What's in the candidates' tax returns?

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Former Vice President Joe Biden told a group of wealthy fundraisers in June that he didn’t want to “demonize” wealth. Less than a month later, he released tax returns that showed he had plenty of it. Biden and his wife, Jill, made a total of $15.6 million in 2017 and 2018.

The Bidens earned less than $400,000 a year during the eight years of the Obama administration, and even less when Biden was a senator. (His salary as vice president was $230,700. Jill Biden, an English professor, made an average of $83,000 a year.) Their new wealth came from book sales and speaking fees, giving Biden the highest income of the 14 candidates who have released their tax returns.

Biden reminds voters on the campaign trail that he was often the poorest senator. He’s called himself “Middle Class Joe” and is known for his frequent Amtrak commutes from Washington to Wilmington, Del. Biden’s six-figure salaries as a senator and vice president placed him above the median household income, but he was never seen as rich. Now he’s in the top 1 percent of households.

Biden’s 2017 memoir, “Promise Me, Dad,” was an instant bestseller. In 2017 and 2018, he earned about $13.3 million in book royalties. A financial disclosure form released by the Biden campaign shows that he also made $4.2 million for 49 speaking appearances between November 2017 and May 2019. Jill Biden received $700,000 in speaking fees for 18 events in 2018.

Many of the Democratic presidential candidates have focused their campaigns on income inequality, appealing to middle-class voters who feel left behind while corporate profits soar. His closest rivals for the nomination, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have both railed against wealthy people and corporations they say aren’t paying their fair share in taxes. Both senators saw their incomes cross $1 million in recent years.

The candidates’ tax returns and financial disclosures offer a rare glimpse into their wealth and provide a reminder that most politicians are much wealthier than their constituents. Some, like Biden and Sanders, became wealthy while in office, while others are elected with substantial wealth. Several candidates have made substantial amounts from books published during or after their time in office.

Bernie Sanders and wife Jane salute the crowd at a campaign event in Pasadena, Calif., in May. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Sanders and his wife, Jane, reported an income of $240,610 in 2015. That isn’t substantially more than his Senate salary of $174,000. Sanders capitalized on his status as a presidential candidate with his 2016 campaign book, “Our Revolution.” His profits from the book sent the couple’s income above $1 million in 2016 and 2017. The revenue stream continued into 2018, when his tax return showed income of $391,000 from Macmillan Publishers.

Sanders’s star status was so powerful that he even earned a small amount of royalties from his long-forgotten 1987 folk album, “We Shall Overcome,” which resurfaced during the 2016 campaign.

Sanders’s income from book royalties also pushed him into the top 1 percent. The proud democratic socialist from Vermont was ridiculed as a hypocrite earlier this year when it was disclosed that he was a millionaire. But the charge doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; if anything, his economic plan, if enacted, would be to his own detriment.

“I wrote a best-selling book,” Sanders told the New York Times in April. “If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”

Sanders only released one year of his tax returns during the 2016 primary. He joined other Democratic candidates this year in releasing them as a point of contrast to President Trump, who broke with decades of tradition by refusing to make the documents public before and after he was elected. Forbes and Bloomberg have estimated that Trump’s net worth is around $3 billion in 2019. His past income, losses and charitable donations are impossible to know for certain without his tax returns.

While they aren’t obligated to release their tax returns, presidential candidates are required to file financial disclosures to identify possible conflicts of interest. These disclosures quantify a candidate’s assets and liabilities but only in broad ranges. The value of candidates’ personal homes isn’t included in tax returns or the required financial disclosure.

The Bidens have rented a mansion in McLean, Va., for $20,000 a month, the Washington Post reported in June. The couple purchased a $2.7 million, 4,800-square-foot vacation house in Rehoboth Beach, Del., in 2017. Their main residence in Wilmington is estimated to be worth $1.6 million.

Joe Biden, accompanied by wife Jill, waves during a campaign rally in Philadelphia in May. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

In 2016, Sanders bought his third property, a vacation home on Lake Champlain in northern Vermont. The other two homes are in Burlington, Vt., where he was mayor, and near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In total, the properties are worth at least $1.5 million.

Warren, a former Harvard University law professor, reported incomes close to seven figures in 2009 and 2010, years before she was elected to the Senate in 2012. She grew up in Oklahoma, with a family “on the ragged end of the middle class,” as she tells it, that couldn’t afford a college application, let alone college tuition. Warren rarely talks about her wealth but has occasionally rejected accusations of hypocrisy by emphasizing that she is self-made.

Like her 2020 rivals, Warren has also enriched herself with book deals during her time in office. She received a $300,000 advance for her 2017 book, “This Fight Is Our Fight.” Her publisher, Henry Holt & Co., also paid a $1.6 million advance for her 2014 memoir, “A Fighting Chance.”

