Obama turns away from longtime Democratic supporters in N.Y.

By Jason Horowitz
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

President Obama will travel to New York this month to survey the ruins of the Democratic fundraising hierarchy he helped destroy.

On July 28, the president will attend two private dinners in Manhattan to benefit the Democratic National Committee. He'll be guest of honor for a $30,000-a-head event at the four-story Sullivan Street townhouse of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who is an outsider to the traditional fundraising firmament of Wall Street investors.

That more moneyed club -- which views even the arbiter of high fashion as part of a lower circle of donor -- will have its own earlier event at the Grill Room at the Four Seasons. That venue wasn't the first choice of these insiders. The White House nixed an earlier plan to hold the dinner at the home of Marc Lasry, a major Wall Street figure and supporter of the president.

The message was clear. Obama has dismantled the old apartment circuit traveled by past Democratic standard-bearers and has no interest in putting it back together again. He has turned his back on a tradition of aggressively raking in financial sector dollars, but also of soliciting, in intimate settings, the unfiltered feedback of the captains of an industry he is transforming.

"That era is over," said John Catsimatidis, a supermarket magnate who hosted the Clintons several times at his apartment and threw a fundraiser for Obama when he was a senator. The donor hosted so many events in his place that "my apartment was probably wired by the Secret Service," he ventured.

* * *

During the 16 years that Bill and Hillary Clinton reigned over the hub of Democratic fundraising, an expansive network of investors welcomed the president and other top elected officials to a treasure map of fabulous apartments. But first among equals in this closed circle was the husband-and-wife team of Maureen White and Steven Rattner.

The palatial Fifth Avenue apartment owned by the couple -- she a former DNC finance chair, and he a New York Times reporter turned billionaire investor turned Obama administration "car czar" -- served as the nation's Democratic fundraising flagship. Its grand marble foyer with space enough for their kids to play street hockey, its salon overlooking the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its trays of caramelized bacon appetizers were well known to a perpetual guest list of Democratic candidates and office holders.

White said that her close personal friendships with the Clintons, Al Gore and John Kerry, as well as her official title, "empowered us by default." But she also argued that "there was a climate that was really conducive to raising money for Democrats" and that her place was only one stop in a larger community. There was "a great team spirit," she said. "We had a lot of fun together and we were friends. There was a sense of mission and camaraderie."

Her apartment is no longer the headquarters it once was, White argued, because, for starters, big donors are no longer as important in the age of campaign finance reform and Obama's small-dollar Internet model. She and Rattner have recently limited their activity to supporting Reshma Saujani in a local congressional race and Harold Ford Jr. in a quixotic Senate bid. The reason, White insisted, had more to do with a transformed fundraising climate, and an expanded role she was poised to assume in Washington as a senior adviser to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on humanitarian issues in Afghanistan.

There is, though, another factor.

Rattner, a onetime Treasury Secretary aspirant, has become embroiled in a New York state pension fund scandal. There is unanimity among the dozen donors and Democratic officials interviewed for this article that the scandal is keeping any president, presidential candidate or prominent political figure from crossing Rattner's threshold.

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