No Drought for Sauerbrey's Top Rainmaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, Oct. 7, 1998; Page A1
The burled mahogany conference table was set for breakfast.
At the head sat Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the first Republican in a generation seen as having a chance to become Maryland governor. Six dentists gathered around her, each of whom had paid $1,000 for a chance to discuss malpractice insurance rates, tort reform and other issues affecting their pocketbooks. Lee W. Warner just listened. His job was finished.
Warner, the owner of a financial services company, had organized the breakfast, which took place in his own sixth-floor office in a northern suburb of Baltimore. He started planning the event weeks earlier while sitting in his dentist's chair.
A paper bib hanging from his neck, Warner told his dentist he would arrange a meeting with Sauerbrey if the dentist could persuade a few of his colleagues to attend.
It was another successful haul for Sauerbrey's campaign account, courtesy of Warner. He is on track to raise more than $1 million by the end of the campaign, nearly a quarter of Sauerbrey's total contributions. In doing so, Warner has become one of the state's top campaign finance "rainmakers" on his first try, for he has never raised money for a Maryland candidate before. Even now, he is virtually unknown in state political circles outside the Sauerbrey campaign.
Warner stands at the head of a new group of ardent Republican fund-raisers and donors in Maryland who have propelled Sauerbrey to a GOP state fund-raising record of more than $4 million. The money is enabling her to match Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) ad for ad during the run-up to the Nov. 3 election. Paltry fund-raising in her campaign four years ago prompted Sauerbrey to seek public financing and accept the accompanying limits on spending.
More than any specific policy proposal, the new donors are drawn to Sauerbrey by what fund-raisers call "winnability." That aura has drawn money from developers, insurance executives, bankers and others who believe their donations will stand them in good stead with a Republican administration, according to political analysts and professional fund-raisers. Warner himself could land a Cabinet-level job for his work.
Warner describes the August breakfast and similar events as "intimate, personal opportunities to get to know Ellen, to raise issues in private that you may not want to in a more contrived public setting." He denies the contributions directly buy anything.
"I don't know if a $1,000 check is better with eggs, bacon and bagels, but it gave them something for their money," Warner said.
Campaign finance reform advocates say such high-priced gatherings are a sign that corporate money, which in the past has stayed out of the political arena or fueled the state's Democratic machine, is moving toward Republicans.
"There was a whole lot of money waiting to be spent," said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland. "The situation now appears to these investors [GOP contributors] as promising a reasonable expectation of return on their investment [in Sauerbrey]."
With help from Warner and a slim lead in some polls, Sauerbrey has attracted money from Republicans who had remained outside Maryland's Democrat-dominated politics. Sauerbrey's advisers estimate that more than half of her 5,000 new donors have never written a check to a Maryland political cause until this election, and the influx of new money is establishing a party fund-raising machine sure to reshape Maryland politics for years to come.
"Once you have a group in place, that group will continue to work for the party and its candidates," said Paul S. Herrnson, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Indeed, Republicans and Democrats agree that Sauerbrey has been taking in money at a fevered pace and will continue to through Election Day. She is scheduled to attend 18 events this month, and advisers have turned away people hoping to host fund-raisers for lack of time. One event will be a $1,000-a-person breakfast in Warner's office Oct. 26.
Warner is an unassuming political money man, having made his fortune as a master of the dry art of estate planning at his firm, which is headquartered in Timonium. Until this year, his fund-raising claim to fame was putting the Methodist church he attends in the black for the first time in 14 years. He warns that his tapes dispensing financial advice will induce sleep.
At 43, he wears no brash ties, holds no beliefs on the political edges. He favors dark suits for his 6-foot-something frame, decorates his office with Chippendale antiques, and leaves his hair graying slightly at the temples. His business, the L. Warner Cos., advises about 3,000 wealthy executives, physicians and athletes nationwide on how to make the most of their money. He holds no state contracts and said his clients don't either.
