PhillyDeals: Lawyers debate candidates' prospects

Philadelphia lawyers are often prominent fund-raisers and apologists for both parties. Duane Morris L.L.P. Chairman John Soroko, a Republican, and firm partner Alan Kessler, a Democrat, met for breakfast at the Four Seasons on Tuesday to argue the prospects of this year's presidential challengers. Here are some excerpts:

Soroko: Alan's best friend, Bill Clinton, called Obama '08 a fairy tale. You're just not seeing that enthusiasm now. You knew this was going to be a tight election; you knew Obama had to go down from that point. When Obama goes down a few percentage points, Romney wins.

So the debates, they're just a pivot point for a recalculation of what people were going to do in the first place.

Q: Have Republicans convinced Jewish voters and donors that Obama is less committed to Israel?

Kessler: In the vice-presidential debate, Biden hit that issue head-on. The Iran sanctions, Biden said, it's working, what more could we do? Other than go to war. [Paul] Ryan didn't answer that question.

Soroko: This is weak foreign policy. We are not loved and we are not feared. We are losing at both ends. So Romney doesn't have to say a lot.

Q: Obama put old Clinton people to work on the economy; is Romney doing the same with people from the Bush administration who put us into the Afghanistan and Iraq wars?

Soroko: Obama has a confused world view; he has a more 'nuanced' view, and I use that term pejoratively. Look at South America. The New York Post had a picture of him smiling with [Hugo] Chavez.

Q: The Venezuelans voted Chavez back in. What should Romney or Obama do? Send troops?

Soroko: Don't pose with Chavez. Look, I'm a lawyer. I'm not a foreign policy expert. But imagery moves voters. A lot of voters are scared with the notion of Barack Obama being the chief defender of the United States of America. He doesn't seem to remember who the good guys are.

Kessler: When you talk about an aggressive posture, you're talking about wars, and the costs are enormous. . . . Romney is talking about an additional $2 trillion for defense that the Pentagon hasn't even asked for. If that's the only foreign-policy alternative you have, I don't know what more we can be doing, short of war. How it affects the economics of the country, you don't hear a great deal about.

Q: Can the United States police the world, without boosting taxes or trashing Medicare and Social Security?

Soroko: Obama said four years ago that we're at a breaking point, we have to find another way to grow, to succeed. He hasn't found that point. So people won't follow him. Now what?

Kessler: Obama has to make the case for himself . . . and draw attention to that Romney record. The guy was for abortion, now he's against. He was for Obamacare, now he's against.

Q: We hear Obama's fund-raising dinners in Philadelphia have been smaller. Is the money still coming in?

Kessler: You still have major donors. I can think of some guys . . . they were totally with Clinton, they liked Hillary, they don't particularly like this guy, but they can't help themselves.

The money is coming in. Even from the investment banks. Everybody covers their bets. Even the most conservative companies. They find a way. It doesn't always filter in directly. It can be the DNC, it can be these joint federal-state PACs or the super PACs. There are people who are blindly writing checks.


Opening at Penn

Kristin Gilbertson, chief investment officer for the University of Pennsylvania endowment - it's about $7 billion - has left the job she held since 2004. It was her decision, executive vice president Craig Carnaroli told me.

Gilbertson was brought to Philadelphia from Stanford to boost private investment holdings - hedge, buyout, venture, commodity, real estate funds - but moved slowly, she said, because good private assets were available only at high premium prices. So, when markets froze in 2008-09, Penn had enough easy-to-sell government bonds on hand that it could raise cash without big losses, as bigger Ivy League funds were forced to liquidate undervalued investments.

Despite that downside protection, Penn returns have trailed those for Harvard, Yale and Princeton, more often than not. But Carnaroli says Penn has lately been catching up as Gilbertson steadily bought those "illiquid" private assets and values are rising.

What's the job for Gilbertson's successor?

"Finding the diversification we want within the larger pool of capital will be the challenge," Carnaroli said. "We're looking for someone like Kristin - smart, with good instincts in asset allocation, portfolio management, relations with the board."


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194,, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.