Clinton, Gore Spend Weekend With DonorsBy Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 1997; Page A10
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla., Nov. 1—They live on streets like Park Avenue, develop golf courses for a living and hang out with politicians for fun. And with at least $50,000 to spare, they are the lifeblood of the cash-starved, scandal-plagued Democratic Party.
For two unprecedented days, at a five-diamond hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, they are eating, dancing, fishing and talking policy with two of the most powerful men in the free world.
Never before has a sitting president and his No. 2 devoted a weekend to schmoozing with their most generous political donors. But as President Clinton is demonstrating with a renewed vigor, he is unapologetic about wooing the people who fuel the modern political system.
"To hear people tell it, the very act of getting people to support you is somehow suspect," he said at a dinner in Boca Raton Friday night, assuring donors who had paid $10,000 a couple that he was "proud" of their support.
Aides say the second-term president has never wavered in his belief that political giving is a virtue. But, increasingly worried that his legacy may be a debt-ridden Democratic Party, he is maintaining a hectic, highly visible fund-raising schedule. Rather than embarrass him, the barrage of allegations appear to have emboldened Clinton.
Although he made a brief pitch for his free-trade proposal in Palm Beach, Clinton's visit has been dominated by golf and fund-raising. By the time Air Force One lifts off the tarmac in Jacksonville Sunday, his two-day tally will stand at: 27 holes of golf, about $3.5 million raised for Democratic causes and four meals with some of the richest people in America.
About 50 contributors gave the party $50,000 to join Clinton and Vice President Gore at the Ritz Carlton, a sprawling beachfront property where the presidential suite goes for $1,500.
Initially, the Democratic National Committee insisted the weekend would be closed to reporters and the names of participants would be kept secret. Although they still refuse to release a list of names, officials did open the meetings, attempting to generate some good publicity along with the $2.5 million raised. The White House even took the unusual step of inviting a television reporter to join Clinton for nine holes of golf as further evidence of the "openness" of the event.
"This is the most open political fund-raiser America's ever had," said Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who is head of the DNC.
In a boisterous luncheon speech, he said the Republicans exulting in "an orgasm of righteousness" over the fund-raising scandal are displaying the "height of hypocrisy." He noted that next week, when Republicans hold similar high-priced donor festivities in Washington, they will be private.
Several of the donors gathered at this resort at the base of Georgia's Golden Islands said the "negative aspects of getting their names in the paper" discouraged others from attending, as Lynne Barrack put it.
"It's almost an invasion of privacy," said her husband, Len Barrack, an attorney from Philadelphia's tony Main Line.
Others said they give thousands not to buy access but because they believe in the party's principles.
"It works in reverse," said Monte Friedkin, a Boca Raton entrepreneur who owns businesses from aluminum siding to cemeteries. "The more money you give, the less access you get because they're afraid to do anything for you."
Before the "hullabaloo" over fund-raising, Friedkin said he probably could have hitched a ride on Air Force One from Boca Raton to Amelia Island. But even after pledging $250,000 to the party earlier this year, he still found himself traveling commercial.
Most of the people attending the "Autumn Retreat" are veteran party loyalists who responded to the pleas for help in erasing a $15 million debt.
"When your party needs you the most, that's when you stand up and get counted," said Ramesh Kapur, a Boston business owner who said he has been giving to Democrats since 1986. He said $50,000 may seem like a lot, but "it's all relative. Most people here give much more to charities."
Clinton's raspy voice prevented him from saying much today. But "by his presence and his efforts" La Dane Williamson, a North Carolina golf course developer, felt reassured. "The spirit of his personal dedication to the issues makes other people willing to sacrifice."
White House spokesman Barry Toiv said as eager as Clinton was to erase the DNC's debt, the real pleasure for the president came in "sitting down with people of different walks of life and discussing issues that affect the American people."
Yet the circles Clinton traveled in this weekend were decidedly upper class. On Friday, he ate lunch under an original de Kooning painting in the atrium of a spacious Palm Beach home with 22 members of the Democratic Business Council who gave close to $200,000—or $9,000 apiece.
"The cost of communicating with voters has exploded exponentially," Clinton told them. "So if we really want to get a handle on this problem, we also have to say, if you observe the campaign finance limits, you should get free or reduced air time."
After a round of golf, Clinton headed to Le Lac, a wealthy enclave in Boca Raton, for a fund-raiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Commodities trader John Henry hosted the dinner at his 40,000-square-foot estate, complete with a full-size music studio, Japanese artwork and movie theater. Officials said it raised more than $600,000, bringing Clinton's tally for the committee to $2 million this year.
At the Ritz, donors like Bob Rose and his 10-year-old son, David, listened to a morning of panel discussions then went to the White Oak Conservation Center, a 550-acre private preserve. Rose has been giving to Democrats for years but conceded the idea of a weekend with Clinton and Gore was particularly attractive. "I'm not sure many people would pay $50,000 without the president and vice president."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company