The Gore Machine
In the sprint for campaign cash, he's got the best staff, the most experience and a tested game plan. But Al Gore's greatest strength could also prove to be his greatest vulnerability.
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, April 4, 1999; Page 6
As the grandfather clock in the marble lobby tolls 7, the last of the dinner guests drift into the dining room of the Carlton Hotel on 16th Street. Time to meet, greet and eat with The Candidate.
"Let me begin by saying how grateful I am to all of you for being here tonight," he tells this collection of 25 lawyers, lobbyists, stockbrokers and CEOs. "We need people to participate in our system to make it work. Your support and friendship mean a tremendous amount, especially at this critical time.
"I'm grateful to have you here because you share my vision for the future," he goes on. "Now let's eat."
As the clock chimes 8, white-gloved waiters deliver the main course: halibut in lobster chardonnay sauce, garlic mashed potatoes and a wild mushroom compote. "This gathering is about more than politics and an election," The Candidate continues. "It is really about the 21st century that we want to build for our children; what it will take to move America forward."
And it's really about one other thing as well the one thing that Vice President Al Gore neglects to mention, the thing that no one talks about tonight, but the main thing, in fact, that this particular inside-the-Beltway tribal gathering is all about.
It's about money.
On that chilly February evening when much of official Washington was consumed with the final hours of President Clinton's impeachment trial, his junior partner was hard at work wooing the people he needs to help his own bid for the White House. The dinner at the Carlton, one of five Washington gatherings that month for supporters who'd committed to raise $50,000 each for Gore's campaign, was the starting gun in a frantic financial sprint.
More than any other presidential campaign in modern times, the 2000 race is about money raising a lot of it and raising it fast and raising it without getting caught in the tangled web of rules and regulations that govern the process. With a new, truncated primary calendar that begins in Iowa next February 7 and ends, for all practical purposes, four weeks later in California, the real contenders need to bankroll their entire effort before the year 2000 even begins.
Forget the days when a come-from-behind candidate like Gary Hart could stage an early upset and collect a financial windfall in March and April of primary season. This time around, everyone expects that by then the nominees will be chosen and the losers left for dead.
Already, the money chase has frightened off politicians in both parties. And while the vice president's game plan this year is virtually the same as Lamar Alexander's or Elizabeth Dole's or George W. Bush's, his fund-raising machine is bigger, tougher, faster. By the end of the year, Gore's team hopes to stretch federal fund-raising rules as far as possible to collect an unprecedented $55 million.
With his prep school manners and wooden speaking style, Al Gore would seem an unlikely star in this curious world of political hustling. But when it comes to fund-raising, no player on the national scene has excelled like the vice president. Friends and colleagues describe him as focused, driven, disciplined and seemingly inured to the seamy side of the business a professional fund-raiser's dream. He never says no, never complains; he just goes about his business like the dutiful political son he is.
After a lifetime in politics, Gore has mastered every aspect of the game. He has made countless solicitations in person and by telephone, attended endless dinners, scribbled innumerable thank-you notes and even taken a rare public beating, all for the sake of campaign cash.
For Gore this money has done more than simply pay campaign bills; it's been a measure of his success as a political man. It earned him credibility as a neophyte presidential candidate in 1988, and helped him prove his worth as a ticket mate in 1992 and 1996. This year, it has created an aura of inevitability to his nomination that already has scared off all but one of his Democratic rivals.
But Gore's greatest strength could also prove to be his greatest vulnerability. His Buddhist temple visit, his 52 solicitation calls from the White House and his clumsy "no controlling legal authority" public defense were among the lowlights of the raucous 1996 campaign and its aftermath. Presidential hopefuls such as Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain are already seeking to portray the vice president as just another sleazy, business-as-usual politician, hat in hand.
Those close to Gore argue that the appearance of sleaze is built into a system that requires candidates to raise large sums from a vast number of contributors. "As you recruit people, the challenge is to make sure you know who they are so they won't embarrass you," says Mickey Kantor, former commerce secretary and a prodigious fund-raiser in his day. "The only protection you have is to know the people or know the people who know the people."
