Democratic Hopefuls Getting More Green in Wealthy Bay Area

Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters at a rally in Northern California, where his fundraising effort is being led by members of Silicon Valley's power elite.
Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters at a rally in Northern California, where his fundraising effort is being led by members of Silicon Valley's power elite. (By Justin Sullivan -- Getty Images)
By Matthew Mosk and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 24, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will spend this evening mingling with A-list movie stars and collecting more than $1 million for her presidential bid at a billionaire's Beverly Hills estate. But while events in Hollywood grab the headlines, a potentially more lucrative payoff will await her campaign when she jets north.

A Washington Post review of hard- and soft-money donations to Democrats over the past four presidential cycles shows that in 2004, the San Francisco Bay area narrowly overtook Southern California as the state's top source of campaign cash for Democrats. And the 2008 candidates are responding with an intensive effort to soak up money from that region's newly rich.

The shift has led two candidates with solid Southern California ties -- Clinton (N.Y.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- to try to expand their reach. And it has shaped the appeal of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) to a new generation of young, tech-savvy donors.

"It's just a totally different model" for West Coast fundraising, said Mark Gorenberg, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who headed Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's California finance team for the 2004 presidential race and is now overseeing California fundraising for Obama.

The most dramatic shift followed the passage of the McCain-Feingold bill in 2002 that prohibited donors from writing six- and seven-figure checks to political parties. Instead, campaigns have had to dramatically expand the number of individuals they approach for smaller checks, which are now limited to $2,300 each for the primary and general election campaigns.

The practical effect of that law has been to diminish the clout of entertainment moguls who helped bankroll Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 through the Democratic National Committee.

"The question is no longer 'Can you give $1 million?' It's 'Can you raise $500,000 or $1 million?' " Gorenberg said. "That draws in people from other strata of life -- doctors, lawyers, computer engineers in Silicon Valley. I do think Hollywood will still play its role, but I don't think it will be as dominant a force."

Another clear ingredient in this shift is the technology boom that swept over the Bay Area in the late 1990s, said Susie Tompkins Buell, the co-founder of the clothing company Esprit, who is leading Clinton's Bay Area fundraising efforts. The lifelong San Francisco resident said the entire complexion of the region changed, almost overnight.

By 2005, 5 percent of all households in the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas had at least $1 million in assets, and a Merrill Lynch study predicted that the number of millionaires in the area would grow 50 percent by 2010.

"There's a totally different energy and type of people, and these are people who are passionate about politics," Tompkins Buell said. "They've taken that energy and turned it into real fundraising strength."

What Kerry showed in 2004 was that such passion for politics could be spun into dollars -- a lesson not lost on the 2008 contenders. On Feb. 23, Tompkins Buell held a luncheon for Clinton that drew 950 people to the Palace Hotel in San Francisco -- a crowd so large that the staff had to remove tables from the ballroom to accommodate them. Clinton will head to the Bay Area again tomorrow for two events that together are expected to attract 500 people and raise $1 million.

Edwards made repeated trips to San Francisco in March. Obama began organizing there with two events in February and several house parties, and he drew 1,300 people to an event with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

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