Into the Rolodex for a Bundle
Business Networks Built Over Decades Fuel Political Donations

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008

P. Wesley Foster, the real estate mogul who founded Chantilly-based Long & Foster, is hitting up acquaintances from a lifetime of business deals to help raise money for Sen. John McCain. When he runs out of names, he gets suggestions from the McCain campaign.

Don Beyer, the Falls Church Volvo dealer and a former lieutenant governor of Virginia, is mining his computerized database of 3,000 Democrats to raise cash for Barack Obama. He sends e-mails in batches of 600 and waits for the responses to roll in.

Tech guru Julius Genachowski of District-based Rock Creek Ventures drew on his experience at Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp to persuade Obama to develop an interactive Web site that reaches millions of small donors.

And McLean jewelry designer and businesswoman Michelle Olson tapped 400 jewelry customers, her Christmas card list -- even fellow Girl Scout and soccer moms -- to bundle $1 million for McCain.

Obama and McCain have assembled an army of these fundraisers, known as bundlers, who draw on basic business tactics such as networking and teambuilding to get the last buck for their candidate. Bundlers in the same camp even compete against one another to see who can raise the most cash -- and get the most credit.

Foster, chairman of the third-largest real estate firm in the country, said he held a luncheon at his home last summer that raised more than $100,000 for McCain.

"I hung in from the beginning. The most I have raised is on the telephone, calling people that I knew and other people," Foster said. "I think I know a lot of people." When he ran out of his own names, the McCain campaign gave him a list of "builders, Realtors, people in the trade here in the Washington area that I know a little bit. It expanded my base of names somewhat."

Some fundraisers said the key is to recruit a team of people to help. The Washington business community is full of networkers on both sides of the political spectrum who can tap into those resources, some of whom are fairly sophisticated at keeping track of who can give.

"So much of fundraising is about data management," said Beyer, the auto dealer who has raised $500,000 for Obama. "Four years ago, I sat most of the year with a telephone glued to my head, dialing phone number after phone number, just leaving messages, hoping somebody will call back. Now, I try to write the most persuasive e-mail that I can, send it personalized to my small list of 500 or 600 e-mail addresses, and then spend the next week just dealing with the responses."

Olson was just as meticulous. As part of her outreach, she compiled information packets containing an explanation of why she supported McCain, a contribution form and a list of people who might be tapped for money. Her packet included sample letters to send to friends and sample e-mails. She received 30 commitments, which she cemented with follow-up phone calls and e-mails.

Olson, who is the daughter of Fred Malek, McCain's national finance vice chairman, hosted a kickoff reception at the home of her parents that was designed to be part inspiration for the team and part fundraiser. She recruited Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) to phone the guests to help juice things up.

"I knew when I decided to do this that I didn't have enough rich friends I could call up and ask for money. I knew the only way to reach the goal I set for this was to create a team," Olson said. "So I sent out 400 packets to basically everyone I knew. I got a lot of women. I got a lot of girl power."

Not everyone says yes. Some of Olson's gay friends declined to give to the GOP, but they got their parents to give.

Some recruiters say fundraising is all in the pitch. Others say it's who you know.

Here's the pitch used by Charles Clarkson, a Florida-based hotel developer who owns an apartment and a software company in Washington: "I talk about how I met Obama and am very impressed. He has demonstrably high intelligence, a wonderful temperament and listening capability. He has an unusual ability to disagree without being disagreeable. And if it all makes sense and they agree, I say we are having this event and is there any chance of coming to meet him?"

One of Clarkson's friends who is not a Democrat took him up on the offer and attended an Obama fundraiser early on, where the candidate was working the crowd. "I said in front of Barack, 'Why don't you try to get this guy to be a co-host?' Obama looks at the guy and said, 'Don't you hate it when your friend tries to corner you?' "

"Network, network, network," said R. Carter Pate, McCain's Virginia finance chairman and U.S. managing partner of advisory services for PricewaterhouseCoopers. "You call guys and take them to lunch. You are looking at the ones who have said yes. You gotta work the phones."

Pate recalls a low point about a year ago, when pundits were writing obituaries for the McCain campaign and primary opponents such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were wooing Pate. Pate said the next $45,000 he raised for McCain was the hardest money he ever solicited.