"The first $5 million is easy," says another Democratic fund-raiser. That money, he points out, comes from friends, family and people who have been checked out dozens of times before. But with each additional $5 million, fund-raisers must go farther and farther afield, to donors they don't know as well, whose motives for giving may be less clear. And this is where the process known as "vacuuming" becomes fraught with danger for a candidate like Gore who wants to be thought of and who thinks of himself as Mister Clean.
The 2000 race is occurring in what may be a unique moment in American political history. The arcane fund-raising rules drawn up in the aftermath of Watergate have been stretched beyond all recognition and could well be revised after the next election. But so long as these rules are in place, Al Gore will exploit them. Throughout the rest of this year, the vice president will grip and grin his way through dozens more campaign fund-raisers. Tipper and Bill and Hillary will be sent out to do their part. And an army of fund-raisers will make tens of thousands of phone calls and send out hundreds of thousands of letters asking for money. The campaign will even solicit contributions over the Internet in its effort to hit that magic $55 million mark.
It's an unprecedented sum in American politics, though the kind of figure that seems increasingly common in our turbocharged economy. It may buy a presidential nomination but, curiously, it could barely buy the services of a good center fielder for five years.
What It Takes
From his 11th-floor office just north of Lafayette Square, Terry McAuliffe can almost yell out the window to his friends at the White House, but he doesn't have to. He can just pick up the phone. It's not hard to reach Bill Clinton or Al Gore when you're the man who helped them raise $42 million to win reelection in 1996.
A few framed mementos on the wall tell McAuliffe's tale. There is the feature story headlined "Bill Clinton's Million Dollar Man." There is the photograph of Bill, Terry and golf pro Corey Pavin on the links. And there is the signed photo from Al that thanks Terry for "being the best finance chair on this or any other universe."
Al Gore doesn't like to talk about campaign money. For this story he declined to be interviewed. ("The vice president has made his views very clear on these issues," says spokesman Chris Lehane. "He supports real and meaningful campaign finance reform.") Reporters get shunted in and out of Gore's fund-raising events like plutonium isotopes by handlers who seem to fear they might contaminate the donors. But Terry McAuliffe has no such hang-ups. He's proud of his work. "The American people know you have to raise money to run for president," he says. "It's part of the business of running for president."
The mastermind behind many of the '96 campaign's controversial methods for "servicing" donors the coffee klatches, rounds of golf and pajama parties in the Lincoln Bedroom McAuliffe contends that granting access to contributors is not only legal but inevitable, given the existing rules. "People who raise and give money generally have the opportunity to meet the candidate," he argues. "What are we supposed to do with donors? Take them out to Pennsylvania Avenue and pistol-whip them?"
And if there's one thing McAuliffe is certain of, it's Al Gore's abilities as a fund-raiser. "He is a tireless worker," McAuliffe says. "At the end of the day, no one's going to beat Al Gore because of money."
It's a paradox for outsiders: How is it that Al Gore, Mister Clean, Eagle Scout, rectitude personified, does such a good job in the unattractive business of fund-raising?
But far from belying his Boy Scout image, Gore's fund-raising prowess is simply one more element of it, yet another political merit badge for a man who has been collecting them since he pounded signs into the ground at age 4 for the first Senate campaign of his father, Albert Gore Sr. Friends say he understands the implications of wooing donors the self-salesmanship, the potential for corruption and the sense that donors feel they're buying a piece of you but sees no choice but to play the game.
"If you had asked me in '91, I would have said he hates it and the time it takes away from the things he would rather be doing," says a former aide, who says Gore has come to accept the hunt for money as an essential part of the political process. "If he can internalize the need to do it, he will just suck it up and do it and take satisfaction in doing a job well done. It's like swimming the English Channel in winter you hate every minute of it, but it's a challenge."
Gore has mastered fund-raising the same way he has tackled every arduous task in life, applying the same driving ambition and discipline that enabled him to learn complex subjects such as arms control and environmental protection and bring a sense of order to a severe accident that befell his son in 1989.
"He sees it as his job," says Steve Rattner, a Gore backer who has watched the vice president woo Wall Street givers. "He is very focused, very disciplined. It's not the first place he would like to be, but it will help him get to the place he wants to be."
Before every fund-raiser, Gore is briefed by aides and given a memo summarizing the high points. Typically, he learns the purpose of the event (raise X amount of money for Y fund); what his role will be (brief remarks? full speech? photo op?); who will be there and what their donor histories are.
