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  •   Bradley Money-Making Machine Roars

    From left, Ernestine Bradley, Bill Bradley and Betty Sapoch. (Family Photo)
    By Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, May 22, 1999; Page A1

    PRINCETON, N.J.óBetty Sapoch got her start in politics in the kitchen, cooking spaghetti and meatballs at the local Italian American Sportsmen's Club. For $15, friends got an evening with basketball star Bill Bradley and all the pasta they could eat.

    Two decades later, the "sixtyish" Sapoch is organizing million-dollar galas in Manhattan and personally pulling in close to $1.5 million for Bradley's presidential campaign so far, according to finance chairman Rick Wright.

    In the fight for the Democratic nomination, "Dollar Bill" Bradley has positioned himself as the unsullied reformer taking on Al Gore, the powerful vice president tarnished by the fund-raising excesses of the 1996 campaign. Yet the rise of Betty Sapoch, from spaghetti suppers to the boardrooms of Wall Street, illustrates that the Bradley money machine is far from the modest operation its quaint roots suggest.

    While Bradley preaches the gospel of cleaning up the campaign finance system, he is working it assiduously -- but with the help of a woman who defies the Washington stereotype of a fast-talking, back-slapping operator. She is, in the words of one admirer, "the un-Terry," a reference to Terence R. McAuliffe, the gregarious Clinton-Gore fund-raiser who still holds the record for presidential fund-raising in a single quarter.

    In the first three months of 1999, the former New York Knicks star and New Jersey senator raised an impressive $4.3 million, and aides estimate he has collected another $2 million since April 1. On Sunday, Washington sports mogul and major Clinton-Gore backer Abe Pollin will deliver on a promise made to Bradley long ago, hosting a $300,000 brunch at his hunt country estate.

    Bradley has recruited several other Clinton money men who had been targeted by Gore, including New York lawyer Joseph Flom, Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz and Douglas Eakeley, who attended Oxford University and Yale Law School with the president.

    After making close to a half million dollars in consulting fees on Wall Street last year, Bradley has tapped that vein for political support as well. Although his financial tally is far less than Gore's $8.9 million and Republican George W. Bush's $7.6 million, Bradley has collected more money from the securities industry than any other candidate. Lawyers, high-tech executives and stars from the movie and sports worlds also have been generous to Bradley.

    And despite Bradley's rhetoric that he is bringing new people into the political money game, he is still doing it the old-fashioned way. According to a Washington Post analysis of his fund-raising report, a full 80 percent of his money -- a larger share than Gore's or Bush's -- came in $1,000 checks, the maximum donation allowed under the law.

    From the beginning, Sapoch (pronounced Say-POH) has been at the center of that effort.

    Although her formal role is overseeing Bradley's money operation in the Northeast region, Sapoch is Bradley's human Rolodex, tracking in her head from coast to coast every friend, teammate, business partner and fan who might be able to round up some cash on Bradley's behalf.

    "They'll say, 'Who do we have in Chicago? How about Columbus?' " she explains. "I give a rundown; 'This person is a longtime friend, this person played basketball with him.' "

    For two years, Bradley, Sapoch and a small circle of loyalists have methodically laid the financial groundwork for a campaign they believe will require raising $25 million by the new year -- an amount they acknowledge is far less than Gore will raise.

    "Betty's developed fund-raising support for Bill one person at a time," says sports lawyer Tom Curtin, who was drawn to Bradley during his early Senate years. "She knows where the money colonies are."

    Acting as a modern-day matchmaker, Sapoch used Bradley's public speaking tour to link the prospective candidate with prospective donors, says Curtin. Not only did the speeches earn him $1.6 million in 1998, they connected Bradley with a collection of executives who are now key fund-raisers. Some of the corporate chiefs who have pledged to raise at least $100,000 for Bradley are Smith Barney's Louis Susman, Leonard Riggio of Barnes & Noble, Thomas Labrecque of Chase Bank and San Diego Padres owner John Moores, who says he plans to raise $1 million.

    Bradley, too, spends hours on the telephone courting the check-writers and money-raisers. "He is our fund-raiser and we are the collectors," says Wright, who played basketball with Bradley at Princeton University.

    Like Wright, Sapoch met Bradley when he was a college star and she was a Princeton housewife whose husband worked on campus. When he decided to buck New Jersey's party bosses and run for the Senate in 1978, Bradley asked Sapoch to volunteer on the renegade campaign. Her first instinct was no, she confesses: "I didn't care about politics."

    A few years later, with his reelection campaign plans in mind, Bradley arranged a meeting between Sapoch and his campaign treasurer, Michael "Jerry" Breslin Jr. "She was your typical library board lady who sold hot dogs at the local football game," Breslin says. "I don't know what Bill was thinking or where we were going to go, but he knew a lot more than I did. She turned into a superstar."

    Over the next 10 years, Bradley's political stature grew and Sapoch refined her money-raising skills. She initiated an annual fund-raising luncheon with women, recruited Bradley's wife, Ernestine, for the financial effort and did consulting work for the women's fund-raising group Emily's List.

    For his 1990 Senate race, Bradley decided to intimidate the competition with a ferocious war chest.

    "If the effort was not the best in the country, it was close to it," he wrote in his 1996 memoir "Time Present, Time Past." "Betty made thousands of people feel good about giving more to a politician than they had ever anticipated they would." They raised $12.9 million, but the money did not achieve its desired purpose. Instead, "the money was what my opponent was using against me," Bradley wrote. "It was as if I were walking around with a scarlet dollar sign on my chest."

    Bradley says his quest for cash in this race differs dramatically from the 1990 strategy.

    Nine years ago, he aimed to "amass money for the sake of amassing money to prevent somebody else from getting in the race," Bradley said in a recent interview. "In this case, you're clearly the underdog and clearly running for a purpose . . . you need to tell people what you believe. This is needing money to get across the things you stand for."

    He said Sapoch's strength as a fund-raiser comes from their long, close relationship and her reputation. "She is absolutely as pure as the driven snow," he says. "We've also known each other for 30 years. That shows longevity, commitment and that this is something she's doing as much because she cares about the candidate as the job."

    A grandmother who keeps her thick black hair pulled up in a bun and still writes thank-you notes, Sapoch is known for her understated, personal touch, say those who have been on the receiving end of her polite but persistent solicitations.

    "She tracked me down in Rome on a vacation with my wife," says Breslin, describing a call he received in February. He had pledged to sell 20 tickets at $1,000 apiece for Bradley's kickoff dinner in New Jersey, but Sapoch wanted the names. "I had to fax them to her."

    Last fall, Bradley made the pilgrimage to Sapoch's home here just down the street from the campus where he first became famous to tell her he was seeking the presidency.

    "I worried about him a little bit; it's a rough business," she says, leaning back in a cream wingback chair. "I just can't see Bill in a 'Primary Colors' kind of campaign."

    Today Bradley laughs at the protective nature of his fund-raising dynamo. "That was an example of her expressing her caring -- and her sanity."

    But once she was assured that Bradley was braced for the rigors of a national race, Sapoch was itching to get back in herself. At one of the campaign's first organizational meetings, Bradley said he wanted to make an early splash with an event in his home state.

    "I didn't know if he thought I'm too far along or too old for this sort of thing," she recalls. But she shot her arm in the air anyway. "I have been practicing for this game," she burst out. "I know what to do; put me in, coach."

    Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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