Post-Hillary, the New York Donor Well Runs Dry

For all those Democratic candidates counting on New York’s political-donor network for lots of easy money, a word of advice: Don’t.

“There’s a sort of perfect storm of contributing factors that not surprisingly, and probably not unhealthily, have changed things,” said Chris Deri, a prominent New York fund-raiser.

Some of the factors, the atmospheric conditions, are perfectly predictable. There’s the recession. And last year’s emotionally, financially exhausting presidential primary contest. And the lack of inspiring political causes, national or local (David Paterson, anyone?) to get these party benefactors into a giving mood.

But some of the reasons are more specific, and maybe more significant.

Hillary Clinton, the reference for the New York fund-raising firmament in recent years, is gone, leaving a vacuum that has not been filled (despite the spirited efforts of Kirsten Gillibrand). Likewise, the city’s first couple of fund-raising, Steven Rattner and Maureen White, are in the process of transitioning from Washington “back to private life in New York,” as Treasury secretary Tim Geithner put it.

The Obama bundlers who have replaced the Clinton bundlers have, by and large, been less willing to write big checks to every needy Democratic senator passing through the Regency. And Chuck Schumer, perhaps the most accomplished noodge in America, is no longer chair of the DSCC.

And then there is the fact that many of the hedge fund investors and Wall Street executives who constitute one of the biggest sources of Democratic money in New York are feeling put out by Mr. Obama’s tough talk about Wall Street.

“You combine donor fatigue from the presidential election; a downturn in the economy; and donors in the financial services sector feeling demonized by Washington and displeased with the policy coming out of it,” said one prominent Obama bundler, “and it creates a challenging environment.”

Still, like herds visiting the same dried-up watering holes of their ancestors, the Democratic candidates keep coming.

 

ON JULY 23, Governor Ted Strickland of Ohio arrived late to the 18th Street townhouse of Anne Hess and Craig Kaplan.

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” said Mr. Strickland, planting a kiss on the cheek of Ms. Hess in the foyer, which was damp from the umbrellas and briefcases of guests. “The Lincoln Tunnel was a mess.”

“Well, you’ve had a busy day,” she said.

Mr. Strickland had started the day with breakfast in neighboring New Jersey and then flew to Cleveland to tour a health clinic with Mr. Obama. He then raced back to tell assembled donors holding cheese, wine and assorted crudités how difficult it was to be a governor in these tough times. When he was done talking, Mr. Kaplan, a trial lawyer, sought to convince the jury of his peers to make a contribution by telling them why Ohio remains a bellwether state.

On the morning of July 27, Senators Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Tom Carper of Delaware, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey arrived at the Regency on Park Avenue to meet with a dozen or so prospective donors at a luncheon organized by the Tisch family.

“I don’t think there is fatigue, not when people realize what we are doing here. We’re not raising money we’re raising hope,” said Mr. Lautenberg, in the hotel’s lobby on the way to a back room behind the restaurant.

“Obviously, the president is doing what he can, but those of us who are in the Senate and the House have to do what we can to restore the government back to the people of more modest-income, middle-class people,” he said.

“I think they’re helpful,” Mr. Lautenberg said about the Obama. He then added, perhaps purposefully, “We can never give quite enough if it means taking care of our future generations.”

Ms. Klobuchar also walked by, saying she was just filling in for Bob Menendez, the New Jersey senator who has taken over from Mr. Schumer as head of the DSCC.

“Bob is doing a good job,” she said, noting that she was not raising much money herself because, happily, “I’m not up right now.”

Giving always drops off in non-election years, and this year is no different. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, New York donors gave $3,033,797 to the DSCC in the third quarter of 2008, compared to $1,924,998 in the most recent quarter. And the DNC has reported a similar reduction, from $10,173,162 in the third quarter to $4,935,826 now. Besides the usual fatigue, several fund-raisers attributed the drop-off in DNC giving to the departure of Phil Murphy, the DNC finance chair who had deep relationships in New York and who Mr. Obama appointed ambassador to Germany.

And the dip in DSCC donations is widely attributed, of course, to the departure of Mr. Schumer after two wildly successful Senate election cycles.

Mr. Schumer has taken an active role in promoting Ms. Gillibrand, who has emerged as by far the most prolific and aggressive fund-raiser of the post-Clinton New York era. While she has succeeded in courting a significant portion of the Clinton donors, her persistence has not exactly captured the imagination of the city’s fund-raisers.