For Gore, it's about strategic imperatives rather than moral ones, explains a friend who has attended dozens of fund-raisers with Gore over the years. "You can't be judgmental about these people or you'd never survive. If you feel strongly about your ideas and you want to run for president, this is how you do it."
Gore is fluent in the obscure language of the money game. He knows the difference between a "fund-raiser," in which money actually comes in the door, and a "donor maintenance event," at which contributors are stroked for past good deeds and anticipated future generosity. He knows that a "candid" souvenir photo is worthless if the donor and the vice president aren't smiling into the camera. "Gore positions himself and the individual for the pictures," says lawyer-lobbyist Tony Coelho, a former congressman and supreme Democratic fund-raiser. "He's very conscious of it."
Gore also understands donors' need to feel special. In the early weeks of the campaign he has played to this by framing event after event as a "first" of its kind the first dinner, the first gala, the first out-of-town fund-raiser. Meeting with African American donors in New York on March 4, he thanked them for attending "the first formal event of this kind for the Gore 2000 campaign." Four days later, at a party in Washington, he promised supporters, "This is the first. You're here on the ground floor. I can't thank you enough for being here for the very first gala of the whole campaign."
And once the money comes in, Gore has always performed the tedious follow-up tasks with aplomb. After the 1996 Democratic convention, for instance, he had posters printed up with a grinning photo of himself and his wife above the text of his speech. His top "collectors" such as Noach Dear, a Brooklyn, N.Y., councilman who raised in excess of $50,000 received autographed copies.
No fund-raising chore seems too menial or too minute. Gore remembers contributors' birthdays; he inquires after the kids. He hosts thank-you parties to show his appreciation.
And though he may lack the easy charm and personal affability of a Bill Clinton, Gore perfected one skill the president has never mastered. "He's an excellent closer," is how advisers familiar with both men describe the vice president's fund-raising advantage.
"Bill Clinton, in all the years I've known him, has never asked anybody for a dime," says McAuliffe. Sure, the president would charm a roomful of donors with his larger-than-life personality, but he'd always leave it to guys like McAuliffe to bring up money.
Not Al Gore. On the phone or in person, the vice president has known how to seal the deal. Where Clinton might call a donor and mention plans for an upcoming ad campaign, Gore has gotten down to the business of securing the dollars needed to pay for the commercials.
And although those close to Gore hope that as the presidential candidate he won't be quite as personally involved in nailing down donations, his track record has earned him crucial credibility in the fund-raising community. "He has gotten in the fields and worked with the rest of us," says Coelho approvingly. "It shows he's a real player in political circles."
Thus did the authors of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 believe they could not only curb the amount of money coursing through the political system but also free up the candidates to spend more time talking issues with voters.
It worked for a while. As recently as 1992, Bill Clinton was able to secure the Democratic nomination with less than $15 million.
But today, experts say, candidates will need $20 million just to play, $26 million to be considered top tier and, in the case of Al Gore, $55 million if you plan on raising and spending every penny permitted under the FEC's complex set of rules and regulations.
And while the cost of a presidential primary has steadily risen, the $1,000 legal maximum per donor has remained the same. As a result, a candidate who might have gotten by with courting 10,000 individual donors in 1976 is now looking at rounding up three or four times as many.
Some no longer even bother. In recent campaigns, wealthy contestants like Ross Perot and Steve Forbes have tossed out the rule book and the matching funds that come with it and spent their own millions with no restrictions. And this year, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, fearing Forbes will again use his wealth to carpet-bomb fellow Republicans, is considering forgoing matching funds in order to bust the spending limits in the early primaries (though he'll still have to abide by the $1,000-a-head limit on contributions).
Gore, partly for image reasons and partly because he would like to collect up to $16 million in matching funds next year, has decided to play within the system. But he is stretching the rules as far as he can. Here's how he plans to get to $55 million:
Each election cycle the FEC sets a new, inflation-adjusted spending cap for the primaries. This is the big account that pays for polls and television commercials and plane tickets and marching bands and pizza for the volunteers. In 1996, the cap (including matching funds) was $30.9 million; this time around, FEC officials estimate that it will hit $33.5 million.
