Rep. Tom Emmer on the rise in Washington and winning friends on Wall Street

By: - February 13, 2020 6:29 am
Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN)

U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

WASHINGTON — Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer peered over the shoulders of his fellow GOP lawmakers to get a glimpse of President Donald Trump. 

It was May 2018, and the president was signing legislation that scaled back some of the banking regulations enacted after the 2008 financial crisis. Emmer and other lawmakers who helped push the bill through Congress gathered in the White House Roosevelt Room to celebrate. 

Trump praised Emmer — then a second-term congressman — and other lawmakers for their efforts to roll back what the president called “crippling Dodd-Frank regulations that are crushing community banks and credit unions nationwide.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader at the time, warned that the bill “would take us back to the days when unchecked recklessness on Wall Street ignited an historic financial meltdown.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) opposed it too, saying “Congress has done enough favors for big banks.” 

Emmer, however, called it “a major step forward for this country” that would “foster economic growth” by tailoring regulations. 

Emmer’s own legislation was included in the final package — his measure eased rules requiring mortgage lenders to disclose more information to federal regulators. The Minnesota Republican said the rules hurt small banks and credit unions. But consumer protection groups warned that it would hamper efforts to gather data used to combat discriminatory lending practices. 

“Unfortunately, some lawmakers and Trump-appointed regulators are trying to make it easier to hide discrimination by limiting the collection of this data,” said Linda Jun, senior policy counsel at Americans for Financial Reform, a nonprofit that advocates for stricter bank rules. “And that’s bad news for people who face discrimination when it comes to getting a loan because it will be much harder to find.” 

It’s one of dozens of efforts to loosen restrictions on the financial services industry that Emmer has backed since joining Congress. In 2018, Emmer voted in favor of 42 deregulatory bills considered by the Financial Services Committee, according to a report by Americans for Financial Reform. 

Now in his third term in the U.S. House, Emmer has a reputation as a reliable vote against tougher banking rules. It’s won him criticism from consumer protection advocacy groups, but it’s also likely helped fuel his campaign donations from the sector. 

“He’s on the wrong side of every vote, championing industry over consumers,” said Bartlett Naylor, who tracks financial policy for the watchdog group Public Citizen. Emmer is “one of the unremarkable, bland, bank apologists that make up the Republican caucus on the House Financial Services Committee.” 

Emmer scored a seat on the coveted Financial Services Committee just a few months after he took office in 2015. The panel has sweeping jurisdiction over banking, insurance, real estate and housing. 

The committee is a prime landing spot for lawmakers looking to climb up in House leadership ranks. The assignment can also boost campaign fundraising; the financial services sector donates to Republicans and Democrats alike on the panel. The financial sector is “far and away the largest source of campaign contributions to federal candidates and parties,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Emmer is widely seen as politically ambitious; he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 and is now the head of the National Republican Campaign Committee, where he’s hoping to win back the House for the GOP in November. Fundraising is a central part of the job, although the NRCC under Emmer has made headlines for lagging behind its Democratic counterpart — the DCCC — in the 2020 money race. 

Emmer’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

Carving out a niche on Capitol Hill

Financial services is “a pretty good niche” for Emmer, said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. He compared Emmer’s focus on those issues to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and former Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.). Both of those lawmakers slowly worked their way up in seniority before clinching the committee gavels. 

Although Peterson’s district is heavily agricultural, however, Emmer’s district has less obvious ties to the financial services industry. The district includes some Twin Cities exurbs and the I-94 corridor through Saint Cloud. 

Some of Minnesota’s largest financial services institutions are in Democrats’ districts. The Minneapolis headquarters of U.S. Bancorp and Ameriprise Financial are in Rep. Ilhan Omar’s district. Her predecessor, Rep. Keith Ellison, also served on the Financial Services Committee and was viewed as an ally by consumer protection groups seeking tougher regulations.  

TCF Bank’s headquarters in Wayzata and UnitedHealth Group Inc.’s headquarters in Minnetonka are both in Rep. Dean Phillips’ district. Phillips, a freshman Democrat, is the only Minnesotan other than Emmer to currently serve on the Financial Services panel. 

Stearns Bank, a small national holding company based in St. Cloud, is located in Emmer’s district. His 6th District is home to “hundreds of banks and numerous credit unions supporting nearly 60,000 Minnesotans in finance-related fields,” according to Emmer’s website. 

If nothing else, Emmer’s turn to Wall Street reflects his reputation for shrewd political instincts — with the 2008 financial crisis receding from view, Wall Street is again reasserting itself on Capitol Hill. 

And the Minnesota Republican says he wants to help lure more financial technology, or “fintech” investments to the region. 

“Minnesota is poised to be a capital of fintech innovation,” Emmer wrote in a recent MinnPost op-ed. “Change is coming in the ways we use money and the financial opportunities available to us. We have an opportunity to embrace this change and foster these new innovations.”

Campaign cash

The financial services sector is Emmer’s biggest campaign contributor. 

So far this cycle, he has raised $482,300 from the finance, insurance and real estate sector, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That includes contributions to his campaign and to his congressional leadership PAC. Those donations represent about 30% of the $1.6 million he’s raised through those two committees this cycle. 

By contrast, Phillips — who sits on the same influential committee — has received about $180,300 from the financial services sector in campaign contributions this election cycle. That money came from employees of the financial services sector; he doesn’t accept PAC contributions. 

The financial services industry has been the No. 1 contributor to Emmer for his entire congressional career, the data show. He has raised about $1.7 million from the finance, insurance and real estate sector since 2013. The totals include donations from industry PACs and employees, not the companies themselves. 

This election cycle, Emmer has gotten financial support from a host of financial services donors, including from the PACs associated with the National Association of Realtors, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Charles Schwab Corp., the Credit Union National Association and others. 

He’s also gotten donations from executives in Minnesota’s financial services sector. They include John Woerner, president of insurance & annuities for Ameriprise Financial; Jay Johnston, president and chief executive of American Heritage National Bank; Brian Short, CEO of First Farmers & Merchants Banks; and Steven Gilmer, CEO of the State Bank of Delano. 

Emmer’s substantial fundraising from the financial sector isn’t particularly surprising, said Brendan Quinn, outreach manager at the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Business PACs tend to favor long-term safe incumbents, he said, and Emmer’s district near a major metropolitan area is home to a lot of businesspeople. 

Still, Quinn added, “it is a lot of money.” 

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.