Senator Charles Schumer recently stopped by the Manhattan office of one of the city’s most powerful Silicon Alley executives, a new technology pioneer who is on every local politician’s fund-raising hit list. The executive was thrilled to play host to Mr. Schumer, who spent an hour carefully questioning him about the future of the Internet. Mr. Schumer listened attentively. He nodded earnestly. After their talk, as the two men left the building, the executive entertained a warm thought about Mr. Schumer: He wasn’t like all the other politicians who pretend to want to pick his brain but really want to pick his pocket.
And then, just as Mr. Schumer stepped on to the sidewalk, he threw an arm around the executive’s shoulders.
“He said, ‘I’m going to need you to help me raise some money in the Alley,’” the executive recalled. “I was really let down. Here’s a guy who’s clearly a real ideas guy, really smart, but he still had to go through that whole charade only to ask for money.”
“When a guy asks him what he can do to help, what do you expect him to say?” countered a spokesman for Mr. Schumer.
If Manhattan’s elite donors often seem like hunted prey, then this year’s quest for campaign funds has them feeling like a pack of wildebeests getting savaged by lions. Hordes of predatory politicians are raising cash faster, earlier and more aggressively than ever. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton have shattered fund-raising records; the presidential contenders are paying regular visits to the “A.T.M. state”; and the city’s mayoral candidates have embarked on fund-raising drives that began a full two years before the 2001 election.
Meanwhile, term limits are driving virtually every municipal elected official out of office, setting off a mad scramble to fill dozens of soon-to-be-vacated posts. The result is a fund-raising frenzy that has exasperated even the most willing donors, many of whom are tired of being stalked by politicians gripped by cash lust.
“It’s never been worse,” said developer Donald Trump. “Ugh! It never ends! I’ve never seen it like it is now. I’m called by everyone, from friends to people that I’ve never heard of to people who represent states I’ve never heard of and have never been to. And they’re all aggressive. I’ve never been solicited by a non-aggressive candidate.”
“I’ve been getting a zillion calls about Hillary stuff on my machine and in my voice mail,” said designer Nicole Miller, a Giuliani supporter. “I not only get three letters in the mail about something, but then lots of follow-up calls. Everybody’s really getting barraged.”
Andrew Rasiej, an influential Internet executive, recalled being featured in The Wall Street Journal for his ideas on using the Web for political activism. As soon as the article hit the newsstands, politicians from all over suddenly were eager to make his acquaintance.
“Since that article appeared, I’ve been approached for contributions by every congressman across the country,” Mr. Rasiej said. “You offer these ideas that would have potential for real impact, but instead of listening to any of that, they just say, ‘That’s a really great idea, and by the way, can you give us that $2,000 donation?’”
“Some people have sex appeal, others have checks appeal,” said John Catsimatidis, the chairman of Red Apple Group Inc. and one of the city’s top Democratic fund-raisers. “I guess I have checks appeal. We get calls all the time: A guy says, ‘I’m running for Senate,’ or whatever, in some state. We say, ‘What’s your name again?’”
“I’m getting shaken down left and right, and I’m sick of it,” said one Manhattan public relations executive. “God! I gave 50 bucks to Herman Badillo once, and now every Puerto Rican politician who is running for any office anywhere in the city sends me mail. It’s gotten to the point where politicians asking for money from small donors are just as vicious as the major pols clawing the eyes out of big ones.”
For instance, the executive recalled showing up at a Fifth Avenue fund-raiser for a politician on a recent afternoon. No sooner had he arrived than he found himself trapped in a corridor with State Assemblyman Scott Stringer, who is running for Public Advocate and is well known for his enthusiastic fund raising. Mr. Stringer looked upset, so the executive attempted a bit of small talk. No luck: The executive had contributed $50 to a rival candidate, and Mr. Stringer wanted an immediate explanation.
“He started berating me in front of ladies putting on mink stoles,” the executive said. “It was really humiliating. I can’t figure out whether it was more humiliating for him or for me.”
“Even with personal friends, you start to see dollar signs in their eyes,” joked Mr. Stringer when asked about the incident. “It’s a problem. A year ago, I’d say to an old friend, ‘Let’s have dinner.’ Now I say, ‘Are you coming to my fund-raiser?’ It’s terrible.”
“It’s never a question of ‘Will you give,’ but how much,” lamented Douglas Durst, the developer who built the Condé Nast Building. “I get one or two calls a day from both parties. And [the callers] are all very aggressive. I know they’re sitting there, going down a list. In a way, I feel sorry for them because it must be terrible to be constantly making these calls.”
