Top Obama campaign fundraisers slotted for diplomatic posts

June 15, 2013

A trio of money men who helped President Obama bring in record donations for his re­election last year were tapped Friday for highly sought diplomatic assignments in Europe.

John Emerson, a Los Angeles investment management executive who co-chaired the campaign’s Southern California finance team, will be nominated as the next U.S. ambassador to Germany. HBO executive James Costos, who helped raise more than $500,000 for Obama’s reelection, is in line to be the ambassador to Spain.

And Rufus Gifford, a veteran political fundraiser who directed the Obama campaign’s finance operation, was selected to serve as the next ambassador to Denmark.

The long-expected nominations, announced by the White House late Friday afternoon, are the continuation of a quadrennial tradition after campaigns, as presidents reward their major fundraisers and donors with plum diplomatic posts.

Obama also named Ken Hackett, a former president of Catholic Relief Services, to be ambassador to the Holy See, as well as two career diplomats to Brazil and Ethiopia.

Friday’s nominations come on the heels of Obama’s nomination this week of Keith Harper, a top campaign bundler and liaison to Native American tribes, to a key human rights post at the United Nations.

Obama’s record in passing over career diplomats to head embassies is similar to his predecessors, according to statistics compiled by the American Foreign Service Association. The group found that 31 percent of Obama’s ambassadorial nominations have gone to political, rather than career, appointees, compared to 30 percent under George W. Bush and 27.8 percent under Bill Clinton.

The organization, which represents more than 30,000 active and retired Foreign Service employees, has called on Obama to curtail the practice.

“The appointment of non-career individuals, however accomplished in their own field, to lead America’s important diplomatic missions abroad should be exceptional and circumscribed, not the routine practice it has become over the last three decades,” the labor union said in a recent statement on its Web site. “Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto ‘three-year rental’ of ambassadorships.”

But political fundraisers said well-connected donors often have their own qualifications to be diplomats.

“Most of these people are captains of industry and the best at what they do in their own careers,” said veteran Democratic fundraiser David Rosen. “They all have lots to bring: They are sensitive, they will be loyal. These people rise to the occasion.”

In choosing Emerson to go to Germany, for example, Obama has selected a seasoned financial executive who brings a political background from his work in the Clinton White House, colleagues said.

“John was extremely well-respected inside the campaign, both for his political experience and its overlay with his understanding of global financial markets,” said Wade Randlett, a top Obama campaign fundraiser who served with Emerson on an advisory committee to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “It’s no surprise to me that the president tapped him for what is obviously one of the most important posts in global economics.”

Matea Gold covers money in politics for The Washington Post.
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