By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008
Though they worked behind the scenes in Barack Obama's campaign for president, bundlers who raised millions of dollars for his White House bid are starting to land significant posts on his transition team.
At least nine of the volunteer fundraisers whose wide networks of colleagues, friends and relatives gave more than $1.85 million to Obama are now positioned to help the president-elect set foreign and domestic policy and identify potential Cabinet appointees.
Chicago real estate executive and close friend Valerie Jarrett is a transition co-chair. She raised more than $100,000. Penny Pritzker, a billionaire heiress to the Hyatt hotel fortune, is a top economic adviser. She chaired Obama's finance effort and raised more than $200,000 herself. Julius Genachowski, a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama's who serves on the transition team, is a high-tech executive and was legal counsel to former Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt (another bundler on the team). Genachowski raised more than $500,000 for the campaign.
The involvement of so many bundlers has irritated public interest advocates who worry that Obama is building his transition team based on fundraising skills, not qualifications.
"It's especially troubling during a transition, because lots of people are scrambling and trying to position themselves for all different reasons -- they want jobs, they want their legislative priorities on the front burner," said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the nonpartisan advocacy group Common Cause. "The appearance at least is that the money contributed got them to the front of the line."
Obama's top aides say all of the bundlers are highly qualified as transition advisers. A case in point, they say, is Don Gips, a Boulder, Colo., consultant who raised more than $500,000 for Obama's bid.
Gips is one of 12 senior advisers to the transition project and is a co-chair of the group that is conducting government agency reviews. What landed him that post, senior Obama advisers said, were his credentials. He was chief domestic policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore, handled World Trade Organization negotiations as chief of the International Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission, and helped launch the Americorps Program at the Corporation for National Service.
"Everything we're doing is consistent with the principles that Senator Obama laid out during the campaign," said Dan Pfeiffer, communications director for the transition. "We are operating under the farthest-reaching ethics policy in history."
None of the nine lacks significant policy experience. Federico Peña, who raised as much as $50,000 for Obama, was President Bill Clinton's transportation secretary. Michael Froman, who raised as much as $200,000, was a Treasury official during the Clinton administration. He also was another Harvard Law classmate of Obama's.
Throughout his campaign, Obama stressed the role that small donors played in financing his efforts. But only a quarter of the $600 million he raised through October came from donors who made contributions of $200 or less. A sizable portion of the large donations was solicited by volunteer bundlers. More than 50 raised in excess of $500,000, according to a fundraiser list on Obama's campaign Web site.
Top bundlers won special access to top campaign strategists during the general election, and many had a special audience with the Obama in a private tent at Chicago's Grant Park after his acceptance speech. How many will ultimately wind up in his administration is unknown, but several top Obama fundraisers interviewed yesterday said that they anticipate plenty will seek appointments. Two top fundraisers, both speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they had received numerous requests from Obama donors for advice on finding administration jobs.
"Why is the assumption that these are not people with talent and something to offer?" one of the top bundlers asked.
Craig Holman, the governmental affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, said the fact that someone bundled checks should not be a disqualifier, but that the presence of so many bundlers is cause for concern. "One cannot be certain about the motive of any particular bundler," he said. "But there's little question that a major motivation for people bundling is to buy influence with the candidate."
Holman said he bases this view on Public Citizen's analysis of rewards doled out by President Bush to those who bundled checks for his 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Holman said the group found that one of every four Bush bundlers received some form of governmental appointment. A similar 2004 study by The Washington Post found that, of 246 top fundraisers to Bush's 2000 campaign, 104 ended up in a job or with an appointment.
Holman said he thinks Obama has a "special obligation" to avoid that approach as he builds his administration.
"Obama has pledged not to take money or allow the active influence of lobbyists or special interests in his administration," Holman said. "I see the presence of these bundlers as a warning sign. Most of American got excited about the Obama candidacy. I don't want to see him backpedal on that."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.