"My wife and I were in Dallas in a rental car on a Saturday morning before the Fourth of July in 2007 and the whole thing was imploding," he said. "John called me on my cellphone and said, 'Carter, I need you to stay with me. Please tell me you are still with me.' "

"What could I say?" Pate said. "I told him I believed in him and would do my best."

Pate said he got on the phone with his closest givers and started his pitch.

"They were saying, 'Carter, you've got to be kidding me. It's good money after bad. It's over.' I said it isn't over and he would turn this thing around. . . . It was a moment of truth. You are basically down to calling friends."

And those friends expect something in return, even if it's unspoken and takes years to fulfill, said John Vogt, a senior vice president at Chain Bridge Bank in McLean. Chain Bridge Bank was founded by Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican who held Obama's Senate seat from 1999 to 2005.

"You've got to know who to ask, how to ask and more importantly, you have to be prepared to return the favor," said Vogt, who was a big bundler for President Bush and has a wide network of contacts from decades in the financial sector. He's raised about $250,000 for McCain. "I have been in the favor arbitrage business for 30 years. I know what someone needs in the transaction. They will invariably have causes of their own that they are looking for support for."

Herbert S. Miller, the D.C.-based real estate developer who has raised more than $50,000 for Obama, agreed: "Everybody scratches each other's back."

Genachowski, a local technology entrepreneur who knows Obama from the Harvard Law Review, is one of the campaign's foremost bundlers. He targeted unlikely givers in the Internet and technology communities he thought he could win over, and he pulled together a telecommunications group within the campaign to raise money.

"Some people were happy to come and write a check based on what they already knew. Some needed persuasion," said Genachowski, who worked at the Federal Communications Commission. "I had no embarrassment calling anyone I was connected with and saying, 'Trust me and give Barack a chance. Come see him in person and then make up your own mind.' I told them I wouldn't bother them again if they weren't persuaded."

Genachowski used his experience at IAC and elsewhere to spur Obama to invest in an interactive Web site "that had a social-networking component, where people could sign up and put up their profile.

The site had tools from around the country to communicate with each other and organize meetings. You could use these tools to organize a house party in Colorado Springs and invite people to come and watch the debate at the house and let's talk about Obama."

Genachowski also recruited former Federal Communications Chairman William Kennard, now a managing director at Carlyle Group, the District-based private-equity firm. Kennard, Genachowski and another former FCC chairman, Reed Hundt, tapped several names from their FCC days, including Don Gips, now of Level 3 Communications in Denver, and D.C. telecommunications attorney Scott Harris to serve on the campaign's finance committee.

"We are all circulating in these communities," Kennard said. "We see these folks and are on boards together. It's all in your networking. The concentric circles that you meet. The thing that makes this unique is we all overlapped at the FCC during the 1990s and many of the people in this Obama orbit also came out of this group."

Bundlers are the electioneering version of the Amway sales network. A bundler contacts a few or a few hundred potential donors who can write a check for a candidate or party.

"Think of bundling as the political equivalent of a force multiplier," said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan research institute affiliated with George Washington University. "The candidate cannot go out and raise $50 million a month by meeting people personally and still have time to campaign. If you can get a bundler or person to find 10 other people, each of whom can now give the maximum contribution, then he's in business."

Fundraising networks have always been part of the political game, but in 2000 Bush elevated it from base politics into a businesslike meritocracy. Bush's biggest fundraisers were given prestigious labels like Pioneer and Ranger. McCain has Innovators (meaning they have raised $250,000 or more for McCain) or Trailblazers ($100,000). Obama doesn't group his donations by name.

"George W. Bush figured out that if you give people credit and little merit badges, it's more incentive," Malbin said.

Some election observers look askance at bundling because it has been seen as a way to circumvent campaign laws designed to limit the influence of interest groups and powerful individuals. Reports of bundlers hitting up fellow employees or other colleagues have occasionally surfaced, given credence to critics.

"As long as people are not pressuring someone in a firm to do it," Malbin said, "I don't think there is anything wrong with it as long as there is full disclosure."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company