Because it costs money to raise money, the FEC allows campaigns to collect an additional 20 percent for "fund-raising expenses." This account is supposed to pay for the telephone calls, letters and dinners used to extract money from donors. In the past, creative campaigns have found ways to squeeze in other items such as polls or salaries for political aides with little or no fund-raising experience.
Figure on $6.7 million for this account, for a running total of $40.2 million.
A decade after the current campaign finance laws were written, politicians in both parties convinced the FEC that the cost of making sure all those individual checks are legal should not come out of either the political budget or the fund-raising budget. So there is a third pool of money, known as the legal and accounting fund, that pays the salaries of the small army of lawyers and accountants who are supposed to make sure the candidate follows the rules.
Throw in another $6.7 million, which brings the tally to $46.9 million.
Finally, for the candidate confident enough to believe that he or she will win nomination, yet fearful about breaking some of the rules along the way, there's one more account: the General Election Legal and Accounting Compliance fund, or GELAC ("gee-lack"). This money can't be used until the general election, and its main purpose is to pay fines and penalties if any rules are violated. But it can be collected now and used as a revolving loan fund for the campaign for times when the incoming cash flow slows down.
The Clinton team forgot about GELAC until late in 1996 right around the time Republicans and the media began questioning the Democrats' fund-raising practices. At that point, McAuliffe and company had to scramble to rustle up $7.9 million-plus for the account. Gore, more cautious and better organized, is already on top of the situation. He opened his GELAC account on New Year's Day, the very same day he officially began his campaign.
The goal is to squirrel away $8 million for this fund.
Which all adds up to $54.9 million.
And that's just the beginning. Once the primaries are over, the two nominees will receive $67 million apiece in federal funds for the general election. And if the past is any guide, they will heavily supplement this bounty by turning their fund-raising operations toward "soft money," the unlimited, loosely regulated donations theoretically earmarked for "party building" activities (get-out-the-vote drives, issue-oriented ads, etc.) that have increasingly been spent, with a wink and a nudge, to get the parties' candidates elected.
But the scramble for soft money won't begin in earnest until 2000. For the rest of this year, the competition that will consume contenders in both parties will be the vacuuming up of tens of thousands of individual "hard money" donations. It's a competition Al Gore has been preparing for for the last decade.
In 1987, as Ronald Reagan's second term wound to a close, the Democratic Party began to search for a viable contender to take back the White House. One man who said he wouldn't seek the job was Al Gore, then a first-term senator from Tennessee. "I am not a candidate," he told reporters. "I am not running for anything but the job I have."
But shortly thereafter, according to Maryland developer Nathan Landow, the senator began to reconsider. Money was the key.
Landow, who has since achieved notoriety for allegedly pressuring Kathleen Willey not to go public with accusations that she was harassed by President Clinton, describes bumping into Gore at a Capitol Hill party and encouraging him to run. As one of Walter Mondale's key fund-raisers with a network left over from the 1984 campaign, Landow said he could provide crucial seed money.
A few days later, Gore invited Landow to lunch at his parents' Capitol Hill apartment, where over soggy chicken salad sandwiches in a dining room laden with political memorabilia and tasteful antiques, the young senator quizzed the experienced fund-raiser on the financial ins and outs of running for president. The first step, Landow told Gore, was to convene a meeting of the uncommitted money men from Mondale. "I'll lean on them to be here," Landow recalls telling Gore, "but you have to close the deal."
After two meetings at a downtown hotel and a series of telephone calls, the junior senator won financial backing from a group of 16 prominent Democratic donors known as IMPAC. They promised to raise $250,000 apiece a total of $4 million.
Today, some of Gore's people dispute the amount and downplay the importance of Landow and his team. But others say the money itself was almost secondary to the psychological boost it provided. Money, Gore discovered, could make a junior senator from Tennessee a player in national politics. "It brought attention to Gore, who at the time was 39 and had not been taken seriously" as a presidential contender, says Roy Neel, the vice president's former chief of staff.
Despite the cash, things didn't break Gore's way that year. Almost one year to the day after entering the 1988 presidential campaign, he was out of it again and saddled with $2 million in campaign debt.
