Big Donors Among Obama's Grass Roots
Friday, April 11, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama credits his presidential campaign with creating a "parallel public financing system" built on a wave of modest donations from homemakers and high school teachers. Small givers, he said at a fundraiser this week, "will have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign that has traditionally been reserved for the wealthy and the powerful."
But those with wealth and power also have played a critical role in creating Obama's record-breaking fundraising machine, and their generosity has earned them a prominent voice in shaping his campaign. Seventy-nine "bundlers," five of them billionaires, have tapped their personal networks to raise at least $200,000 each. They have helped the campaign recruit more than 27,000 donors to write checks for $2,300, the maximum allowed. Donors who have given more than $200 account for about half of Obama's total haul, which stands at nearly $240 million.
Obama's success in assembling bundlers offers another perspective on a campaign that promotes itself as a grass-roots effort. While the senator from Illinois has had unprecedented success generating small donations, many made online, the work of bundlers first signaled the seriousness of his candidacy a year ago and will be crucial as he heads into the final Democratic primaries with a lead against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).
The bundler list also sheds light on those who might seek to influence an Obama White House. It includes traditional Democratic givers -- Hollywood, trial lawyers and Wall Street -- and newcomers such as young hedge fund executives, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Chicago-based developers and members of the black business elite. One-third had never contributed to a presidential campaign, much less raised money.
The list includes partners from 18 top law firms, 21 Wall Street executives and power brokers from Fortune 500 companies. California is the top source, with 19 bundlers. Both Illinois and Washington, D.C., have six, and five hail from New York.
Among the group are businessmen such as Kenneth Griffin, a famously private 39-year-old billionaire who threw his support behind Obama's presidential campaign just as he hired a team of lobbyists to urge Congress to preserve a lucrative tax loophole.
A year ago, Griffin invited Obama to speak to employees of his Chicago hedge fund, Citadel Investment Group, and in subsequent months, employees and their families gave the candidate nearly $200,000. Griffin had previously backed Republicans, including Obama's initial U.S. Senate opponent.
Obama resisted Citadel's lobbying push, but a hedge fund executive who knows Griffin said he suspects Griffin's continued support owes to more than a desire to sway the senator on the tax issue. "Ken's a smart guy, and I guess he's done the math and decided that Barack is the best candidate," said Daniel Loeb, the chief executive of Third Point Management in New York.
Several on Obama's list at least appear to have interests in conflict with his platform. There is the billionaire casino developer who plans to put a slot parlor in Philadelphia; Obama has decried gambling for its steep "moral and social cost." And there is the director of General Dynamics, the military supplier that has seen profits soar since the onset of the Iraq war and that has benefited from at least one Obama earmark.
The use of bundlers was perfected by George W. Bush, who in 2000 and 2004 set some fundraising records that Obama has shattered. Bush established a competitive hierarchy of "Rangers" and "Pioneers," with tracking numbers to monitor fundraisers' progress and silver cuff links and belt buckles for high achievers.
Obama's bundlers help make up a more loosely defined "national finance committee," whose members are made to feel part of the campaign's inner workings through weekly conference calls and quarterly meetings at which they quiz the candidate or his strategists. At one meeting, bundlers urged the campaign to link Iraq war costs with the faltering economy. And they got an advance copy of Obama's Philadelphia speech in which he addressed the incendiary remarks of his longtime pastor.
Obama policy advisers also meet with bundlers and other top givers. Anthony Lake, who served as President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, has met with so many Obama contributors that, in an unusual move, the campaign credits him for funds raised when he conducts the meetings. He's on the top bundler list. "This is the first time I've ever gotten involved in this kind of work in a campaign," Lake said.