House Democrats Joe Cunningham (copy) (copy)

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, raised more than $650,000 in the first three months of 2019, campaign finance records show. File/J. Scott Applewhite/AP

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham campaigned on a promise to reject corporate political action committee money, pledging not to take "one dime from any PACs or special interest groups."

Even so, that didn't stop the PAC for Publix supermarkets from trying to give Charleston’s congressman $1,000 on the final day of the fundraising quarter.

Cunningham’s campaign sent it back.

The documentation appears in the latest Federal Election Commission filings, which show Cunningham raised $663,538 in the first three months of 2019.

As of March 31, he had $507,618 cash on hand for what is expected to be a fierce 2020 reelection battle for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.

Of the 43 freshmen Democrats being especially targeted by Republicans heading into 2020, Cunningham was outraised by only two of them: California Rep. Josh Harder and New York Rep. Antonio Delgado.

"These incredible fundraising numbers demonstrate how much the Lowcountry supports Joe Cunningham," Cunningham’s finance director Allie Watters said in a statement.

Some 79 percent of his contributions came from within South Carolina.

However, to do his work in Washington, Cunningham has hired at least three former lobbyists — the very group he once characterized in a 2018 Facebook post as having "a stranglehold over American politics for far too long."

Cunningham Chief of Staff Lane Lofton spent about eight years working as a lobbyist for the Internet & Television Association, a powerful telecom trade association.

His 2018 lobbying disclosure report shows he tried to influence 16 specific bills. Additionally, Lane reported lobbying the House, the Senate and the Federal Communications Commission during his time there.

RaShawn Mitchell, the legislative director for Cunningham, in 2018 lobbied for the National Wildlife Federation.

Another legislative staffer, Paniz Rezaeerod, worked for 13 months as a lobbyist for Cobank, a bank that focuses on providing loans, leases, mortgages and other financial services to rural communities.

Cunningham stands by his hires, saying bringing in experienced people does not divert, as he put in a campaign ad, staying accountable to the Lowcountry.

"Joe put together the team that could best help him serve the Lowcountry," Cunningham spokeswoman Rebecca Drago told The Post and Courier. "We employ veterans, former Sanford staffers, and people with years of legislative experience. We're proud of the diverse and experienced team we’ve put together to serve the Lowcountry."

Last week, Cunningham voted in favor of the "Save the Internet Act of 2019," a bill that seeks to restore so-called "net neutrality" regulations that would bar internet service providers from blocking or slowing access to internet sites or creating paid "fast lanes" for preferred services. 

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The Internet & Television Association, the trade group Cunningham's chief of staff previously worked for, actively lobbied against the bill.

All told, Cunningham's office employs 15 full-time staffers, one part-time position and has one shared staffer who handles information technology needs.

The vast majority of contributions Cunningham received were funneled through ActBlue. It's a nonprofit political action committee that provides an online fundraising outlet for Democratic candidates and causes.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics describes ActBlue as a "Carey committee." It has the ability to operate both as a traditional PAC, contributing funds to a candidate's committee, and as a super PAC, which makes independent expenditures, the site said.

Filings show Cunningham also received about $26,000 from political committees, including $1,000 from Majority Whip U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and $2,000 from Cheri Bustos, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In a sign that she won't be running for the 1st District seat she ran for unsuccessfully in 2013, Elizabeth Colbert-Bush donated $1,000 to Cunningham this quarter.

So far, the only Republican challenger Cunningham has drawn is Michael Covert, a Beaufort County councilman. According to his FEC filings, Covert has raised $59,093, but that total also includes $30,000 Covert has loaned himself.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.