaigns… If the implication is that the reason I’m helping her is so I can ultimately lobby her — you know, it’s preposterous,” he said.

Albee eagerly described his lobbying efforts for Protect Our Care, a project of the Sixteen Thirty Fund that advocates for preserving the Affordable Care Act, and his work for personal protective equipment manufacturers. “The Chinese have flooded our markets with counterfeit PPE. And I’m trying to help the domestic PPE industry, so we’re more self-sufficient as this pandemic plays out,” he said.

He was more guarded about his work for Facebook. “I am an advisor for them and you know, I don’t talk specifically about what I do for any of these — I let them speak,” he said.

Gray is not the only candidate running for Congress this cycle eschewing corporate PAC support while accepting money and support from high-powered corporate lobbyists. Fundraising reports filed in January by Welch, who is running for Senate, revealed thousands in donations from lobbyists working in the capital’s biggest firms. (Welch also regularly accepted corporate support before his Senate run, and jump-started his Senate campaign with $2 million transferred from his former House campaign account.)

Nor is Gray the only one hosting Washington, D.C. fundraisers. Ram Hinsdale’s campaign hosted one earlier in March at the home of Bruce Kieloch, a Democratic fundraising consultant. 

While all of the campaigns in the Democratic primary have said they’ll say no to money from big business, they said they’re ready to accept support from powerful left-leaning advocacy PACs and unions. Ram Hinsdale’s event was co-hosted by the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Victory Fund, which has also publicly endorsed her. Similarly, Balint has received a $5,000 donation and endorsement from Equality PAC, a pro-LGBTQ group, although her campaign said it had not held any events in D.C.

Gray has thus far led the pack in fundraising, per reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission in January. The next filings due will cover the first three months of 2022.

Because both Ram Hinsdale and Chase Clifford announced their candidacies this year, the April filings will be their first fundraising disclosures.

VTDigger's political reporter.