Democratic bundler Robert Zimmerman was sitting in a conference room in the Great Neck office of his public relations and marketing firm a couple of weeks ago, musing over his quietly inexorable climb into the elite levels of New York and national politics over the past 20 or so years.
On the walls hung maps of Long Island, a pastel photo illustration of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and a poster of J.F.K. with John Jr. Mr. Zimmerman, 53, is a member of the Democratic National Committee and also a superdelegate, and is one of Senator Hillary Clinton’s top fund-raisers in the country. Though he himself does not have the wealth of, say, other major Clinton finance people like banker Hassan Nemazee and venture capitalist Steven Rattner, he has proven to be incredibly successful at convincing other people with disposable income to support his candidate.
Extraordinarily, Mr. Zimmerman has managed to do all of this while staying, geographically, outside of the cutthroat Manhattan political fund-raising scene, even as he cultivated a motley assortment of socially prominent friends and associates within it. He is a regular guest on Lou Dobbs Tonight, where he is usually introduced as a Democratic strategist and Clinton supporter, and sits on the board of the American Museum of Natural History, in an ex officio post appointed by the City Council speaker.
And thus he has turned what at one time may have seemed like a quixotic quest for political influence into … well, political influence, direct from the once-Republican stronghold of Nassau County.
“This is such a funny place for me!” said Mr. Zimmerman. “It’s such a funny twist of events for me.”
He has smooth, tanned skin, bright blue eyes and carefully coiffed gray hair. On this day he was wearing a Long Island uniform of sorts: gold watch, black wool turtleneck, tan trousers. He looks directly into your eyes as he talks, and his speech is silky, dulcet. It’s hard, when speaking to Mr. Zimmerman, not to think you are the most important person in the room, or perhaps even the world. “It’s fun, actually, but it’s different. Way different. I speak to media around the country, but normally it’s about issues. It’s about advocating a point of view, it’s analysis, it’s on Congressional issues or events taking place. It’s about how current events affect society. I don’t have to talk about me!
“So, let’s talk,” he said.
MR. ZIMMERMAN SPENT his early years in Newton, Mass., and moved to Great Neck when he was 9 years old. His father is an accountant; his mother, a homemaker. “My brother and I weren’t expected to be politically active, but we were always expected to be involved,” Mr. Zimmerman said.
Mr. Zimmerman recalled his “coming of consciousness, if you will” in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when politicians and public figures like Eugene McCarthy, Barry Goldwater and Jane Fonda would come to speak at his synagogue in Great Neck. “Especially in the 1970’s, we really felt like our voices mattered and we were part of a great dream, a great cause,” he said. “Whether it was fighting a corrupt cause overseas or working to impeach a president, or environmental issues, or workforce housing—it was a real sense of empowerment that your lives mattered and that you could have an impact on your society and be part of a larger picture. In many communities, homecoming was the big event or the high-school carnival. In Great Neck, it was the Saturday protest march in front of the post office or the community demonstration.” (Protest marches in Great Neck certainly do seem like they came from a different era.)
Today, Mr. Zimmerman takes a similar tack; his firm does not do political consulting. He tried running for Congress in 1982 and for State Assembly in 1986 and 1988. Since then, though, Mr. Zimmerman has preferred to remain in the background.
Now, he has the ear of Democratic leaders at the city level all the way up to Mrs. Clinton. “Robert is a true friend and a real believer who will always tell you what he really thinks,” Mrs. Clinton told The Observer through a campaign spokesperson. “I value support, and more importantly I value his honest input and advice.”
And he is extraordinarily valuable as a fund-raiser. “You have a group of us in New York referred to as the usual suspects,” said Mr. Nemazee, who is national finance chair for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. “You have the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side and the downtown folks. Everyone knows everyone else. You socialize together, you do business together. I don’t want to say you’re fishing in each other’s ponds with donors, but a lot of people know a lot of the same people. When you’re dealing with someone like Robert, who knows a lot of people but not in the same geographical location, who’s reaching out to people you wouldn’t be reaching out to, it’s a huge plus.”