Mr. Giuliani, for one, hates making the calls. “You’ve got to sit in a room for like a half-hour or an hour and call like 50 people who are on a big list,” he said recently. “It’s like a make-believe conversation. It isn’t a real conversation. It’s, you know, ‘Hi, there, I’m …’” Mr. Giuliani concluded his description by mimicking a pathetic begging noise.
For their part, Mr. Durst and Mr. Trump might seem like unlikely critics of the current system. After all, members of the real estate industry are among the largest givers because elected officials hold vast sway over their empires. Mr. Trump, who is fighting massive opposition to his planned tower near the United Nations building, is a major fund-raiser for Mayor Giuliani. And Mr. Durst has been a major contributor to state Republicans who played a key role in the redevelopment of Times Square, the site of Mr. Durst’s Condé Nast Building.
Still, Mr. Durst grew so irritated with the parade of political beggars marching through his office that he rebelled against the system, helping to push for an overhaul of the city’s campaign finance system. The new law, passed in 1998, discourages candidates from seeking large donations by providing for taxpayer-funded matching funds for small contributions.
But that victory has come with a twist. The city’s mayoral candidates-City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Public Advocate Mark Green, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, among others-are now seeking a greater number of small contributions, which has forced them to gear up earlier than ever.
“I’ve never seen a mayoral campaign where they’re hitting so hard and so early,” said veteran lobbyist Martin McLaughlin.
“Now you have candidates for races next year and the year after tripping over each other,” observed City Council member Ken Fisher of Brooklyn. “It’s become more like a sale day in Filene’s Basement than your annual spring and fall trip to Saks.”
Mr. Green, who stands to inherit the mayoralty if Mr. Giuliani leaves early for the Senate, is certainly thinking long-term these days. One of the city’s most powerful media executives remembered a conversation about money with Mr. Green in 1998, when the public advocate was on the verge of losing a Democratic Senate primary.
“As soon as it became clear he wasn’t going to win, he came back to me and said, ‘If the Mayor runs for Senate, I’m going to be Mayor. So now would be a really good time to support me.’”
The relentless push for funds has produced something of a code of reciprocity among the city’s elite donors. Contributors often put up money for a candidate as a favor for a friend who is throwing a fund-raiser; in exchange, the friend is expected to shell out when his friends solicit for their own fund-raisers, which may or may not be political. For these donors, giving to a politician is no different than giving to any other cause. In other words, the pols become just another charity case.
“If I call a guy up and say, ‘Give me a hand,’ he could give a shit about Giuliani or whoever the politician is,” said one top fund-raiser for the Mayor. “People think there’s a strong philosophical attachment. That’s bullshit. If I get a call from a guy I know wanting me to help his candidate out, I might not like the son of a bitch he’s raising money for, but I’ll send a check, anyway.”
“It’s not about the person who’s running,” added Phil Suarez, the restaurateur who co-owns Jean Georges, Jo Jo and Patria. “None of these fund-raisers is particularly cool. It’s usually the same speech and the same silly food. But it’s something you’re obligated to do as a friend.”
This donor quid pro quo has produced a new social event: the fund-raiser crawl. These days contributors are in such high demand that they sometimes try to pack a bunch of fund-raisers into one evening.
“At a recent fund-raiser I held, you had people coming in and saying, ‘I’ll just have a glass of wine, because I’m going to Vallone’s fund-raiser for dinner and [State Senator Eric] Schneiderman’s for desert,’” said Ryan Karben, a Rockland County Democrat. “It’s a merry-go-round for many donors, and they spend the whole evening switching horses. You have to appreciate them.”
The geographic limitations of the cocktail circuit have forced fund-raisers to widen the net with direct-mail techniques. So Manhattanites find their desks buried under piles of junk-mail requests, often from obscure politicians in far-flung states.
“I got one this week; they tried to make it appear handwritten, but it was done by computer,” said Bob Giuffra, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell. “I once got four different versions of the same letter. Each said, ‘Dear Bob.’ But each version had my last name spelled a different way.”
Still, no one suffers more than the politicians themselves. Any pol with serious aspirations has to spend hours a day chained to a desk, dialing exasperated business people and pleading with them for pennies.
“It’s a miserable existence,” said Fran Reiter, who abandoned her mayoral bid earlier this year in part because she hated fund-raising so much.
“One guy that I called stayed on the phone for half an hour,” Ms. Reiter continued. “He wanted to explain to me why he wasn’t going to give me a contribution: ‘Oh, please, I get hit up by everybody.’ It was this holier-than-thou stuff. But you don’t want to blow the guy off because there’s always the chance that maybe he’ll give to you later.”