Arizona Dem nominee Mark Kelly’s questionable business dealing and China ties

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(NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Arizona’s Senator Martha McSally was the first woman combat fighter pilot. In 2001, she successfully sued the Department of Defense, challenging The Military’s policy requiring women stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear an abaya, a black Muslim garb that covers the hair and body and is viewed by many as oppressing women. 

After being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014 and serving two terms representing Arizona’s 2nd congressional district, McSally then lost a very tight 2018 U.S. Senate race against Democrat Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in the midst of what was considered by many a “blue wave” of some magnitude. The race was too close to call on election night, but McSally eventually conceded after a number of post-election mail-in ballots were counted.

Fortunately for the tenacious McSally, she didn’t have to wait long to become a U.S. Senator. Following long-time Senator John McCain’s death in 2018, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey appointed McSally to finish the late Senator’s remaining term in December of that year, bringing us to a November 2020 special election for that seat against Democrat Mark Kelly.

Kelly is an ex-Navy combat pilot, astronaut and husband of former Democrat congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically injured during a 2011 Tucson shooting. Giffords became somewhat of a celebrity and folk hero following the shooting. Her status appears to have bestowed a halo effect of sorts around Kelly, which may account for his 49-40% lead in the most recent Real Clear Politics poll average, though recent history – and especially the 2016 Presidential election – has demonstrated that polling is not always an accurate predictor, and a lot can change with five months still remaining till the election. President Trump’s November performance in Arizona is also likely to weigh heavily on the battle for this Senate seat.

Notably, Mark Kelly also enjoys a substantial fundraising margin over incumbent McSally, having raised more than $31 million in direct campaign dollars to her $18 million through March 31, 2020. (Also, as of that date, Kelly had nearly $20 million cash on hand, while McSally showed just over $10 million.) Fundraising advantages, however, do not always predict or translate to victory. For example, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was upset in 2004 by now Senator John Thune in spite of significantly outraising Thune and spending 1.5X the opponent’s amount. Notably and more recently, Hillary Clinton raised about 1.7x the amount raised by Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 before losing to the DC outsider.

There may be another important, albeit little-mentioned factor, at play here. The mainstream media has so far largely focused on Mark Kelly’s career as an astronaut and in the Navy, and how he doted on his wife after she was injured in the 2011 shooting. Meanwhile, they have simultaneously all but ignored some darker aspects and Kelly’s co-founding of and investment ties to World View Enterprises, a Tucson-based company that designs and manufactures hydrogen-fueled balloons for deployment as lower-altitude “stratollites” for commercial and governmental mapping and surveillance. The company also planned to offer public rides to the edge of space.  Kelly served as a strategic advisor to World View until the launch of his Senate candidacy, though he maintains a modest financial interest in the company.

World View has faced obstacles and widespread criticism. For one, after receiving $15 million in economic development incentives funded by Arizona taxpayers, the company laid off a portion of its workforce last year. The company was already trying to regain credibility after one of its balloons exploded in December 2017, resulting in nearly $500,000 in damage to its Pima County facility, and several people being treated for hearing damage as a result of the explosion.

However, the most insidious aspect of World View may ultimately be that its long-time investors include Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech company that operates the WeChat messaging and social media service that is among the world’s largest. And, like other Chinese tech companies, Tencent has close working ties to the ruling Communist Party in Beijing.

Tencent has also been credibly accused of monitoring user activity, with broad concerns that the information is being made available to or used by the Chinese government (i.e. the Chinese Communist Party). Tencent cut off National Basketball Association streaming after the Houston Rocket’s general manager tweeted his support for democracy protestors in Hong Kong. In a far more worrisome move, Tencent subsidiary WeChat censored key words about the Coronavirus outbreak, preventing crucial information that could slow or stop the pandemic’s spread from being disseminated. A University of Southampton study showed that the spread of Coronavirus could have been reduced by as much as 95% if action had been taken three weeks earlier. The U.S. could have possibly even avoided a lockdown. Perhaps if the information had been released, the spread could have mainly been limited to China. 

In addition to the controversy surrounding the public funds taken and potentially misused by Kelly’s company, the much larger concern could become the relationship with Tencent and the much larger question of its impact on national security. If elected, would Kelly be able to act and legislate objectively when questions of national security and China arise in the Senate? How would he vote on possible sanctions? Or public criticisms of China’s massive military buildup in the Pacific Rim and particularly the South China Sea? What about his position with regard to fair trade and ongoing tariff discussions?  At the very least, Mark Kelly’s investments in a company that is co-owned by our greatest foreign adversary should give pause about his objectivity with regard to China, should he be elected Senator.


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Aedan O'Connor


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