If he hoped to hang on to his Senate seat in two years and maintain his political viability beyond then, Gore knew he had to eliminate that debt quickly. "It had become almost a graveyard of former campaigns that were unable to pay off their debts," says Neel, recalling how debt had destroyed former senator John Glenn's presidential ambitions. "You live in political purgatory."
So Gore and Peter Knight, his most trusted aide, created the "40-40 Club," a catchy name for the unglamorous task of convincing 40 people to raise $40,000 apiece to bail out a presidential loser. Gore himself worked the phones and helped squeeze every last dollar out of donors. He called them on their cell phones, at vacation homes, on boats. He checked in with his lead fund-raisers to see who was on target to reach the $40,000 and who needed a nudge, a pep talk or just plain help.
In less than three months, Gore and the 40-40 Club had raised the money to retire the debt and headed to Nashville for a black tie celebration at the governor's mansion.
Other combatants in the 1988 struggle were left with debts to pay off, and they did. But none executed the odious task with the energy or efficiency of Al Gore. He learned a simple but invaluable lesson about the changing nature of modern presidential politics. "Money was a big factor," he told the Knoxville News-Sentinel in fall 1988. "We did extremely well in raising money, but this race this time around required you to raise $20 million to $30 million instead of $10 million."
Never again, in other words, would he be underfunded.
The Big Time
After easily winning reelection to the Senate in 1990, Gore decided to pass on another presidential run. But he was abruptly pulled back into national politics in the summer of 1992 when Bill Clinton chose him as his running mate. The selection seemed a curious one. What could one Southern baby boomer centrist bring to a ticket with another Southern baby boomer centrist?
The answer would lie in part in Gore's ability to take on even the most difficult chores with the focus and rigor that Clinton sometimes seemed to lack including the grueling task of fund-raising for a national campaign.
By the time Gore joined the Democratic ticket, most of Clinton's campaign money had been raised, but Gore was eager to demonstrate his worth. Within 24 hours of being tapped by Clinton, Gore had raised $1 million in soft money, according to Knight.
Soon after, at a party in Maine, Gore topped every fund-raising record in state history, helping bring in $350,000 in a single night. Then he raised $375,000 at a single event in Connecticut.
"It was symbolic," says Neel. "He wanted to do his part."
Three years later, with Clinton's reelection in serious doubt, much the same motivation prompted Gore to take the lead on what would prove to be the most ambitious presidential fund-raising drive in history. The electoral picture looked bleak. In the first 100 days of that year, the newly installed Republican majority in the House had passed every item in its 10-point "Contract With America" except term limits. Polls showed Clinton's job approval was well below 50 percent and voters were inclined to support any Republican over him. Many inside the White House feared a nasty Democratic primary fight.
"Gore had put himself in the same boat [as Clinton] and it was sinking," says a lobbyist who raised large sums for Clinton-Gore. "This was as much a commitment to protecting his own image and reputation. The only way to stop the potential primary bleed was to get the money in quick. If Clinton went down, Gore went down."
In June 1995, the Clinton-Gore team held its first money event of the campaign at the vice president's residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory. "He decided he really wanted to help early and engage his support network on behalf of the reelect," recalls Mel Levine, a former California congressman and current Gore fund-raiser.
Dubbed "The Vice President's Salute to the President," the party was for Gore's most loyal network of supporters. To attend the event, each had to raise $25,000 by June and promise to raise another $25,000 by fall.
As always, Gore was well prepped. His briefing materials instructed him: "During the cocktail party, please mingle with the guests please be sure to thank everyone for generous support this type of fund-raising is very difficult and time consuming, since contributions are limited to $1,000."
At the end of the evening, each guest received a signed, numbered sketch of Clinton and Gore by artist Peter Max. Collectively, the group brought in about $1.3 million, making it one of the six most lucrative events of the campaign.
"It sent the right signal to the president and the president's team and to the political community that he is a total player," says Tony Coelho. "It was a very, very shrewd decision."
Gore's "salute" was the first in a series of wildly successful fund-raisers for the Democratic ticket. With McAuliffe in the lead and Gore and Knight deeply involved, the campaign raised a record $26 million from April 1995 to the end of the year.
By 1996, as the primary fund-raising gave way to soft money efforts, the Clinton-Gore machine began to overheat. There were the coffees in the White House Map Room, the sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom, a $50,000 check delivered to Hillary Clinton's chief of staff and, ultimately, $3.8 million in dubious or outright illegal contributions returned by the Democratic National Committee.