“There is no glam factor to going to a Kirsten Gillibrand fund-raiser where she is going to talk about her motherhood agenda,” said one former Clinton aide. 

 

AT THE MOMENT, the former Clinton hierarchy seems somewhat sadly adrift.

Mr. Rattner and Ms. White had the most important salon in New York fund-raising—a palatial penthouse on Fifth Avenue where they raised vast sums of money not only for Bill and Hillary, but an impressively comprehensive collection of Democratic officeholders and candidates from across the country. But all that has been on hiatus since Mr. Rattner moved to Washington to become the Obama administration’s point man on the automobile bailout, buying a $4 million home from Clinton donor Hani Masri in Washington. (Mr. Rattner has since left the administration. The couple held one fund-raiser early this month at their house on Martha’s Vineyard.)

There is a broad feeling among donors—and not just the Clintonian old guard—that with a number of individual exceptions, the Obama bundlers have yet to fill the void.

“I think there’ll be a new group,” said Alan Patricof, a longtime Clinton supporter and bundler. “The Obama group, whichever they are, have not really popped up yet. I’m not sure if they have the same energy level or focus. They might have done it on a one-off basis.”

There are, of course, a number of active Obama donors who might take issue with that characterization. Whether they’re as active collectively as their Clinton-centric predecessors, they do constitute, by popular agreement, a new order.

They include Orin Kramer, an investor at Boston Provident who was perhaps the best-established New York-area bundler to break early for Mr. Obama; Robert Wolf, president of UBS Investment Bank and Mark Gallogly, a co-founder of Centerbridge Partners, who are both serving on the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board; Jim Torrey, an investor at Torrey Funds who hosts Senate luncheons; Frank Brosens, the director of Taconic Capital Advisors, who was considered a top contender to run the Treasury's Troubled Asset Relief Program before withdrawing his name from consideration; Jamie Rubin, an investor at BC Partners; investors Andi and Tom Bernstein; Brian Mathis, an investor at the Provident Group, Eric Mindich, a partner at Eton Park Capital Management, Al Puchala a co-founder of Signal Equity Partners, Josh Steiner, a partner at the Quadrangle Group, and Tracy Maitland, who runs the Advent Claymore Enhanced Growth & Income Fund. ]]

Contending for the position abdicated, at least temporarily, by Mr. Rattner and Ms. White are Ralph Schlosstein, the BlackRock co-founder and now CEO of Evercore Partners, and his wife, Jane Hartley, who is one of the city’s most effective and active Democratic fund-raisers.

“It’s a much broader group involved in political fund-raising right now,” said Ms. Hartley, who argued that Obama had also turned more traditionally philanthropic givers into political givers. “These people are committed to these issues and they are obviously committed to the president and they are going to stay in it. I have seen it already, they want to support the president and they want to support the House and the Senate so that some of the issues they care deeply about actually get dealt with.

ON JULY 16 dozens of Mr. Obama’s top donors joined him for a $30,400 a-person DNC dinner at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria, following the president’s high profile speech for the centennial of the NAACP at the Hilton.

According to one donor who attended the event, the president made no remarks, but visited with each table separately, listening to the concerns and views of friends. He left for Washington after about an hour.

“It’s not about schmoozing and it’s not about being your friend,” said the donor. “Nobody has any time for that. It’s more reflective of the times and more reflective of the president. Clinton would have stayed all night.”

The Clinton days, in other words, are over.

“There is no question that there is a new hierarchy, I just think we don’t wield it like the Clinton people,” said the donor. “With the Clinton donors it was always the question of who was the king and who was the queen. All off them wanted to be the person to go see. That’s not the sensibility of the Obama people.”

Then again, if the Obama people are carrying out their fund-raising on a less eye-catching scale, there could be a more quotidian reason.

“I finally just said ‘no’ to everybody, because it was the easiest thing to do,” said another prominent Obama bundler, who said exhaustion with fund-raising events and calls from traveling senators had led to a decision to stop giving to Democratic candidates for the time being. “I bet there is some disappointment on that front. The list, and myself included, is not going to give to any Democratic candidate anywhere.”

For now, at least.

“Political fund-raising is an industry that will survive a recession and probably global warming,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committeeman who was a bundler for Mrs. Clinton, John Kerry and Al Gore. “As long as there are ideals and egos and ambition, there will be fund-raising in New York.”