If Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden meet on the debate stage in Detroit later this month, it’s not likely to be as cordial as it went in Miami. The two presidential candidates have been sparring intensely over Medicare for All, Sanders’s signature plan for universal health care. Biden has rejected Medicare for All as risky and unrealistic, while Sanders defended it in a July 17 speech, where he also issued a pledge challenging all 2020 candidates to deny contributions of $200 or more from PACs, lobbyists, or executives of health insurance or pharmaceutical companies. “When it comes to health care, the insurance and drug industries have been able to control the political process,” Sanders said in the speech.
A top member of Biden’s brain trust fits that description. Steve Ricchetti, referred to as Biden’s campaign chairman in a published report last month, was a longtime lobbyist for health care and other corporate clients. He worked for then-vice president Biden as a counselor and then his chief of staff, and now for his presidential campaign.
Ricchetti founded and ran his own lobbying firm with his brother. He personally represented drugmakers Novartis, Eli Lilly and Sanofi (the latter two are among the three major insulin manufacturers), as well as health IT company NaviMedix (now NaviNet) and the American Hospital Association. The hospital lobby, as well as pharmaceutical companies, have been primary opponents of Medicare for All. The Ricchetti firm continues to operate, with Ricchetti’s brother actively lobbying for clients, including in the health-care space.
For Biden, who released his own health-care plan this week, having a former industry lobbyist on the payroll would set his campaign’s elevation of attacks on Medicare for All in a new context. Perhaps for this reason, the campaign would not respond to repeated requests to clarify Ricchetti’s specific role. However, the Prospect was separately able to confirm that Ricchetti is part of the Biden campaign.
A report in the Philadelphia Inquirer last month highlighted a June 11 lunch reception with Jill Biden, the former vice president’s wife, at the venerable Acorn Club in Center City Philadelphia. Attendees shelled out at least $500 a pop, “with a $5,000 price tag for those interested in a private briefing with Biden campaign chairman Steve Ricchetti,” the Inquirer wrote. The paper sourced this selling of access to an email from Comcast senior executive vice president David L. Cohen, who offered up his home for a high-dollar Biden fundraiser on his first day as a candidate.
Another clue can be found in the roster of the Penn Biden Center, a new-ish foreign policy think tank seen as a waystation for potential officials in a Biden White House. Ricchetti was the managing director of the Penn Biden Center as recently as May. By June, he was gone.
The Penn Biden Center referred a request to speak to Ricchetti to an assistant with a joebiden.com email address, confirming his work on the campaign. An email to that assistant was not returned.It’s something of an open secret that Ricchetti is a senior campaign figure, though the campaign has tried to keep it quiet. The New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher noted in April that Ricchetti was among those not listed among Biden’s “key campaign hires” when he launched.
Ricchetti, a Cleveland native, is a quintessential figure in the turn-of-the-century Democratic Party. His private-sector career led to him running the political department for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association from 1987 to 1989. He rotated onto the other side of politics as the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 1990 to 1992, and then joined the Clinton administration.
He was the chief liaison between the White House and the Senate in Clinton’s first term, helping to pass the Clinton budget and the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which facilitated numerous corporate takeovers of Big Media.
In 1996, the revolving door spun again and Ricchetti served as a corporate lobbyist at Public Strategies Washington. In 1998, Steven and his brother Jeff (who followed in Steve’s footsteps as the top lobbyist for Blue Cross and Blue Shield), opened a lobbying firm that they later sold to the high-powered Podesta Group, then known as podesta.com. At the time, John Podesta was White House chief of staff, and his brother Tony Podesta was a top lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, or PhRMA. Jeff Ricchetti went to work for Tony Podesta; Steve went back to the White House to work for John.
“The Medicis controlled everything,” Tony Podesta said in an actual quote to the New York Times in 2000. “We have it split into two families.”
Ricchetti began as assistant to the president, mostly to talk Democrats out of voting to impeach Clinton. In 1999 he became deputy chief of staff, the top assistant to John Podesta. He led the effort to secure permanent normal trade relations with China, a primary cause of the large labor shock to manufacturing over the past 20 years and the loss of millions of jobs.
Throughout this time, Ricchetti was reportedly so close to Hillary Clinton that he was known as “Rodham Ricchetti,” a reference to her maiden name.
After the Clintons left the White House, Ricchetti fully cashed out, building Ricchetti Inc. with his brother. Armed with a long rolodex, the brothers grabbed a large slice of corporate America as clients, including AT&T, General Motors, defense contractor United Technologies, the American Council of Life Insurers, and the American Bankers Association. But health care was always a large part of the business, with multiple drug companies, insurance associations, and hospital trade groups signing on.
The Podesta ties also continued; until 2012, Ricchetti was on the board of the Center for American Progress, which John Podesta founded in 2003.
Ricchetti Inc. is still going strong. Jeff Ricchetti has lobbied the Senate this year for clients like pharmaceutical company Eisai, patent-buying firm Intellectual Ventures Inc., and the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting.
Steve Ricchetti worked for Hillary Clinton on the 2008 campaign, bundling donations as a “Hillraiser.” The Obama campaign attacked him for obtaining a special earmark from Clinton when she served the Senate on behalf of General Motors. But Ricchetti reportedly got crosswise with Clintonworld when he brought up the issue of Bill’s extra-marital affairs during an internal meeting. When Clinton lost, Ricchetti tried to find a way in with Obama. He tried to get a job in the White House and then with then-CIA director Leon Panetta before landing with Biden as a counselor to the vice president. In 2013, Ricchetti replaced Bruce Reed as Biden’s chief of staff.
The Obama administration had put in place ethics laws barring lobbyists from joining until they had spent at least two years off K Street. Ricchetti de-registered as a lobbyist at the end of 2008 to get around those rules. But he still “advised clients on public policy, communications strategy and grass-roots efforts,” as Biden’s office acknowledged at the time. This is an old trick, to de-register as a lobbyist while still performing all of the functions of lobbying as an unregistered “adviser.” In 2011, Richetti earned $1.8 million from his lobbying firm, despite not technically being a lobbyist. He listed on a disclosure form working for twenty different corporate clients that year.
Ricchetti was the driving force behind Biden’s potential presidential run in 2016. He ran meetings and hit up donors in advance of that eventually curtailed campaign. When Biden left office, Ricchetti signed on as managing director for the Penn Biden Center, where several expats from Bidenworld landed.
As the 2020 talk ramped up, Ricchetti was at the center of it. He was referenced by the Associated Press in an early deliberation in February about a presidential run. In March, the New York Times reported that Ricchetti, labeled a “strategist,” was calling around to “would-be candidates and their aides to signal that the former vice president is likely to enter the race.” In April, The Intercept noted that Ricchetti was coordinating the presidential campaign.
Biden’s health-care plan would increase Affordable Care Act subsidies and move millions eligible for expanded Medicaid into a government-run public option. In recent days, Biden has made defending Obamacare, from the right and left, the tentpole of his campaign, calling Medicare for All a “totally risky” plan that would unravel hard-fought gains.
Health-care changes that fall short of Medicare for All would benefit the hospital industry in particular, giving them a large share of patients paying private rates. That would benefit the American Hospital Association, one of Ricchetti’s former clients. The AHA is a member of the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, the main coalition opposing single payer. Another coalition partner of the anti-single payer lobby is the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, whose members include Novartis, Eli Lilly, and Sanofi, all former Ricchetti clients.
Biden’s campaign declined to comment on any matters regarding Ricchetti.