Of the many campaigns and causes that stir the hearts and checkbooks of New York’s moneyed set, there is nothing quite so invigorating as a presidential race. The old rituals of money and power take on a sharper edge with the start of the fund-raising season, a time that verily thrums with the energy of impending victory (or possible defeat). It is a season of security details and $40,000-a-plate dinners, when the wealthy and well-connected head to palatial apartments on Park or Fifth for intimate evenings with the president.
Indeed, there are few more stunning social triumphs than having POTUS over for dinner. It is far less delightful, however, when it’s not your apartment where the president is supping, but your next-door neighbors’. In which case, you may not have an opportunity to rub shoulders with the commander in chief, but you’re guaranteed an intimate experience with the Secret Service. And those who share walls with the apartment in which the party is held are treated to a very intimate experience—they must submit their apartments to a full inspection (or so we’re told by those familiar with such fetes. The Secret Service does not comment on its policies or procedures).
“I had clients that lived next door to where a fund-raiser was being held, and the Secret Service basically went through their entire apartment,” said Michele Kleier, the president of brokerage Gumley Haft Kleier. “My clients found it very intrusive. Especially because they were of a different political persuasion.” Residents can refuse, of course, if they have no compunctions about scuttling their neighbors’ party plans at the last minute.
Courting the city’s elite has long paid off handsomely for politicians—a practice that largely plays out at the small, private parties held at the city’s premier residential addresses. New York is home to the top two fund-raising ZIP codes for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney: Obama’s biggest donors are massed on the Upper West Side (ZIP code 10024), while Romney’s fans live right across the park in 10021, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The candidates, whenever they are able to fit such visits into their increasingly frenetic campaign schedules, are more than happy to lavish their attentions on deep-pocketed donors, especially those who can recruit their similarly well-off friends to the cause.
“It’s nice to be in someone’s home. It’s more intimate: you have the chance to have a discussion with the candidate,” said attorney Victor Kovner, a longtime democratic donor who hosted a $5,000-a-plate dinner for President Obama and 106 guests in March. When asked about his own role as host, Mr. Kovner was nonchalant, citing his home’s suitability for entertaining: he and his wife Sarah “happened to have” a two-story living room with a balcony in their apartment on West 67th Street.
Still, there is nothing quite like what one high-end real estate broker described derisively as “the glory of being photographed sitting in your living room with a presidential candidate.”
More than a decade after President Bill Clinton’s term ended, John Catsimatidis, the owner of the Gristedes supermarket chain and a power player in New York fund-raising, still describes the former president’s visits to his Fifth Avenue apartment with relish.
“You’re talking about closing off Fifth Avenue. It must have been an army of maybe 300 Secret Service people. The power of the presidency is the power of the presidency,” he recounted, turning briefly dreamy. “For a poor boy from the poor side of town, to have the president come to your home—it’s something special.”
Special, and labor-intensive. In the run-up to such a visit, Secret Service agents shut down nearby streets and sidewalks, snarling traffic and banishing the ubiquitous Lincoln Town Cars and Suburbans forever idling in front of upscale buildings. Mailboxes and trash cans are removed (to reduce the hazard of hidden bombs), residents must show IDs at the street corners and roof access is restricted. Although, with helicopters buzzing overhead, the rooftop becomes a perch that only an assassin could enjoy.
“I’m lucky to live in a building with supportive neighbors,” Mr. Kovner told us. “The Secret Service is there almost a week in advance, checking out the whole building. On the day of the event, they had a police dog come and sniff every apartment, and people had to walk through a magnetometer.”
At 720 Park Avenue, big-time democratic donors Carl Spielvogel and Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel’s endless rounds of fund-raising parties were notorious for annoying the couple’s neighbors. “I find it very creepy to have men with guns in the lobby,” one fed-up neighbor told a reporter in 2001. “Besides, anything to keep the Clintons out.”
John E. Beerbower, the former board president of 720 Park Avenue, who lived in the co-op from 1988 to 2006, doesn’t remember the Spielvogels’ parties as being a particular problem compared with other aspects of communal living.
“I think we probably had more issues with people’s dogs,” Mr. Beerbower said, although he admitted that having the Secret Service combing through the building’s stairwells and halls “did raise issues about the inconveniences of other residents.”
