By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2007
NEW YORK Inside the Park Avenue office of 38-year-old lawyer and Democratic heavyweight Bal Das, there are none of the usual artifacts of vanity. No grip-and-grin photos of him smiling brightly with Bill or Hillary Clinton, with Harold Ford Jr. or Dick Durbin or Ted Kennedy. Nor are there any hints of a family life -- no drawings by his son, no portraits of him and his wife holding each other closely at sunset at the home they still keep in Paris.
It is precisely the absence of these manifestations of ego that makes Das such a valuable power within the Democratic Party, and particularly in Hillary Rodham Clinton's run for the presidency. As a senior partner and general counsel for a small, highly profitable specialty finance company called InsCap, he doesn't go running for a mention in Page Six and doesn't mug for nightlife photographer Patrick McMullan. Instead, he's someone people-in-the-know know, someone who, by raising oodles of money for Democrats, is routinely courted by politicians across the country.
"He delivers," says venture capitalist and longtime Clinton supporter Alan Patricof. "He's got a very good network. . . . You don't raise the kind of money he does without being someone people believe in and trust."
One of several people listed as "HillRaisers" by the campaign, Das has maxed out the amount he can personally donate while helping to raise what he calculates is more than $300,000 for the cause. Shunning big events, he's hosted a series of small get-togethers at his Upper East Side home. Most recently, he attended a 1,200-person event of Indian American supporters (including Deepak Chopra) and a much smaller gathering where Clinton and Warren Buffett did a Steve-and-Eydie routine for wealthy supporters such as Vernon Jordan and Steven Rattner. Both events raised approximately $1 million each, according to the campaign.
This involvement is all the more remarkable because Das can't even vote for Clinton; born in India, he is not an American citizen. But as a permanent resident, Das is permitted under federal election law to make the same political contributions as any citizen.
"I'm not close to any politician," Das says. "When you say, 'close to,' you're talking about someone you can just pick up and call. They call, they come by the office, and I meet with them. I routinely meet with people like Senator Kennedy or Senator [Chuck] Schumer in small settings. But I cannot call up and say, 'Hey, Chuck.' There's no sinister conversations in dark rooms. I find them to be highly intelligent people who are open to listening to your views on a variety of issues.
"You're the first person I've talked to in the press because there's no great satisfaction in getting your face on CNN and getting your name in public," he adds. "What motivates me is leaving this world better than when I found it."
A man with a cherubic face and rimless glasses, he sports brown wingtips and a tan summer suit a little short in the arms. He projects a kind of formal sincerity. While nearly everyone involved with the former first lady's presidential quest calls the candidate Hillary, Das will refer to her only as "Senator Clinton."
"On many, many occasions we've got to know each other," Das says of her. "She has a vision, and that vision is something that is both pragmatic and idealistic, and it has grit. I like her bluntness, her forthrightness. She does not go for the easy answers. Recently at a small gathering, we had one of the guys, an entrepreneur, who got up and said he didn't like her view on taxes. She engaged him and explained the importance of taxes in the society we live in. Even though she changes views, I think anyone who doesn't change his views is a fanatic."
For his efforts, Das has drawn praise from well-heeled corners of the Democratic Party.
"I think Bal is emblematic of the emergence of new, younger Democratic activists," says former ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who co-hosted a fundraising event for Sen. Durbin (D-Ill.) with Das last month. "He represents the emergence of Indian Americans within the political process. This is a historic event. You have the entrance of an upper-middle-class group into politics. Indian Americans are not focused on running motels anymore or focused on just their business interests or medical career."
Of course, such participation and access haven't gone unnoticed. Recently, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) had to apologize for a staff memo that labeled Clinton as "D-Punjab" and marked her as a supporter of outsourcing. The flap brought to light the tussle within the Democratic Party for the hearts, minds and wallets of this constituency. Indian Americans have important roles in the Clinton campaign; the policy director is Neera Tanden, 36, a Yale Law grad, and the co-chairman of South Asian recruitment is Rajen S. Anand, born in India and an Agriculture Department official during Bill Clinton's administration.
