L.A. art collector vows to cut off funds to Democrats who voted for Syrian refugee bill

Blake Byrne

In this 2005 archival photo, Blake Byrne, a retired TV executive, stands next to a sculpture by artist Stephan Balkenhol titled “Vier Figurengruppe,” on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The sculpture is one of many pieces of art that Byrne has donated to MOCA.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

At least one major political donor is upset with House Democrats who voted with Republicans Thursday to tighten restrictions on Syrian refugees trying to move to the United States.

Philanthropist and retired television executive Blake Byrne sent an email to several Democrats Monday, including California Reps. Julia Brownley (West Lake Village), John Garamendi (Walnut Grove) and Scott Peters (San Diego), saying he is “greatly disappointed” they voted with Republicans and that he will no longer donate in any way to their campaigns.

Byrne also sent the letter to the Los Angeles Times,  Echo Lake Entertainment President Andy Spaulding and others in the entertainment industry.

“What a disappointment you are to me and all the others who fight for equal rights for our fellow Americans,” he wrote.


Several of the California Democrats who voted in favor of the bill potentially face tough races in 2016. Most said the Obama administration didn’t do a good enough job explaining why the legislation would be harmful.

Byrne said in the email that a tough race is no excuse.

“I too want a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives, but not people who use others hardships as their stepping stones,” he wrote.

He specifically criticized Peters, calling his fellow Duke alum an ”immense disappointment.”


“I know you’re in a very competitive district, but reelection at the expense of the Syrian refugees is not worth reelection,” he said.

Peters’ staff weren’t aware of Byrne’s letter and were checking to see if the missive had arrived Monday evening.

Peters said after the vote that he voted in favor because the Obama administration didn’t explain well enough how the bill would shut down the program or unduly delay the process.

“It is not too burdensome for federal agencies to certify that admitted refugees will not endanger our communities,” he said.

Byrne, who in 2004 donated more than 100 pieces to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, has given nearly $1 million to Democratic candidates and LGBT political groups since 1992.

Federal Election Commission records show Byrne hasn’t personally donated to Brownley, Garamendi or Peters.

Byrne said by phone that many of his contributions go through fundraising groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or are given through party fundraisers where donors can earmark the money for specific candidates.

He has donated hundreds of thousands to groups that either fund candidates or campaign on their behalf. Since 1996, he’s given $318,000 to the DCCC. He’s already given the Democratic National Committee $25,000 for the 2016 election.


The other lawmakers on Byrne’s email were Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, N.Y. Reps. Sean Maloney and Steve Israel, the former chairman of the DCCC and one of the party’s top fundraisers. 

Also Monday, Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur said in a statement he’s deeply disappointed in the California members who voted for the bill.

“Among the millions of Syrians fleeing their country in fear for their lives are thousands of LGBT people, who face even harsher cruelties if they were to stay than the others, who are fleeing already unspeakable atrocities,” he said.

Byrne lives a few months a year in Paris and told The Times he has seen how poorly some French people treat Muslims.

“People in America don’t understand the sense of history,” Byrne said. “There’s a lot of guilt in France on this.”

Byrne called the email an emotional reaction to the vote.

“I want people to speak out. In all fairness, I’m retired so I have more time to study these things. The more I study the more I get involved and the more emotional I get,” he said. “I feel I have a foot in the two different cultures, and I want to share my thoughts when I feel people are being abused.”


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