“Political fund-raising in New York hasn’t been very inclusive,” declared Robert Smith, a voluble banker with a sideline passion for Democratic politics. “It’s kind of like de facto segregation. So what we’re trying to do is to increase fund-raising capacity among young professionals, particularly young black professionals.
“I don’t think it’s a new idea,” he added. “I just think people didn’t think we existed. But we exist. We’re out there.”
It was shortly after 7 p.m. on a recent Thursday evening, and Mr. Smith was tucked into an ergonomic chair in his fluorescent-lit office, holding court about one of his favorite topics: the political-money game. For decades, this has been an old-boys’ sport, a high-stakes version of golf or cricket, played out annually in Park Avenue parlors and Wall Street executive suites. But now Mr. Smith and a collective of young African-American professionals are trying to open up the game. Working with party promoters and other denizens of the club scene, they have created a polished fund-raising operation that turns $100 door passes into hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates. And in an era when money means political power, their aim is not only to help the Democratic cause, but to win influence and visibility for an overlooked cohort of the party’s base.
“We’re trying to be seen,” said Pamela Pickens, an active member of Mr. Smith’s network and the president of Black Diamonds Signature Group, a special-events and marketing firm. “The candidates are not concentrating on [our issues] because they can’t see our money; we look like copper pennies on the street and we get walked by. But if we throw a dollar up, somebody’s going to bend and look down at least.”
So far, “the network”-as Mr. Smith, Ms. Pickens and their friends refer to their group-has thrown more than a few dollars up. Organizing sleek events in downtown hot spots like Reed and Crobar, they’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates, many of them African-American. In 2002, a bash for failed gubernatorial candidate H. Carl McCall brought in some $250,000. This year, two events for everybody’s favorite rookie Senator, Barack Obama, raised well over $100,000. By Mr. Smith’s account, an average “network” event brings in between $50,000 and $100,000.
“We’ve learned the political game, and now we’re starting to move from being the local corporate league into maybe the triple-A level,” said Ms. Pickens. “We got off the bench and said, ‘We are going to play.’ And while we may not be the tallest person in the game right now, we definitely are showing some hustle.”
The story of how the “network” got off the bench and into the money game begins in 1996, when Harold Ford Jr., the young African-American Congressman from Tennessee, was making his first bid for office. Mr. Ford had attended the University of Pennsylvania with both Mr. Smith and Michael Persaud-one of the trio of brothers who runs the mini-urban-marketing empire, the Persaud Brothers-and as a favor, he asked them to whip together a New York fund-raiser. Mr. Smith and Mr. Persaud didn’t have access to much capital of their own at the time, but they knew other people who did-Ivy League buddies who had become party promoters, entertainment executives, advertising types-and so they set about fusing them all into a single money-minting operation. The party promoters provided their guest lists, the entertainment experts foraged for venue and D.J., the marketing executives helped spread the word. Everyone worked their contact lists.
In the end, this first attempt raised only $6000 for Mr. Ford, but it hooked Mr. Smith and Co., paving the way for roughly a dozen future collaborations. Mr. Smith, who is the son of a prominent Mississippi physician with close ties to the Southern civil-rights movement, became the self-described “political consultant” of the group, identifying candidates and organizing strategy. Meanwhile, the rest of the team worked their marketing savvy and contacts to create hip-make that tastefully hip-events.
“I would say we can reach 20,000 or more people through our combined contact lists,” said Mr. Persaud, who has built his own mega-R.A.M. database over years of representing companies like Coca-Cola and the New York Knicks. “I mean, that’s what we do: We understand movements of people, we understand what their interests are, and we’re very much on the ground.”
“The key to putting on a good event is simple,” added Mr. Smith, leaning forward in his chair and slipping into promoter mode. Dressed in a nondescript suit and rumpled tie, he cut an unlikely image for a downtown scenester. But after years of plotting events in popular clubs, he has clearly mastered the lingo.
“The key,” Mr. Smith repeated, “is making sure that you’ve got a hot venue, a nice D.J., a great headliner. And you’ve got to have good party promoters associated with it, because people trust their brand for their social time. Party promoters have got an extreme amount of power in social circles.”
The “network’s” own power, however, is still very much developing, still taking shape. After whipping together some 12 fund-raisers, they have clearly mastered the alchemy of turning smarts and contacts into cold campaign cash. And their recent blockbuster events for Senator-elect Obama helped them forge a valuable relationship with a rising political star. As Ms. Pickens said, “We’re getting in on the next generation of players, and that is a really great benefit.”
But this next generation of players is still the next generation. They may be in office, but their power is still ripening, and so any benefit to Ms. Pickens and her peers could take years to develop.
“I guess you could say we’re in acquisition mode, meaning that we’re acquiring power right now,” said Ms. Pickens. “We’ve made a start.”