At the forefront, though, are fundraisers like Das, whose capacity to bring 40 to 50 supremely affluent people together in an intimate setting makes him one of Hillary Clinton's best allies. Does he feel pressure because of the recent second-quarter numbers? Obama raised $32.5 million from 154,000 people, compared with Clinton's take of $27 million. (The Clinton campaign hasn't released the number of donors.) No, the man almost bows in respect for the help the other senator has bestowed upon his senator.
"To be honest, I am quite excited Senator Obama is reaching out to a whole new constituency of people, because at the end of the day he's adding people to the political base of the Democratic Party," Das says. "I'm absolutely confident Senator Clinton will prevail in the primaries. . . . $27 million is not an insignificant amount. Senator Obama only helps her by getting more people in."
One of six children and the only son of an industrialist in the Indian state of Orissa, Das earned a law degree before coming to the States in 1993. After getting a second law degree at Columbia University, where he met his wife, Valérie Demont, he spent several years practicing corporate law at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York and Paris. He and Demont have "engaged in" such charities as the Asia Society, the Anti-Defamation League, Teach for America, the Japan Society, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the American Museum of Natural History. Currently, he is the pro bono general counsel to the American India Foundation, founded in 2001 and dedicated to economic and social issues such as education and women's rights in India. (Bill Clinton serves as the group's honorary chairman.)
Their spiritual life is similarly unconfined. Das considers himself a Hindu; Demont, a French native who practices corporate law, regularly takes their 4-year-old boy to Catholic Mass.
"Bal's a person concerned with big issues," says Joel Levy, the New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "He reads a great deal of history and is sensitive to the Jewish people being in Diaspora. . . . What he cares about are the ideas of fairness and equal justice for all. We seem to be a natural fit."
Yet for Das, charity wasn't enough. "Around 2003 or 2004, we began to engage in politics because it seemed to me a better way of addressing issues in a larger context and being able to implement them," Das says. "We began to look at candidates, and the Democratic camp was the most compelling."
Perhaps one must see Das as a throwback to an earlier age. India routinely used to make men like Das: well-educated, soft-spoken individuals born out of the nonviolent and secular revolution of Gandhi. These were men who rose above the rabble of caste and Hindu-Muslim conflict in search of a true democracy. Indeed, one could easily see him in conference with Nehru and Mountbatten in the last says of British rule or riding in the back of a car with Indira Gandhi and then-U.S. Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith during the Kennedy years.
"I tend to take a medium worldview," Das says. "What happens when my son grows? What kind of world is he inheriting? What makes it so compelling to be a Democrat here, or for that matter in India, is that there's a secular sense to the party, and within the party there is genuine room for serious dialogue."
Like many people, he came to support Hillary by way of her husband. Called to the Clinton "home" in Chappaqua, N.Y., after the president had returned to private life, Das soon joined the Clinton Global Initiative.
Das says of Bill Clinton: "I've met hundreds of people in my travels, but he's truly one of the people I've met who's genuine in what he's talking about. And his shortcomings only reinforce his humanity. It is true: As humans we are frail."
If the Obama memo showed anything, says Rajen Anand, it's a misreading of the Indian American mind. While the prevalence of outsourcing may be the focus of, say, Lou Dobbs, it remains something removed from the daily lives of the roughly 2.5 million Indian Americans whom Clinton is trying to reach. After all, they're here.
"We've grown out of this old notion of India first," Anand says. "We talk about America and what is good for America, for our kids, our grandkids. Both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are very fond of India. Bill loves Indian food. Hillary supports good India relations. But we're interested in good relations for our own sake, our own interests, not as an agent of the Indian government."
A pair of physicians underscored his point in Washington on Thursday at another fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, this one hosted by her husband before he gave the keynote address at the annual convention of the Telugu Association of North America, a South Indian organization.
"I like everything Hillary stands for," said Usha Nandigam, an internist from Port Charlotte, Fla. "Indian women are some of the smartest, most highly educated women in this country, and she's a great role model. I like all her policies, especially on universal health care."
"Even though we're doctors, that doesn't mean we don't support universal health care," said her sister-in-law Nirmala Nandigam, an internist from Cleveland. "It's time for a change in this country."
This might be why Das's stealth presence within the Democratic Party may be at its end. The more money he raises, the more he's courted, the more he'll be known. Moreover, the more Indian Americans dedicate themselves to the political process, the more Das will be called upon to be their voice.
In the end, he is fated to be something he very well might hate: the man captured in the photographs on other people's walls.