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National Perspective | Politics

Democratic Fund-Raising King Has 26 Million Reasons to Gloat

Brash, unapologetic Terry McAuliffe helps party raise 'greatest amount of money ever.' Critics decry 'political extortion.'

May 23, 2000|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Even on an average day, Terry McAuliffe is exuberant. But these days, the Democrats' fund-raising master can barely contain himself.

After six weeks of making 200 telephone calls a day, attending happy-hour rallies with small-time fund-raisers and wooing new high-dollar givers at intimate dinners, McAuliffe is on track to raise $26 million at a blue-jeans-and-barbecue event at a downtown sports arena Wednesday night--"the greatest amount of money ever in the history of American politics."

Wearing a black golf shirt from an Irish pub, McAuliffe gleefully reported this feat last week to a genteel group of longtime Democratic supporters meeting in a turn-of-the-century Dupont Circle mansion.

Then, turning to leave for another dinner where he would woo a likely big-money contributor, McAuliffe added: "Get those checkbooks out!"

Parties Raise Record Amounts of Cash

The manic pace and unrivaled success of this Democratic volunteer (he no longer officially works for the Democratic Party) reflect a watershed year for political fund-raisers--and, say critics of the system, for American politics.

Record levels of money are pouring into campaigns. And fund-raisers are asking for larger contributions than ever before--and getting them in spades.

Republicans broke all previous fund-raising records--and left many political observers shaking their heads in disbelief--when they raised $21.3 million at a black-tie gala last month.

That the Democrats are, according to McAuliffe, about to collect even more calls attention to the extent of the financial arms race.

Although a $100,000 contribution was a benchmark in the last presidential election, this time around fund-raisers are collecting scores of checks for $250,000 and more from those who want to qualify as political players.

For Wednesday night's event at Washington's MCI Center, no fewer than 25 people raised or donated at least $500,000, McAuliffe said.

By March, unregulated "soft money" donations to both parties were soaring, with Democratic totals nearly matching Republicans' for the first time.

Many Factors Cited for Increased Spending

Democrats had raised about $78 million, fully double what they had raised by this time in the 1996 election, and the Republicans had collected roughly $80 million--a 60% increase over March 1996.

Officials of both parties say that the record-setting inflow reflects enthusiasm for their candidates and their platforms, but the reality is more complicated.

Among the numerous factors are the country's economic boom, Republicans' desperation to recapture the White House, the close presidential contest, contributors' concerns over future appointments to the Supreme Court, raw "donation inflation," and gratitude to and antipathy for President Clinton.

Not to mention the evergreen desire of many contributors to have a voice in policy decisions, whether for personal, business, or ideological reasons.

But proponents of campaign finance reform see more evidence of a campaign finance system that is out of control.

"This is just raw greed on the part of the solicitors, and it is corrupting," said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime leader in the effort to reform the nation's campaign finance laws.

"When you're dealing with $250,000 and $500,000 campaign contributions you are flatly dealing with influence-buying and -selling and with political extortion."

Wednesday's extravaganza, which is the Democrat National Committee's premier fund-raising event of the campaign, is billed as a tribute to President Clinton, who has made increasing donations to his party a personal priority.

Given that Clinton and McAuliffe have reinvented Democratic fund-raising, it is fitting that the Democrats' blockbuster event is dedicated to Clinton and managed by McAuliffe.

On the Phone and Really Selling It

He remains one of the president's closest friends and one of Washington's most thoroughly wired political and business operatives.

In a disheveled corner office at DNC headquarters one day last week, McAuliffe and several others, including current and former DNC officials, worked the phones at a table heaped with lists of names and numbers, showing how $26 million is raised.

Faced with what many would consider a daunting task, the callers appeared driven by a mix of humor, commitment, swagger and chutzpah.

"I want to ask you a question," McAuliffe told one donor on the phone. "If the world blew up tomorrow would you do 500?" meaning $500,000.

Among themselves, the group brainstormed about which wealthy Democrats to "cold call" and whether a particular contributor could "do" "fifty" ($50,000), "a hundred," "two-fifty" or even "five hundred."

Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) dialed the numbers of several millionaire and billionaire acquaintances.

Aides chased down numbers while phones rang with return calls from high-tech entrepreneurs, stock market wizards and entertainment moguls. McAuliffe, rocking back in a rocking chair wearing a telephone headset, made one pitch after another.

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