Pay to Play

The competitive presidential election has Washingtonians hedging their bets and donating to multiple candidates.

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Esther Coopersmith (Center) pictured here with Arthur Gardner, and Susan Eisenhower, has been one of the Clinton campaign’s top “Hillraisers.”

(Center) pictured here with , and , has been one of the Clinton campaign’s top “Hillraisers.”

One evening in early April, around 50 of Washington’s wealthier citizens gathered in the garden of social eminence and cause celebrant Esther Coopersmith’s opulent Kalorama home.

The occasion was a fundraiser for . Rep. (D. Pa.), and Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor were there urging guests to dig deep into their pockets, but the candidate herself was campaigning in Pennsylvania. No matter, the New York Democratic senator had made personal appearances at two earlier Coopersmith fund-raisers, and the hostess reckoned that at this most recent event she had raised around $50,000.

Keeping the Clinton war chest replenished is Coopersmith’s current mission in life. The widening concern that Clinton’s stubborn refusal to bow out in favor of is doing nothing more than undermining the party’s chances of victory in November is a non-starter chez Coopersmith.

“We go all over the world talking about democracy and the importance of voting; yet Hillary’s opponents want the primary elections closed,” she says. “How can we in all conscience talk about democracy abroad if we shut off the voting rights of millions of people? I think Hillary’s the most capable, competent person, and she’s going to make a wonderful president.”

Meanwhile, across town almost contemporaneously at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a large presence of wealthy Washingtonians who see things differently had paid $2,300 or $1,000 to thrill to Barack Obama’s verbal pirouettes. The choice of venue may have been intricately symbolic, because the conventional political wisdom is still that women tend to favor Hillary Clinton, and the museum by definition deals with exclusion. It celebrates the work of women painters and sculptors, many of whom deserve to be in mainstream museums, but are not.
Elsewhere in the District, well-heeled Republicans gathered in a private residence to coalesce around Sen. , the presumptive GOP nominee and his well-bred, well dressed, well coiffed, well shaped, well almost everything wife, Cindy (but perhaps not so well versed in the culinary arts as the McCain website would have us believe).

Whichever the candidate, the purpose is the same: squeeze yet more dollars to feed the insatiable appetite of a presidential campaign that has the dubious distinction of being the longest and the costliest in the history of presidential elections, and may cross the $1 billion dollar mark before the first Tuesday in November.

The specialists will tell you that both fundraisers and contributors are feeling more than somewhat punch drunk after months of primary manslaughter. Still, the money keeps trickling in, significantly helped by floods of small ($200 and less) internet donations. For bigger donors the reasons for giving are more complex … ideology, support for the cause, the common good, the allure of a charismatic candidate are all strong motives, but so – in some cases – is opportunism. After this long and costly campaign, next year’s ambassadorial appointments and government contracts will have come at a high price.

All of which may help explain why the greater Washington area has so far been the second largest political giver after New York – $82.4 million compared to $102.4 million for presidential and congressional races. Where better than Washington to place a dollar value on power and influence? Hillary Clinton may have had a hard time raising funds in the rest of the rest of the country, but in D.C. she was the bigger beneficiary, according to Federal figures for financial contributions – $5.5 million against $4.8 for Obama. And Northwest Washington’s 20016 zip code was collectively among the largest contributors ($3,956,161). In a somewhat less scientific sample of 1,000 contributors in that zipcode, by March 31, 265 contributed to Clinton against 224 to Obama – some to both.

Some prominent Democrats who would normally be in the thick of things are still sitting on the fence, undecided whether to back Hillary Clinton or support Barack Obama. So, like Nancy “Bitsey” Folger, they contributed to both candidates. A well known social activist in Washington, Folger says that unlike in past elections, she has organized no Democratic fundraisers in this campaign because, she says, “It’s a very hard choice, I like them both. We really need to find a better system for choosing a candidate. This campaign has been so brutal; whoever wins won’t have the energy left to man the government.”

The constant grind for cash, combined with new rules limiting individual campaign contributions, have seen an increase in the role of what used to be called fund raisers, but in the new, slicker, campaign jargon are known as “bundlers” – individuals who ask friends, family, and business associates for contributions to the candidate of their choice. Contributions from individuals are limited to $2,300 for the primary campaign, and the same for the November election campaign for a total per person of $4,600. But delivery of the money “bundled” in lump sums of $50,000 beats being deluged with $2,300 checks, and campaign experts maintain that bundlers now account for more than a quarter of presidential contributions. In 2000 it was 8 percent.
Bundlers are Washington’s new secret agents, preferring to operate out of the public spotlight. Not Esther Coopersmith, who says the Clinton campaign calls its bundlers “Hillraisers,” and claims to have so far raised $450,000 for her candidate. “I keep collecting the checks and sending them on,” she says.

In the Obama camp there’s columnist who, with auto dealer husband Don – a former Lieutenant Governor of Virginia – has “encouraged many of our friends and colleagues to come and meet Barack,” as Megan puts it – meetings which the website Public Citizen says have raised $200,000 for the Democrat senator from Illinois.

Like Coopersmith, however, several Democratic activists said the bottom line is loyalty to the party. “I’m a Democrat, and I’ll work with whomever is on the ticket. But (the campaign) will be easier with Hillary,” she says. On May 7, she helped organize a pro-Clinton rally for women at Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel called “Generations of Women,” with appearances by the candidate herself, her mother, and daughter Chelsea.

It’s hardly surprising that in Washington bundlers tend to be lawyers, given their density with respect to the population as a whole. Lobbyists would in theory also be suitable candidates, but there’s the backlash from the Abramoff and Ney scandals to consider. All three surviving presidential candidates have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from K Street, while each insinuates that the others are taking lobbyist handouts anyway. Barack does not take checks from lobbyists, “so raising money in Washington is like boxing with one arm tied behind your back,” emails Megan Beyer.

“Lobbyists are savvy enough to know that there is a stigma attached to the word ‘lobbyist,’” , partner in the Bellwether Consulting Group fundraising firm, was quoted as saying. “[On their campaign contributions] they refer to themselves as ‘government relations consultants,’ or ‘public affairs directors.’”

While campaign critics continue to call for more disclosure (and they have a point), the internet is doing its part to make this the least secretive presidential campaign ever. Go to Fundrace2008 on the Huffington Post – and it’s not the only site – and you learn that AOL co-founder contributed the maximum to both John McCain and Hillary Clinton, and that former Clinton administration official and foreign policy specialist William (Bill) Nitze sent along his $2,300 check to Barack Obama. “I’m in the category of a disaffected Republican – I have become impressed with Obama, and not impressed with Hillary Clinton,” he says. Nitze belongs to a group calling themselves Republicans for Barack Obama, who have been supporting the Democratic candidate. He would like the Democratic Senator from Illinois to have more foreign policy experience. Still, he says, “I have a hunch about Obama: he’s smart and capable of learning.”

Washington attorney , meanwhile, contributed the maximum to Hillary Clinton, as did , co-founder of Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts (she actually donated the full $4,600). But wait a minute. Wasn’t the museum where the big Obama fundraiser was held? Well, that’s Washington for you in this election year.

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