And Al Gore honest, dutiful, reliable Al Gore, whose name had never been attached to scandal was right at the center of it all. By Election Day, he'd been the main attraction at more than three dozen fund-raising events, generating about $8.7 million for the party, according to DNC records. And Gore made sure he got due credit for every penny. In an undated memo in preparation for a meeting with Clinton, Gore wrote, "I did three events this week which were projected to raise $650,000, and under rigorous accounting, actually raised $800,000. For the month, Tipper and I were supposed to do $1.1 million, and it looks like we will be closer to $1.3 million."
Gore also brought prominent contributors to his official residence for "donor stroking" events. Alone, or with Clinton, he attended more than 30 White House coffees. And, as the whole world would soon learn, he made 52 fund-raising calls from his White House office that raised more than $795,000, according to a deposition by DNC general counsel Joseph Sandler.
Gore was a diligent, even enthusiastic, dialer. In one November 1995 meeting, according to notes taken by his deputy chief of staff, David Strauss, the vice president said: "Count me in on the calls." Gore was so eager to round up cash for the reelection effort that he questioned why Clinton was down for 18 to 20 calls and he was only being asked to make 10. "Is it possible to do a reallocation for me to take more of the events and the calls?" he asked, according to Strauss's notes.
One friend who has listened to Gore solicit contributions says the vice president would often sit at his desk, fiddling with his computer while chatting up a potential donor. Working off "call sheets" that listed the target's name and how much money he was to ask for, Gore would be blunt. "I've been tasked with raising $2 million and you're on my list,' " this ally quotes him as saying, adding, "This is something he grudgingly does, but he's got the rap down."
And then there was the Buddhist temple. On April 29, 1996, the vice presidential entourage pulled into the circular driveway of the Hsi Lai Temple, a sprawling complex bordered by Oriental gardens and red pillars, in the Hacienda Heights suburb of Los Angeles. A high school marching band greeted Gore as he entered a courtyard to place flowers before a shrine to Buddha. Before entering the dining hall, he posed for photos with a group of VIP guests.
Although Gore made no direct pitch for money, numerous memos and e-mail messages written by Gore and staffers had described the gathering as a "fund-raiser" and referred to the "ticket price" of the event. Aides traveling with the vice president on his California swing told reporters the event was a fund-raiser. And when the contributions were tallied, the DNC was $140,000 richer. The only problem was that it's illegal to host partisan fund-raisers at nonprofit institutions including churches and temples. That, and the fact that it turned out that more than half of the money had apparently come from overseas or had been illegally funneled through straw donors.
Gore's explanations only fueled further questions. First he said the temple visit was a "community outreach" event. Later, he amended that to say he knew it was a "finance related" event, but still not a "fund-raiser." Finally in a television interview he offered this explanation: "I did not know that it was a fund-raiser. But I knew it was a political event, and I knew there were finance people that were going to be present and so that alone should have told me, 'This is inappropriate and this is a mistake; don't do this.' And I take responsibility for that. It was a mistake."
No matter. The image of the vice president grubbing for dollars inside a monastery stuck like mud.
"My counsel advises me that there is no controlling legal authority," Al Gore intoned in the only major news conference of his vice presidency to air on live television.
By the time he entered the cramped White House press room on March 3, 1997, the vice president was in trouble. No longer known as Mister Clean, Gore had been dubbed the "solicitor-in-chief" by DNC staffers. One Democratic donor said the vice president's pursuit of cash amounted to a "shakedown." Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat close to the White House, called Gore's actions "undefendable."
Gore was at his worst that day. He ducked questions, low-balled the number of fund-raising calls he made and seemed to contradict himself, first defending his making the calls, then promising never to do it again. And not once, but seven times, he parroted the disastrous "no controlling legal authority" line fed to him by his attorney.
The specific questions that day concerned whether Gore had broken federal law in soliciting contributions over the phone from his White House office. But the broader issue was the overall conduct of both the Clinton and Dole campaigns.