For the 10 years of tax returns she has released, Warren and her husband, Bruce Mann, reported income as high as $1.54 million, in 2014. The couple’s Victorian home in Cambridge, Mass., is worth an estimated $3 million. The Massachusetts senator’s net worth is somewhere between $4.8 million and $11 million, held mostly in bonds and mutual funds, according to her financial disclosure.

Warren’s net worth is larger than that of Biden and Sanders, but it doesn’t place her anywhere near the upper echelons of wealth in Congress. Presidential long shot former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., for example, was the sixth wealthiest member of Congress last year, according to Roll Call. With a background as a CEO and investor, Delaney has a fortune estimated between $55 million and $279 million.

Delaney lives in a $4 million home in Potomac, Md., one of the richest towns in the U.S. by median income. He also owns a beachside home worth more than $4 million in Rehoboth Beach, Del. — only a short walk from Biden’s vacation home in the town.

Kamala Harris speaks during the National Urban League conference in Indianapolis last month. (Photo: Darron Cummings/AP)

Sen. Kamala Harris, another presidential hopeful, lives with husband Douglas Emhoff in a multimillion-dollar home in Los Angeles. Emhoff is an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer. They reported an income of $1.8 million in 2018. By herself, however, Harris isn’t wealthier than other candidates. In 2013, the year before Harris married Emhoff, she earned $128,668 as California’s attorney general.

Harris’s book “The Truths We Hold,” released in January 2019, brought in $446,875 for an advance, and an additional $49,000 for a young readers’ version, according to a financial disclosure. Her first book, “Smart on Crime,” earned a much smaller payment of $12,000 when it was published in 2009. Harris was then the district attorney of San Francisco, preparing to launch a bid for attorney general.

Biden also experienced greater success as an author when his national profile rose during the vice presidency. His 2007 campaign book, “Promises to Keep,” was far less profitable than his 2017 memoir. The Bidens received $81,250 from a literary agency in 2005, and reported only $71,000 in royalties the year the book was published.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, in comparison, earned close to $1 million for his first book, “United,” released in 2016. Booker has spent much of his political career in the national spotlight, working as a surrogate for the 2008 Obama campaign when he was mayor of Newark. His released tax returns show he was paid a total of $1.7 million between 2008 and 2013 for speeches, mostly at colleges.

Pete Buttigieg speaks to supporters at a campaign event in Orlando this week. (Photo: John Raoux/AP)

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., signed a deal for his memoir, “Shortest Way Home,” back in 2017, before becoming a presidential candidate with billionaire donors. Buttigieg was paid a $75,000 advance for the book, released in February 2019. It debuted at No. 9 on the New York Times Best Sellers list for hardcover nonfiction books.

The financial disclosures that place Biden and Warren’s net worth in the millions also show that there is a wide spectrum of wealth among the Democratic candidates. Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, have $130,000 in student loan debt, according to their disclosure. Their estimated net worth, based on the ranges they reported, could run from negative six figures to $166,998.

Some 2020 candidates with published books haven’t released their tax returns, so it’s unclear how much they have earned. Those candidates are Delaney, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Julián Castro, Sen. Michael Bennet, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer, who is a billionaire. Former Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, who published a memoir in 2015, has released 10 years worth of tax returns on his website. In 2018, his adjusted gross income was $262,345.

By and large, the tax returns that have been released by the candidates reveal another common theme among the presidential hopefuls: a lack of charitable giving. Donations to charities can be deducted from taxes, lowering one’s tax bill. Claiming donations on tax returns isn’t mandatory, but most take advantage of it.

Biden and Booker stand out among the candidates for their donations. The Bidens donated an average of $4,045 from 2000 to 2016, but their giving skyrocketed when Joe received royalties for his memoir in 2017. The couple donated more than $1 million to charity in 2017.

Booker donated $24,000 in 2018, which was 15.7 percent of his income — the largest percentage of income any of the 2020 candidates has reported. He donated $620,000 of his profits from paid speeches between 2008 and 2013 to charities, according to USA Today. In 2013, he gave away 44.8 percent of his income.

Harris and her husband donated less than 2 percent of their income in 2017 and 2018, when they reported $1.4 million and $1.8 million in income. In the decade before Harris married Emhoff and began filing her taxes jointly, she donated 0.9 percent of her income to charity.

Sanders donated 1 percent of his $1 million income in 2016. It was 3.2 percent in 2017 and 3.4 percent in 2018. When Warren’s income reached seven figures from 2013 to 2015, she and her husband reported donating an average of 3.8 percent of their income.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Buttigieg are at the low end of the giving spectrum, according to their tax returns. Buttigieg donated a total of $8,668 from 2009 to 2018.

Despite his image as an underdog, O’Rourke has a net worth estimated between $3.2 million and $16.4 million. He reported giving 0.31 percent of his income to charity in 2017, while de Blasio donated 0.16 percent.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that former Rep. Joe Sestak had not yet made his tax returns public. In fact, Sestak had published 10 years worth of returns on his website. We regret the error.


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