Having a financial interest in the Chinese government’s opinion of you can be hazardous to your moral health.
Witness, for instance, the brave NBA multimillionaires, so comfortable slagging President Donald Trump and the perfidies of America.
When the issue of Hong Kong came up after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of pro-democracy protesters, that kind of ethical certitude went out the window — mostly because of the fact that the NBA does a great deal of business in China and Beijing had made it clear they weren’t happy with Morey’s remark.
Suddenly, individuals like LeBron James, Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr didn’t have any clue about Beijing’s oppressive tactics. (Last month, Kerr called his 2019 comments “embarrassing” — which was convenient, considering he said this as the NBA was lecturing us all about social justice yet again.)
Another person who didn’t have a whole lot to say about the protests in Hong Kong was Mark Kelly, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Arizona. Kelly, a former astronaut and Navy pilot, is the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman shot by an unstable gunman in 2011.
Since Giffords’ shooting, Kelly’s most visible role has been as a gun control advocate. However, he’s also become a wildly effective “celebrity brand,” as one academic put it.
In Gabby Giffords’ financial disclosure during her last full year as a member of Congress, back in 2011, she declared her family was worth $2.1 million. Granted, her husband was still in the Navy for much of that year, but they were still a couple of above-modest means.
Eight years later in 2019, Kelly had to file his first financial disclosures for his run against GOP Arizona Sen. Martha McSally. According to The Arizona Republic, his net worth was between $10 million and $27 million. (It’s now between $9 million and $27 million, the paper said, citing a financial disclosure report filed in August.)
This would, as The Republic reported, be “an amount that would make him among the wealthiest people in Congress at the time.”
Even at the low end, $9 million is more than quadruple what the couple was worth in 2011. And $27 million represents a nearly 13-fold increase from that $2.1 million figure.
How did he get to be so wealthy? Kelly has a lot of metaphorical fingers in metaphorical pies, but one of the most worrying is his stake in a company that’s received significant investment from Tencent, a tech firm that has ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
“Through a very unexpected situation, what happened to Gabby, I wound up having to leave my career in the Navy and at NASA, and Gabby resigned from Congress,” Kelly told The Republic in a recent interview. “Like a lot of a lot of other astronauts, I went out there as a self-employed person and found opportunities for work.”
From this language, you’re probably envisioning a man who took high-paying speaking gigs and made his personal brand work for him. To a certain extent, you’re right — he did make some money from speaking.
However, he also did consulting, sat on corporate boards and tried his hand at investing.
One of his investments was World View Enterprises, a company that does near-space balloon imaging. Kelly was a co-founder of the firm, which received money from Tencent.
He owns company stock that’s worth at least $100,000, but insists there’s no conflict of interest.
“I’m the, the test pilot, I am the technical guy. I’m not the CEO or the finance guy, or I wasn’t,” Kelly said, although he conceded he talked with Tencent before they invested in World View.
“I had a very brief conversation with one individual that lasted about 30 seconds, maybe a minute,” Kelly claimed, saying the conversation was about the vision for the company.
Should Mark Kelly have to answer about his ties to China?
He also has links to Tilman Fertitta, the billionaire Texas businessman behind the Landry’s restaurant group.
“Fertitta hosted Kelly’s 2007 bachelor party aboard his $40 million yacht, and Kelly and Giffords attended several swanky events with Fertitta, from the opening of new restaurants to pre-launch parties for Kelly and his brother,” The Republic reported.
“Fertitta flew Kelly to Tucson in 2011 on his private jet to be with Giffords after her shooting.
“Kelly served as a board member for Landry’s from 2013 until 2017 and held stock worth up to $100,000 for another Fertitta-related company as late as 2019. He gave the keynote speech to Landry’s annual conference in 2017.”
The issue? Fertitta is the owner of the Houston Rockets, the team which employs Morey. Tencent also streams the broadcasts of NBA games in China, which meant there was what those on the left might call a bit of intersectionality regarding Kelly’s interests in the matter when Morey announced (and then quickly deleted) his support for protesters in Hong Kong.
Fertitta was also one of the people who acquitted himself most poorly during the NBA’s China debacle. After tweeting that the Rockets weren’t a “political organization” and disavowing Morey’s comments, he began liking posts on Instagram calling for Morey to be fired.
Fertitta would eventually go radio silent on the issue once it became clear the NBA was reversing course after taking serious flak, and now says he thinks there was “nothing wrong” with Morey’s tweet.
Kelly’s ties to Fertitta and to Tencent are seen as two of the reasons why he wouldn’t offer much support for the Hong Kong protesters other than telling a newsletter called the Yellow Sheet Report that he “supports those protesting for democracy in Hong Kong.”
The McSally campaign, meanwhile, has seized upon Kelly’s ties to China. She “and her allies have cast Kelly as a partisan mercenary willing to make money from sometimes-unsavory sources,” The Republic reported.
“For his part, Kelly dismisses such efforts as untrue political smears reminiscent of McSally’s attacks in 2018 on the patriotism of her Democratic rival, Kyrsten Sinema.”
Except these were some of the most salient attacks against Sinema, whose organizing against the Iraq War was shameful.
While voters don’t particularly care about personal wealth, they do care when that personal wealth seems to come from a personal brand that sprang up in the wake of the assassination attempt against a candidate’s wife.
While most of that wealth isn’t under question, some of it is — like World View’s investment from Tencent.
In addition to that, there’s a speaking fee from Youngstown State University — paid out via a private family foundation — that the public school refused to disclose, as well as consulting fees he allegedly refused to answer questions about, according to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Some would dismiss these questions as being irrelevant given the increased value surrounding celebrity in today’s world.
“In our world today, a celebrity brand is worth millions,” said Lara Brown, associate professor and the director at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
“It’s really important to understand that, yes, he’s doing speeches, he’s making watch deals,” she said. “Putting his brand or licensing his name is, in fact, a lucrative business when an individual has some sense of celebrity.”
However, she pointed this out, too: “What’s more important than the net worth is really the overall character of the person who is running and the perception of that character by the people.”
Kelly was asked during his interview with The Republic how much increasing his personal wealth has changed him.
“I would say, in general, not much because of the person I married, and who I am,” Kelly said.
Would the Mark Kelly of 10 years ago have stayed this silent on issues related to freedom in China, I wonder? It certainly looks more than a little shady.
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