D.C.’s Fundraiser-Restaurant Nexus

Posted February 23, 2007 at 6:52pm

Take a Republican House candidate from Hawaii, unload a few tons of sand on the banks of the Potomac, fire up the grills and charge lobbyists $100 a head.

Add a rumor that the mustachioed, Ferrari-driving star of the monster television hit of the moment, “Magnum P.I.,” was a card-carrying Republican and willing to appear, and you had all the makings of a legendary fundraiser.

“I figure I’d have every female lobbyist in Washington, D.C., coming to see Tom Selleck,” said Dan Morgan, a GOP fundraiser who dreamed up the event for former Rep. Pat Saiki (R-Hawaii) while working at the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 1980s.

Although the show’s producers eventually pulled the plug, fearing that Democratic politicians back in the Aloha State would yank their permits, Morgan suggested that the almost-fundraiser was a marker of a bygone era.

“Back when you could charge $100 a pop, you could be a little more adventurous,” he said.

That may be a drag for the people who plan and attend political fundraisers. But it is very good news for certain Washington, D.C., restaurants and bars.

Nowadays, with billion-dollar election cycles and $1,000-a-plate dinners the norm, many Members of Congress and professional fundraisers appear less inclined to roll the dice on an experimental event that may cost plenty but bring in little. Preferring a play-it-safe approach, political committees ate and drank through millions of fundraising dollars during the previous election cycle at high-end eateries, taverns, coffee shops and liquor stores within a short dash of the Capitol.

Although private clubs operated by Democrats and Republicans are perennial favorite fundraising venues, the biggest outside beneficiary was Charlie Palmer Steak, the epicenter of the political schmooze circuit at 101 Constitution Ave. NW.

Campaigns and political action committees in 2005 and 2006 charged roughly $380,000 worth of oysters and fine cuts of beef and undoubtedly wandered deep into the restaurant’s advertised 10,000-bottle wine list. The Capital Grille and The Caucus Room also were favorites, collecting almost $480,000 combined in receipts from politicians and PACs.

La Colline, the Capitol Hill eatery that begot Johnny’s Half Shell toward the end of the previous election cycle, generated roughly $100,000 in business from House campaigns and PACs. Johnny’s Half Shell, which relocated from Dupont Circle last year, took in about $18,000 in business. The Oceanaire Seafood Room raked in about $118,000, and Bobby Van’s Steakhouse collected nearly $130,000.

Political committees spent just more than $210,000 at Tortilla Coast on the House side of Capitol Hill, while Senate-side fundraisers netted The Monocle roughly $165,000.

Between meals, House campaigns and political action committees nationwide purchased about $33,000 worth of scones and lattes at Starbucks. About 20 percent of those purchases were made at its 237 Pennsylvania Ave. SE location in the District. Also, campaigns and PACs spent $25,510 at Congressional Liquors on 404 First St. SE, while Schneider’s of Capitol HilI at 300 Massachusetts Ave. NE rang up about $17,500 in fundraising-related booze sales during the two-year period.

The numbers for Roll Call’s analysis were culled from 2005-06 election cycle disbursements and information available at CQ PoliticalMoneyLine. The data includes payments made by House campaign accounts and the PACs of lawmakers and outside groups, which file campaign finance reports electronically. By law, Senators manually file their primary campaign finance reports and were not included in the analysis.

Democratic fundraiser Mike Fraioli said it’s nearly impossible to hold a fundraiser in Washington for less than $30 per person minus the bar tab. With election outcomes often hinging on pricey media buys, he said Members and PACs are very conscientious of unnecessary costs. Still, there are certain baselines.

“You can’t put out peanut butter crackers, but you don’t need to put out oysters on the half shell,” Fraioli said. “But even the safest client isn’t going to give you a blank check or anything close to it.”

Depending on the event, Morgan said the demanding fundraising climate most Members find themselves in puts that cost-per-head figure even higher.

“By the time you buy a couple of salads, steaks, desserts and a few bottles of wine it’s a few hundred bucks a pop,” Morgan said. “And you’ve got to charge at least $1,000 per person to make it worth the Congressman’s time.”

“Even at a down-and-dirty place, its $40 or $50 per person by the time you give someone a stale piece of bread and a cup of water,” he added. “A pig’s going to be a pig no matter how much lipstick you put on it. You just hope some Members are going to let you dress the pig up a little more than normal.”

Morgan said a fundraising rule of thumb is that it takes about $100,000 to make $500,000. But that only tells part of the story. Morgan and Fraioli agreed a typical use of campaign cash is to “prime the pump” for out-of-town political contributors and to reward campaign staff.

“A donor who can raise you a lot of money back in the district, you want to show him a good time” when he visits Washington, D.C., Morgan said. “So the next time you want him to have a fundraiser at his house up on the Hill, he goes, ‘oh yeah, I owe you.”

With a population of about 550,000, Washington generated $94.6 million in contributions to all political committees during the 2005-06 election cycle, placing it fourth behind California, New York Texas and Florida.

“It’s a company town,” Fraioli said.