Fundraisers Showcase Personalities

Posted August 2, 2010 at 6:32pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has his inside-the-Beltway fundraising down to a formula. Pick a venue, host a breakfast at 7:45 a.m., spend 45 minutes with paying guests and then head for the door.

And that’s exactly what the Nevada Democrat is expected to do Thursday morning at Charlie Palmer Steak.

The event will bring in as much as $2,500 per political action committee and $2,400 from individual hosts, according to a copy of the private invitation.

Reid has perfected the “dine and dash,” say several Democratic lobbyists who regularly attend the Senator’s functions.

“It’s time to start the workday,” one Democratic lobbyist said of Reid’s early exits. “After all, he is the Majority Leader.”

Reid’s fundraising modus operandi fits his personality. A shy teetotaler, he prefers to host morning events. With lobbyists and corporations eager to gain favor and face time with Reid, he can afford to be picky about how he spends his time raising money.

But not all lawmakers are created equal.

In a city where Members are regularly shaking the K Street money tree for their re-election campaigns, party committees and leadership PACs, fundraising has evolved into a second full-time job. And each Member wants to stand out — and maybe, just maybe, even have some fun.

Whether it’s breakfast or lunch, dinner or cocktails, lawmakers have developed their own styles for giving a little individual panache to the drudgery of asking corporate interests to part with cash.

“You’ll never find a substitute for asking. That’s what every successful fundraiser does,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “You have to explain why somebody should give up [money] and give to the candidate or the cause.”

Party committees rarely have the luxury of dismissing any fundraising opportunity. As the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s chairman, Cornyn said he’s “just doing it all the time now, unfortunately.”

Still, he conceded that “the fun stuff makes it a little less painful.”

Cornyn’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas), said he prefers more traditional fundraisers to those with a more festive atmosphere.

“The best ones I’ve been to are the ones that I have engaged people on the communication and direction of our party. Those are my favorite ones,” he said.

Sessions said that before he was NRCC chairman, he held an annual fundraiser in late March to celebrate his birthday. The Dallas-based event usually was held in someone’s backyard.

“It gave me a chance to come home and give a Washington update,” he said.

Despite Sessions’ dislike of them, themed fundraisers have risen in popularity in recent years as lawmakers look to lure lobbyists and corporate types to functions on days when there might be more than a dozen competing events. House Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin (D-Mich.), for example, always hosts a March Madness fundraiser to accompany the college basketball tournament.

Rep. Joe Crowley has made his love of music a signature of his fundraisers. Most recently, the New York Democrat rocked out during a jam session at the Recording Industry Association of America. He also regularly hosts fundraisers at concerts by more famous musicians at the Verizon Center.

“Some people bring celebrities, some have their own celebrity. For me, I tend to focus on music because I love music,” Crowley said.

For the past 28 years, fellow New York Rep. Gary Ackerman (D) has brought the best his home state has to offer to Washington with his annual deli fundraiser. The event is catered by Ben’s Best Kosher Deli in Queens, and Ackerman even brings in the joint’s wait staff.

“I think it’s the most popular fundraiser in town,” Ackerman said, noting that Democrats and House staff from offices such as the Sergeant-at-Arms — who typically don’t go to fundraisers — attend.

The Congressman said his event draws hundreds of supporters and that in an unusual twist, K Street denizens actually pressure him for an invite.

“I have lobbyists lobbying me to find out when I am going to do my fundraiser,” Ackerman said.

Not all lawmakers can rely on such signature events to build up their campaign coffers. And some Members say they are struggling.

Rep. Kendrick Meek, who is in an uphill Senate race, said that raising money has gotten harder. “It’s rough out there to talk to donors who say things aren’t as great as they used to be,” the Florida Democrat said. “You tell them that you are going to work hard to turn that around.”

But even when they might face a tough crowd or an event they’d rather skip, vulnerable lawmakers sometimes have little choice if they want to fill their coffers.

The Blue Dog Coalition’s fiscally conservative Democrats, some of whom hail from Republican-leaning districts, in particular are noted for their willingness to chase the money, no matter the time or location.

“Blue Dogs will go anywhere to raise money: breakfast, lunch, dinner or brunch,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “The guys who really need money can’t be picky about where they go.”

House freshmen often stick closer to the Capitol, with Republicans favoring the private Capitol Hill Club and their colleagues across the aisle opting for the National Democratic Club for fundraising breakfasts and happy hours.

Republican Senators such as Charles Grassley (Iowa) and John McCain (Ariz.) favor the Monocle for fundraising events given the classic, if staid, venue’s proximity to their offices.

House GOPers have taken to Barracks Row eateries. House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) is known for holding court at Italian restaurant Trattoria Alberto.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) both prefer after-hours events. Hoyer in particular favors steakhouses such as Ruth’s Chris, according to several Democratic lobbyists. Known for chewing the fat, Schumer spends more time than most Members at smaller fundraisers.

The former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman doesn’t stick to surface discussions either, according to OB-C Group head Larry O’Brien, who is also a major Democratic donor.

“I think he comes to enjoy the conversation,” O’Brien said of Schumer. “He relishes getting into some really good back-and-forth discussion.”

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.