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “The Secret Service are not known for their good nature. They barely smile, so it’s kind of a somber thing when these guys are standing around.”
While admitting that such affairs can be a terrible imposition, a number of brokers said that people who move into addresses like 740 Park, 1 Beekman Place or the Beresford ought to know that high-profile visitors come with the rarified real estate.
“Isn’t that the price you pay for being in a high-priced building? I know buildings where residents get pissed off with having clipboard people in the lobby, but you have to know that comes with the territory,” reflected Michael Gross, the author 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building. “There’s more people with more money and that would attract more people like beetles to the dung,” he added. “My impression is that whereas Andy Warhol would go to the opening of any envelope, any candidate will go to the opening of a checkbook, as long as the checkbook is big enough.”
“These days, there are so many fund-raisers and political things going on, I don’t think tenants are going to be thrilled to shake the hand of the person coming in, especially if they’re not invited,” remarked A. Larry Kaiser IV, president of brokerage Key-Ventures Inc. “Fund-raisers are becoming larger, and building policies are getting stiffer and stiffer. Buildings want to know how many and how long. Some of these things can go on for six hours. I think what’s going to happen in the future, if it hasn’t happened already, is that board members are going to ask prospective buyers, ‘Do you entertain? Do you entertain a lot?’”
As of last week, President Obama had attended 285 fund-raisers during his first term in office, according to data compiled by Brendan J. Doherty, an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of The President’s Permanent Campaign. In comparison, George W. Bush attended 173, Bill Clinton 167, the elder Bush 137 and Ronald Reagan 80. And although Mr. Doherty does not tally the totals of the presidential challengers, they would likely mirror the same trend—one that he describes as an unintended consequence of our campaign finance system and the fallout from the Citizens United decision.
Pressed by residents frustrated with frequent queues for the elevator, a number of co-op and condo boards have taken a stricter stance on parties.
Eva Talel, a real estate attorney with Strook, Strook & Lavan, told us that party house rules (as in “house rules on parties” not “this party house rules”) have become de rigueur at many of the city’s swankier buildings. Rules commonly limit the frequency and size of events and demand written notice in advance, with guest lists to spare the doorman from having to buzz 75 people up. In addition, some forbid armed security guards beyond the lobby and mandate that residents pay for additional building staff to supervise arrivals, operate the elevator and check coats.
“The rules came about as a result of a problem,” Ms. Talel said. “I imagine there have always been political fund-raisers, but I think the magnitude of them is increasing, and more of them are taking place in New York City.”
While such regulations were virtually nonexistent as recently as 15 years ago, Ms. Talel told us that most of New York’s more upscale buildings now have them. Larger apartments are being created, which makes it easier for residents to host good-sized gatherings. Also, some residents with multiple homes are rather free about letting other people use their apartments. Such generosity is not always appreciated by the other shareholders; an increasingly common house rule is that a shareholder must be present at his or her own party.
Also recommended, if not required: extending a no-contribution-required invitation to your immediate neighbors and tipping the doormen generously for their trouble.
Of course, for the public at large, there’s no compensation for the roadblocks and traffic jams that accompany candidates’ visits, inconveniences that can breed resentment, especially since candidates aren’t coming to woo normal New Yorkers, whose votes are all but cast in stone. But at least the hoi polloi can enter a contest to win a ticket to one of these exclusive events—a brilliant faux-populist strategy that eases the age-old tension between hobnobbing with the rich and remaining appealingly down-to-earth in the eyes of voters. Leveraging the allure of exclusive events also makes a lot of money—The New York Times reported that of the $15 million a private fund-raiser at George Clooney’s home raised for Mr. Obama, more than half came from the online contest.
Even famously jaded New Yorkers get a little giddy about catching a glimpse of the president on his way to the kind of exclusive event they’ll probably never be invited to.
“I thought it was pretty exciting to have the president come through my neighborhood,” said West Village resident and longtime Howard Stern show contributor Joey Boots, who watched the motorcade pass by on its way to Sarah Jessica Parker’s $40,000-a-plate dinner. “I think everyone in the neighborhood was pretty excited.”
And as for the ensuing traffic jam?
“The pope was much worse,” remarked John Beerbower. “He was certainly very picturesque, but he did clog things up here.”