"What was done in 1996 was taking massive evasions of the campaign finance laws to a new level," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which advocates overhauling the current laws. Auditors at the Federal Election Commission recommended massive fines for both campaigns $7 million for Clinton's and $17 million for Dole's for using party soft money on behalf of the candidates. But the FEC's commissioners rejected that recommendation, effectively authorizing future campaigns to stretch the rules and operate in the same freewheeling way. Investigations by two congressional committees also fizzled, and, in the case of Gore, Attorney General Janet Reno twice rejected entreaties to appoint an independent counsel.
Although the experience left Gore badly sullied, it also "toughened him," says a former aide who remains close to the vice president. "It was the first time in his political career his personal conduct or ethics had been challenged. It served to help him take a punch."
It's January 1999, a full 13 months before the first presidential primary votes are cast, and Mel Levine is sitting in his Los Angeles office hustling for Al Gore. Over the course of three days, Levine will spend 10 hours dialing for dollars, contacting about 50 friends. "There is no shortcut," he says. "You just have to pick up the phone and ask for help."
The response is good: 35 yes, six mulling it over, a couple of requests to attend an event and a couple of rejections. The tally: $60,000.
In his pitch, Levine, a wiry man with curly graying hair and a broad smile, tells his West Coast friends how good the Clinton-Gore team has been to California. With Jewish friends, Levine also stresses the peace efforts in the Middle East and Gore's hawkish stand on Israel.
Then comes the close: "It would be helpful to get this money in early; there's a very high expectation for Al Gore to produce."
Across the United States, hundreds of collectors like Levine are working the phones. Each uses his or her own technique. One New Yorker says when he first made calls on Gore's behalf, he'd start the conversation by inquiring: "So what do you think of Al Gore?" Now he simply gets straight to the point: "I need a thousand bucks."
At the heart of the machine is Peter Knight, a lawyer-lobbyist who got his start as Gore's chief of staff on Capitol Hill 20 years ago. Knight's close connection to Gore has made him one of Washington's most successful lobbyists. In turn, Knight with help from Terry McAuliffe is amassing the largest campaign treasury in history for his friend the vice president.
Knight is no newcomer to high-stakes political fund-raising. He was the one who created the call sheets for Gore's controversial telephone solicitations and he became chairman of the Clinton-Gore campaign in the summer of 1996 after organizing a fund-raising dinner that netted an incredible $12.5 million in soft money in a single night. Knight also organized the fund-raising drives to renovate the vice president's mansion and to establish a college professorship in memory of Gore's sister.
Obtaining McAuliffe's services for the 2000 campaign was an additional coup. A close friend of House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, McAuliffe had stayed a respectful distance from the contest until Gephardt announced he wouldn't run for president. But behind the scenes he helped Knight put together the strategy for collecting $55 million this year and now he is helping to carry it out.
Top fund-raisers such as Knight and McAuliffe operate at the nexus between public affairs and private money, between politicians and the donors who pony up to get them elected. It's a gray zone fraught with potential conflicts of interest, and both Knight and McAuliffe have found themselves under scrutiny by critics who allege they have used their considerable pull with the administration on behalf of business clients and donors.
"It's like a spider's web," says Wertheimer. "The influence the political money people gain through raising large sums of money translates into their own personal financial gain."
In 1997, Knight was investigated by the Justice Department for his work on behalf of Molten Metal Technology, a client that had won a total of $32 million in federal energy contracts in the 1990s. The Massachusetts company and its officers gave at least $90,000 to Democratic campaigns in 1996 and also gave a member of Knight's family $20,000 worth of Molten Metals stock. (No charges were ultimately brought.)
And earlier this year, Attorney General Reno rejected GOP calls to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Knight's ties to Tennessee developer and Democratic donor Franklin Haney. Republicans allege that Knight helped Haney secure favorable terms on a government lease in return for $280,000 in contributions and $1 million in lobbying fees over three years. Reno found no "specific and credible information" that Knight had broken the law. "From the start," says Knight, "these were partisan, political attacks that were never supported by the facts. And, in the end, thorough investigations proved that."
Like Knight, Terry McAuliffe has been scrutinized for mixing his business and politics. In 1997, the Justice Department charged Prudential Insurance Co. of America with paying McAuliffe an illegal $375,000 consulting fee for helping the company win a lucrative government lease. Prudential settled the civil suit; prosecutors decided McAuliffe could not be held responsible. And last year, the Labor Department looked into connections between McAuliffe and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a major Demo-cratic donor that has also invested in McAuliffe's real estate ventures. No charges were filed against McAuliffe, and he says he was never a target of the investigation.
