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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Key Donors Break Ranks, Criticize Gore

November 20, 2000|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Democrats' top donor is disappointed in Vice President Al Gore's conduct since the presidential election and believes that the candidate bears responsibility for the stalemate because he failed to give Americans a "compelling reason" to choose him.

And Peter Buttenwieser, whose $1.3 million in donations put him at the top of the list of individual donors to the election--Democrat or Republican--is apparently not alone. While much of the Democratic establishment has been presenting a united front during the Florida recount, several of Gore's biggest contributors and fund-raisers are quietly or openly expressing dissatisfaction with him, blaming him for the murky outcome.

Among Republicans, donors are apparently still united in supporting Texas Gov. George W. Bush's call to end the voting and declare a victory. "I think it's time to bring it to a conclusion," said Howard Leach, a veteran GOP major donor and a San Francisco investment banker.

"I'd do anything if I thought I could help," said Bradford Freeman, a Los Angeles merchant banker who is a donor and leading fund-raiser for Bush.

Among critical Democrats, no one was more sweeping in his criticism than Buttenwieser: "My own feeling is that Gore had a really terrific chance to win, and I think he squandered that chance.

"We ran a bad campaign at virtually every level."

Buttenwieser, heir to a New York financial fortune who works as a consultant to struggling urban schools, scolded the camps of Gore and Bush for fomenting division and partisanship. Neither candidate, he stressed, has exhibited the statesmanship required at such a moment.

Other Democratic donors stayed with the party songbook by expressing support for Gore's behavior thus far, but stressing that it will soon be time to stop.

"I am supportive of what's happened so far in the process," said Marvin Lender, the retired bagel magnate who emerged as a substantial donor and fund-raiser for the Democrats after Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut was added to the ticket. "But I think at some point it has to come to an end, and it needs to be relatively soon."

To be fair, many GOP and Democratic donors echoed their candidate's spin meisters, and all of them expressed hope that their guy would pull it out.

The opinions of donors and fund-raisers may not diverge substantially from the views of average voters, but the difference is that the financial backers can pick up the phone and get their message through to the candidate's team.

Large individual donors play a particularly key role in the Democratic Party because Democrats rely on a relatively small number of very rich contributors for an unusually large piece of their financial pie. Republicans draw proportionately more of their support from more numerous corporate donors.

Access does not guarantee impact. Buttenwieser told his concerns to the Gore camp that "you have to give people a compelling, passionate reason to vote for you as well as knocking down the other guy."

But "they ignored it," he added. "The campaign was really quite rejecting and disdainful."

Buttenwieser pointed to the at least three seats that Democrats picked up in the Senate as proof that the Democratic message is a winning one if communicated by an effective politician.

Steve Grossman, a former member of Congress who is running for governor of Massachusetts, said he is trying learn a lesson from Gore's disappointing showing.

"The American people . . . want a candidate who looks them in the eye and says this is who I am and this is what I stand for," said Grossman, a sizable donor, big fund-raiser and former Democratic National Committee chairman.

Many Democratic donors and fund-raisers believe their stake in this election is particularly dramatic because they gave so much that they neutralized money as a factor in the race, and they did so despite the fact that some considered Gore a mediocre candidate.

Money often has been a factor in elections because Republicans traditionally out-raise Democrats by significant amounts. The key to the Democrats' near-parity was massive funding by donors whose contributions surpassed a half-million dollars.

Democratic donors conceded that they have already given up on the possibility of passing much of Gore's agenda, even if he emerges as the victor after a hand count.

"This election was a virtual tie," said Alan Solomont, a major donor and leading fund-raiser for the Democrats and a former DNC finance chairman. "This was decided within the margin of error. The next president, whoever he is, is going to have to look at this in a different way. It is going to be incumbent upon the leaders in each branch not to look for a mandate for a partisan platform but to work across the aisle to follow the will of the people."

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