Warner met Sauerbrey at a 1996 campaign event for U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) held at Warner's restored 18th-century mansion. That was his first foray into fund-raising, but it fizzled along with Gramm's campaign.
Then last spring, Sauerbrey visited Warner's office when she was assembling her Baltimore County finance committee, which is in charge of raising money on her home turf. She asked Warner to join, and he replied that he would be more interested if given a larger role. Three days later, she asked him to run the committee.
Since then, Sauerbrey has collected more than $60,000 from financial advisers such as Warner, according to a Washington Post analysis of her biggest contributors. Other large donors to Sauerbrey include insurance companies, banks, contractors and other would-be Republican constituencies who had given to Democrats or remained on the sidelines.
Neil A. Greenberg, a 31-year-old Potomac lawyer, raised $22,000 for Sauerbrey during a May fund-raiser attended by 80 friends and neighbors in his age group. Like Greenberg, more than half had never given to a Maryland candidate before, he said.
"There was never anything that compelled them [to give] in the past," said Greenberg, who believes Sauerbrey's plan to reduce real estate settlement costs could help his developer clients. "If we were an island, we could do whatever we wanted. But we are part of a region, and all the economic indicators favor Virginia."
In Rockville, Wayne Harrison wants to make it less expensive to pass his third-generation roofing business on to a fourth. Harrison, who has raised more than $50,000 for Sauerbrey, also wants inheritance taxes reduced and believes Sauerbrey will try to do so.
"That has to be fixed," said Harrison, a first-time political donor. "She believes the business sector should be in charge of who spends its money."
In March, Ralph F. Patten Jr., an insurance executive and thoroughbred horse owner, met for half an hour with Sauerbrey at the Bethesda Hyatt before making his first political donation. They discussed ways she could help lower insurance costs stemming from health care for the elderly and whether slots should come to Maryland racetracks.
"I said, 'I'm going to give to that woman,'" said Patten, who has donated the $4,000 maximum. "And I'd never said that before in my life."
As Sauerbrey's only million-dollar man, Warner will have a big chit in his favor should she win. He wants an income tax cut that he believes will spur business growth and help his clients.
Warner said he is not looking for a job in a Sauerbrey administration, although he acknowledges that "it always helps to know people in important places."
"He's the kind of person the Sauerbrey administration would be looking for, a guy with business skills and fiscal know-how," said Richard E. Hug, Sauerbrey's finance chairman.
Warner has also been tireless looking for money. During a regular dental appointment this summer, Warner listened while Karl J. Zeren worked on his teeth and said he wished for a Republican governor.
After Zeren finished, Warner rinsed and immediately implored his dentist to give to Sauerbrey's campaign. The breakfast followed in a few weeks and provided members of the same industry a venue for their frustrations. For goodness sake, Zeren said, one regulation requires him to put stickers on the office window-cleaner bottles reminding people not to drink from them.
"I mentioned that I didn't want to see what happened last time happen again," said Zeren, who voted for Sauerbrey in 1994 but regrets not giving her money.
Warner has put together about a dozen breakfasts with colleagues, clients and business associations he belongs to. He has sailed past the $570,000 mark the campaign set for him last spring by drafting a business plan requiring every member of his finance committee to boost their fund-raising goal from $4,000 to $10,000 almost half a Maryland resident's average annual income. Fund-raisers who couldn't meet the goal are asked to provide a list of prospects who could.
"Who's your next golf foursome with?" Warner frequently asks fund-raisers, he says. He coaches them on how to approach donors: "If they give you the whole amount [requested], that's a great call. If it's too big, you ratchet it down, make a joke, ask how much they can give without spending the vacation money."
Warner, who passed the $919,000 mark last week, said he intends to maintain his frenetic pace until Election Day.
After an interview last week, Warner said he had to get back to a potential donor who, with family members and business associates, wanted to give a total of $25,000. He had to make the call before the afternoon ended.
"Building something should be harder than maintaining it," Warner said of his donor network. "You want to say next time that this is the floor, and not the ceiling."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company