Wertheimer is concerned that the role of fund-raisers in bundling donations increases the potential for influence-peddling. "An individual can only give $1,000, but a fund-raiser can collect $100,000 or $1 million," he says. "That becomes their way of obtaining influence over presidential candidates." And as the clout of fund-raisers and collectors grows, he adds, "donors are interested in not only buying influence with the candidate but they're also interested in buying influence and building relationships with the fund-raisers."
The Gore campaign insists that it has safety mechanisms to limit any possibility of impropriety. "We have set up the most rigorous system of checks we've ever seen in fund-raising," says campaign manager Craig Smith, who notes that the 1996 controversies "sensitized" Gore to the fact that "he is going to be held to a higher standard."
Paid fund-raisers and volunteer solicitors alike will undergo background checks and receive legal briefings before they begin collecting checks, says Smith. The campaign has also formed a unit of volunteer lawyers and political consultants who meet weekly to review any contributions "that may be legally acceptable but may not pass the smell test," Smith says.
Still, Wertheimer fears that by setting its fund-raising target so high, the Gore campaign is asking for trouble. The issue has the potential to be an Achilles' heel, says Wertheimer, in part because voters already associate Gore with out-of-touch, inside-the-Beltway political circles.
And other presidential contenders aren't likely to let the public forget about the 1996 campaign. "Are you proud when monks and nuns abandon their vows of poverty and pay tens of thousands of dollars to have spiritual communion with the vice president?" GOP Sen. John McCain asked crowds in January. "Are you proud of an administration that spends all of its time worrying about 'controlling legal authorities' but cannot abide a controlling ethical authority?"
Former senator Bill Bradley, Gore's current competition for the Democratic nomination, has been careful not to attack the vice president directly. But he makes a point of bringing up campaign finance reform in every speech, and his underdog, good-government campaign is well poised to take advantage of any fund-raising slips by the Gore machine.
"The abuses of both parties in 1996 have added to the climate of cynicism and skepticism, and those involved carry that baggage into this race," says Bradley adviser Anita Dunn. "Fund-raising has been a problem for the administration not raising the money, but how they do it."
It's a new position for Al Gore to be in. The man who has always run as an honest reformer now stands accused of being part of the problem. The earnest, behind-the-scenes lieutenant finds himself in the spotlight, an overwhelming favorite to win his party's nomination. He has on his side the powers of incumbency, the support of a still-popular president and a chest full of political chits from officeholders and interest groups. But will all of that, plus $55 million, prove to be enough?
On a blustery evening in early March, the vice president's motorcade is racing from event to event on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the people and places blurring into one long scene of well-coiffed men and women, softly lit rooms and silver trays of canapes. It's a familiar tour of the names and addresses that make up the New York Democratic fund-raising circuit.
First stop, the Park Avenue apartment of Christopher Williams, president and CEO of Williams Capital Group, where Gore meets with 20 African American supporters who have volunteered to raise $5,000 apiece for his campaign. "I've been in your building before," the vice president notes without irony. "The Dimons live just one floor up." (That would be Democratic donors Jamie Dimon, the recently ousted president of Citigroup, and his wife, Judith.)
After 20 minutes, it's off to Restaurant Daniel, and a bite with 32 high-tech and entertainment executives who will raise $10,000 apiece.
"This is a group of wonderful friends," Gore says, "and I am grateful for your willingness to be so involved in this presidential campaign."
Handshakes, and then he's out the door again, this time heading to the Fifth Avenue apartment of Steve Rattner and the evening's highest-powered collection: Each of the 40 guests has pledged to raise $35,000.
"I want to tell you all how grateful I am," says the vice president, "for your support, friendship, your advice, your encouragement and for you to be here at this event at the very beginning of my campaign for president."
Forty minutes later, Gore is aboard Air Force 2 for the quick flight home to Washington.
All in all, not a bad night. Three stops in three hours. Three more clusters of donors committed to the campaign. If the pledges all come through, Al Gore will be $1.5 million closer to the White House.
Ceci Connolly covers national politics for The Post. Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this article.
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