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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Fund-Raiser Comes Out From the Shadows

Terry McAuliffe, usually a behind-the-scenes operator, speaks from the podium in his role as chairman of the Democratic convention committee.

August 15, 2000|SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Democratic National Convention opened Monday afternoon, Terry McAuliffe stepped onto the stage and into the limelight, unusual territory for the behind-the-scenes mastermind of the party's fund-raising tactics.

"We Democrats here may be meeting in the home of Hollywood, but the Philadelphia Republicans delivered an Oscar-caliber performance," he said. "The whole thing was a show, a sham, and a shell game. . . . [Bush's speech] reminded me of a Texas longhorn: two points with a lot of bull in between."

But speeches are tame fare for McAuliffe, whose daredevil nature is near legendary within the Democratic Party.

He once wrestled an alligator at a 1986 Seminole festival in Florida just to secure a $15,000 contribution.

"I'll try anything once," the 43-year-old said with a grin. Last week he tried his hand at surfing in a stunt to bring attention to the convention. Security experts ruled out his first choice for a stunt: parachuting over Staples Center.

But there's more to McAuliffe. The New York native is a party power broker with close ties to the president. He has an uncanny ability for raising money and a deep love of the Democratic Party.

Critics say he exemplifies big money politics. But there is also little doubt that McAuliffe, who first went door to door to collect campaign checks when he was in elementary school, provided a badly needed spark to the convention committee he has chaired in Los Angeles since June.

While working behind the scenes to secure millions of dollars from wealthy businesspeople and elected officials, he has been highly visible in front, motivating staff members in the weeks leading up to the convention with his trademark "Are you pumped?" and shaking hands with starry-eyed volunteers.

He has also worked hard to get the word out to Angelenos about the convention coming to town.

"Every night I'd go to dinner and I'd say to the waitress or waiter, 'Are you excited about the upcoming convention?' " he recalled.

McAuliffe's drive is hard to ignore. He has not only raised money and awareness but also has overseen every effort to ensure that the convention is launched without a hitch.

"He sets a goal and always gets the ball over that goal," said Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, who has worked closely with McAuliffe on convention issues.

Some Angelenos privately say that dealing with McAuliffe is like dealing with a pit bull when the chairman feels things aren't going his way, however.

"Under that wonderful exterior, he's a real tough man," said one observer. "But in politics, there are unbelievable egos and no greater concentration of egos than at the convention. He has to make them all feel important and yet run the ship and achieve the goal the vice president wants. It takes someone who, one, has that great charm and skill, and two, is tough as nails."

Those same traits are what make him so successful at fund-raising, his supporters say.

"He made it a lot easier, raising money from sources we might not have gotten," Riordan said.

McAuliffe isn't paid for his fund-raising efforts. Still, the entrepreneur who started his first business tarring driveways in Onondaga County, N.Y., at age 14 is wealthy. He won't disclose his net worth but credits his fortune to lucky investments, which have included buying and selling more than two dozen companies.

That skill at making money has translated well to his political efforts, supporters say.

"He's definitely the Hank Aaron of Democratic fund-raisers," said political consultant Bill Carrick, who worked with McAuliffe on several campaigns.

But the executive director of one group monitoring campaign financing said McAuliffe also exemplifies what is wrong with the system.

"There are two problems," said Ellen Miller, executive director of Public Campaign, based in Washington. For one, Miller said, his fund-raising puts him in contact with people who could benefit him businesswise, "opportunities for personal enrichment not available to others."

Secondly, "he appears to sell the party to the highest bidders," Miller said.

McAuliffe called those charges ludicrous, saying he already has all the contacts he needs. He also supports ending big-ticket, "soft money" fund-raising, provided that others do the same.

Despite his high profile, there has been little public controversy over McAuliffe's dealings, although his financial help to the Clintons to secure their New York home mortgage generated headlines.

"To this day, I'm shocked by the hubbub around that. I mean, that was worldwide news," he said.

McAuliffe put $1.3 million into an interest-bearing account to provide assurance that a mortgage loan to the Clintons would be secure. His lawyers and those at the White House reviewed the arrangement to ensure that it was legal, he said. Ultimately, the bank said it would no longer require the collateral.

He talks to the president almost daily, he says, and the two are extremely close. Yet he insists he does not lobby Clinton and knows little about legislation.

McAuliffe says he has become more selective over the years about granting favors. He says it was only Gore's plea for him to run the convention committee that convinced him to take the job.

He has been going at it with gusto ever since. And that, he says, includes getting on a surfboard.

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