For Democratic presidential candidates, Boston is the ATM kiosk on the way to New Hampshire. Massachusetts’s primary votes — few in number and late in the process — don’t mean much, but the Bay State’s deep-pocketed liberals dispense large quantities of cash that pays for the staff, offices, phone banks, and advertising necessary to win votes in Manchester and Keene, as well as in other early-voting states across the country.
Last go-round, most of the area’s big fundraisers made the easy choice to support their home-state senator John Kerry: 57 Bay Staters served as contribution “bundlers” for Kerry, including two dozen who raised $100,000 each. There were only rare exceptions — such as former DNC chair Steve Grossman, who signed on with Howard Dean.
This time, the choice is tougher. Kerry announced his decision not to join the presidential race on January 24, setting off a frenzy of phone calls between the Democratic candidates and the A-List Democratic fundraisers of Massachusetts.
The pace has been accelerated by the pressure on candidates to register impressive fundraising totals for the first reporting period of the year, which ends on March 31.
The major candidates — Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson — are all raising money in Beantown before that deadline. Obama slipped into town earlier this month for a breakfast fundraiser in Cambridge, and returned last week for a reported $2300-a-head gathering, both at supporters’ homes. Local attorney Alex MacDonald hosted a fundraising dinner for Edwards this month. Biden held a lunch at the Boston Harbor Hotel — at $500 for supporters and $1000 for benefactors — after attending Southie’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast on the 18th. The following day, Dodd was at Sonsie, where the minimum “suggested donation” was $1000. Richardson has a $1000-a-plate lunch at the Harvard Club scheduled for this Wednesday. And Friday evening, Clinton wraps up her first-quarter effort with a blow-out dinner at the Boston Park Plaza — donations starting at $1000.
This fluster of activity suggests just how much the candidates care about their upcoming first-quarter financial reports, which are due by April 15. It’s their first real test, and to pass it they need to not just outdo one another, but to prove they can compete in a front-loaded, national nomination contest, where nearly half the states, including California, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, and New York, could choose their delegates by early February 2008.
“The race is going to be over on February fifth,” says Thomas O’Neill III, head of O’Neill & Associates consulting firm, former lieutenant governor, son of the legendary US Speaker of the House, and a much sought-after fundraiser. “In order to be a legitimate candidate, these guys are going to need to have $25 to $35 million.”
Hence the fundraisers. But fundraisers don’t mean much without funders. So the heat has been on folks like O’Neill to pick a candidate early — not just to give their own money, but to raise it from others. “There’s a lot of pressure,” says Robert Crowe, CEO of WolfBlock Public Strategies, and co-chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2004. “Getting in early is great, you become part of the family.”
Put in the best light, fundraisers like O’Neill and Crowe, with their access, experiences, and insight, function as gatekeepers who select the best candidates to compete for the nomination.
In reality, though, many simply back candidates with whom they have personal relationships.
Kevin Phelan, a real-estate heavyweight who is supporting Dodd, concedes the point. “It’s not ideological, it’s purely personal,” Phelan says. “Chris and I started as freshmen at Providence College in 1962. We had dinner last year at our 40th reunion, and he asked me to help him out.”
The same goes for developer Richard Friedman’s support for Dodd, despite his well-known close relationship with the Clintons, whom he has hosted many times at his Martha’s Vineyard home and at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, which is one of his properties. “[Dodd] has been my best friend for a very long time; we’re dear, dear friends,” Friedman says.
Attorney Alex MacDonald sings the same tune. “I came to this [supporting Edwards] in a very personal, not political way,” says MacDonald. He met Edwards in early 2002, over dinner at a friend’s house, and came away impressed; he led Edwards’s Massachusetts team then and is doing so again.
This year, some are making that kind of personal-impression decision about Obama — and in some cases, turning against long-time friends in the process. The most-noted among this breed, perhaps, is Alan Solomont, local financier and major-league Democratic fundraiser. Solomont, who chaired John Kerry’s fundraising effort in ’04, has been close to the Clintons for years and was expected by many to join the Hillary effort, or, if he did shift, to deflect toward his former Tufts classmate Richardson. Instead, he joined the Obama bandwagon soon after Kerry made his announcement.