Coffee mugs, tote bags, and t-shirts: it’s the Presidential campaign swag ubiquitous during election years. This round, you can buy “Feel the Bern” Mugs, ‘Kasich” stickers, and of course, “Make America Great Again” ball caps.
These trinkets are prized mementos for politicos, and they’re big business for the companies who make them. One of those companies is based here in the Ocean State.
Thousands attended Hillary Clinton’s campaign kick-off rally in New York last summer. The ardent supporters were ready to knock on doors, cold-call voters, and buy Hillary Clinton merchandise; which Clinton Campaign Manager Robby Mook was happily hawking at the event.
“Thank you for being here and supporting Hillary Clinton,” Mook told the attendees. “Available on your right are some fantastic products, hats, buttons, magnets, cups, all proceeds support the important work of this campaign to support Hillary Clinton, our next President.”
Clinton supporter Jackson Dartez was sporting a t-shirt with an LGBT-friendly slogan, aimed at millennial voters that read, ‘Yaaas Hillary.’
“My friends all say this ‘yaaas’ thing, and I probably say it the most out of all of us, so when Hillary came out with this shirt for pride month, everyone thought it was hilarious and pressured me into buying it,” said Dartez. “So I figured, why not.”
There’s a good chance this t-shirt and others like it have a surprising link to Rhode Island. That’s because of a company called Financial Innovations, based in Cranston. The company produces knick-knacks like mugs and t-shirts for the Clinton campaign.
According to the Federal Election Commission, Hillary for America spent $1.2 million on merchandise from Financial Innovations since 2015.
The company didn’t get permission from the Clinton campaign to speak with us, but it lists its headquarters in a small industrial park, a short drive from Providence.
There’s no visible sign identifying these buildings as Finnancial Innovations. The company keeps a low profile. But in the field of campaign merchandise Financial Innovations has anything but a low profile, said Kent Cooper, who runs the watchdog website Political Moneyline.
“Going backwards in time, this database has a little over 3000 transactions listed to Financial Innovations.”
3000 transactions with federal campaigns and national advocacy groups, said Cooper. He follows the money these organizations spend.
“A lot of it involves payments from the Obama Victory Fund 2012, let’s see some other ones in here; Obama for America, Democratic National Committee, Montana State Central Democratic. So there’s a wide range of it looks like, predominately Democratic group,” said Cooper.
All of whom spent thousands with the company. According to Cooper, in the past year, Financial Innovations did work for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the International Association of Firefighters, the Teamsters, and Emily's List.
So how did this Cranston company come to work for some of the most prominent Democratic and left leaning national policy organizations? For starters, the company is owned by Mark Weiner; the East Greenwich resident has become a household name Democratic circles.
“Mark has been one of the strongest Democratic supporters financial and otherwise for the better part of forty years, which in politics is more than a lifetime,” said Former Rhode Island Democratic Party Chair Bill Lynch.
Lynch met Weiner when he was cutting his teeth in local government, and Financial Innovations was still in its infancy. The company began in 1980, and Lynch said Weiner was already hard at work drumming up business.
“Mark is a hustler in the good sense,” said Lynch. “He doesn’t stay still for very long. He always likes to be doing something, or moving onto the next project.”
And these projects have gotten more lucrative as spending increases on political campaigns. Weiner was unavailable to speak with us for this story, but Lynch said for Weiner, Financial Innovations represents a happy marriage of business and a passion for politics.
“I think that even Mark would admit that politics and the study of people and interaction of people has been a major part of his life,” said Lynch. “And he’s lucky that he’s been able to establish this business that goes hand in hand with what he likes about politics.”
Weiner has donated thousands to mostly Democratic campaigns from Rhode Island to California, and done millions in sales with candidates and political action committees in need of merchandise.
That includes Hillary for America, but Weiner’s ties to Hillary Clinton go back decades, said former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino.
“Mark and I have been best friends since we were freshmen at LaSalle Academy,” said Paolino. “And it just so happens that we both had the same passion of politics and public service and we’ve been involved in a lot of the same candidates together.”
He said Weiner first met Clinton in the 70s campaigning for the soon-to-be President Jimmy Carter.
“Jimmy Carter appointed Hillary Clinton to run Indiana. Mark Weiner was assigned to Indiana, and worked as an intern for Hillary Clinton, back in 1976. So Mark’s relationship goes back to since he was 22 years old.”
Since then, the Clintons remained close with Mark Weiner. Former President Bill Clinton personally presented him with a local award from state Democrats. Weiner hosted Hillary Clinton at his East Greenwich home last summer for a fundraiser for her latest presidential bid.
At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer, Weiner’s products will likely be featured. And if Clinton cinches the nomination and wins the presidency, someone will need to make inauguration t-shirts.