By Kimberly Kindy and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Nearly 100 wealthy families and power couples contributed at least $100,000 each to help Barack Obama over the past two years, creating an elite set of donors to whom the president-elect repeatedly turned in financing his campaign, transition and inauguration, a Washington Post analysis shows.
As inaugural donations become public, a list of Obama's most loyal backers has emerged, pointing to his success with a system that allows supporters to give maximum amounts on several occasions and to multiple committees.
The families gave to as many as five committees, records show, and 27 of the 94 families also bundled money from others, collecting millions of dollars on top of their personal donations.
Among the supporters were well-known families such as the Rockefellers, as well as lesser-known backers such as New Yorker Frank Brosens, a leader in the hedge fund industry, who raised $500,000 for Obama's campaign and inauguration in addition to the $182,000 he gave with his wife, parents and three sons.
"I told them it's going to be a passion for me, and I'd like for them to get involved," Brosens said.
The $100,000 group stands in stark contrast to the grass-roots campaign that Obama's team has waged over the Internet, through which small donors, giving $200 or less, made up about a quarter of Obama's campaign revenue. Small donors are still receiving e-mails directing them to the inaugural Web site, where they are asked for contributions of $5 and where 10 people just won free trips to the inauguration in an essay contest.
Many big donors will also watch Obama be sworn in next week, but from premium seats, and will attend an inaugural ball and other private celebrations using tickets they received in exchange for their donations.
"Obama had a well-organized core of larger donors who he went back to repeatedly for donations," said Stephen Weissman, associate director for policy at the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, citing the election's "many vehicles" for giving. "These cumulative donations add up and lead to greater and greater influence."
Inaugural committee staff members attributed Obama's success to both small and large donors and said that special tickets are given in appreciation to big contributors but that there is no quid pro quo.
"Although the Obama campaign was unprecedented in its aggressive outreach to small donors, it is a fact in American politics that large donations are necessary as well," said committee spokeswoman Linda Douglass. "Nothing has ever led any donor to believe they will have special access to President-elect Obama."
High-profile donors include Hollywood director Steven Spielberg and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, who gave $163,900, and baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks and his wife, Liz, who donated $111,600. Both couples gave to two campaign committees and the inaugural committee.
Twelve members of the Rockefeller extended family gave a total of $316,000. Hotel magnate and former Maryland lawmaker Stewart Bainum Jr. and 13 members of his family gave $236,000. Both families gave to four committees and the inauguration.
The 94 couples and families in the $100,000 group gave a combined $14.4 million. Of those who bundled donations, six each raised half a million dollars or more.
The ability to direct such large sums to a presidential candidate stems in part from the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation. The law banned unlimited "soft money" donations, but it increased the amount individuals can steer to presidential candidates by allowing them to donate directly to a campaign as well as to state and national political parties to help elect a candidate.
Under the law, the maximum amount an individual can give in a presidential election year has gone from $25,000 to $70,100 over the past five years. And by creating joint fundraising committees -- allowing donors to give the maximum to all three funding pools at once -- campaigns have become much more efficient in collecting the donations.
"The thing that makes Obama's fundraising really unique is his ability to attract millions of small contributors at the same time he capitalized on the increased contribution limits," said Jan Baran, a fundraising expert and former general counsel to the Republican National Committee.
Obama's inaugural committee announced that it would not accept donations from lobbyists or corporations, and set limits of $50,000 for individuals and $300,000 for bundlers.
Brosens, founder of the $1.3 billion Taconic Capital Advisors and an alumnus of Goldman Sachs, bundled about half a million for Obama's campaign and $200,000 for the inauguration. He said his efforts included taking 20 trips to 12 states, knocking on hundreds of doors and even babysitting for several Iowa couples so they could cast their caucus votes after he convinced them to support Obama.
In late 2007, Brosens spent 30 to 45 minutes with Obama as the candidate was driven between events in New York. They talked about the hedge fund industry, and Brosens said he advocated more oversight.
"I told him, 'You are talking to someone who believes we should be regulated and that some of the tax incentives should be taken away from us,' " Brosens said. "He blew me away with his understanding of the issues."
Other big donors also had personal encounters with Obama. Houston businessman Bill Perkins, who held a fundraiser in November 2007, relaxed with the candidate afterward, talking about taxes, watching football and engaging in a spontaneous pull-up competition, which Obama won.
"They were the kind where you wrap your hand over the bar, not under the bar," Perkins said. "He did eight of them. That's not easy."
Perkins, president of the energy development and investment firm Small Ventures USA, said he told Obama he believes in increasing the inheritance tax and argued that there are too many loopholes that unfairly benefit the wealthy.
"He listened," Perkins said. He does not expect to spend any more time with Obama: "I have a better chance of spotting Jesus coming off an elevator. That moment has passed for me."
Late last year, after Perkins raised more than $135,000 for Obama, he wanted to give more. He and his wife each donated $50,000 to the inauguration, and he asked the committee if he could contribute on behalf of his 18-year-old stepson Corbin and his two daughters, 4-year-old Skye and 22-month-old Brisa. So far, he's received no answer.
Inaugural officials said the committee's rules would allow only his stepson to give, and the money would have to be from his own bank account.
Naples, Fla., couple Jack and Mona Antaramian also bundled funds and personally gave $50,000 each to the inauguration. Collectively, seven members of their family gave more than $241,000 to Obama and to joint fundraising committees, records show.
Mona Antaramian's parents helped organize a fundraiser that she and her husband sponsored in October at the Florida hotel they own, raising $400,000 for the Obama Victory Committee, a joint fundraising committee that helped finance the campaign. The couple went on to bundle another $200,000 for the inauguration.
Jack Antaramian, 77, said he had been a lifelong Republican who had never worked on a campaign. His wife's family -- longtime Democrats who have worked in numerous campaigns -- began volunteering for Obama in early 2007. Jack Antaramian said he needed to see Obama up close to make up his mind, so he and his wife attended a Miami fundraiser and later traveled to the University of Mississippi using tickets the campaign had given to them to watch Obama debate his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
"I thought he was the man for the moment," Antaramian said, citing his frustration with the ailing economy and the war in Iraq. "We don't expect anything" in exchange for the support, he said. "We want the country to change."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.