Area fund-raisers courted by political heavies

To most voters in the Philadelphia region, the 2008 presidential candidates at this point are distant figures on CNN.

But to a select group, the candidates are Hillary, Rudy, Bill, Barack, Mitt and John. Some even have their private cell-phone numbers.

Who are these people? Fund-raisers, the presidential candidate's best friend.

For months, a dozen or so heavy hitters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey - those influential people capable of tapping networks to get bundles of cash - have been courted and coaxed by the candidates. They've been invited to private meetings, asked what they think about Iraq and campaign strategy, given inside polling data.

Money people are always in demand, but there's a special urgency. The Democratic and Republican nominations are likely to be decided by Feb. 5, when as many as 22 states, including New Jersey, plan to hold primaries at once.

"When you call, some people say, 'Geez, it's so early, why are we doing this now?' " said lawyer Alan J. Kessler, who is raising cash for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.). "The way the primaries are set up, it's not all that early. It's late."

All the campaigns are pushing to raise as much as possible by tomorrow's deadline for second-quarter campaign-finance reports.

Although some fund-raisers may harbor private thoughts of being named an ambassador or given a presidential appointment, it's considered gauche to speak of such things. Most say they do it out of a sense of idealism, a love of the game, or for the ego-gratifying prospect of being part of history.

Consider the fund-raising duo of Mark Aronchick and Richard Schiffrin, two high-powered Democratic lawyers who brought former President Bill Clinton to Schiffrin's house in Wynnewood on June 10 to raise $650,000 for Sen. Clinton's campaign.

"There's no pay-to-play," Schiffrin said. "I don't want a cabinet position, I don't need an office in the West Wing. I'm doing this . . . to try to improve the country."

He added, "I don't want to make myself sound holier-than-thou; it's also fun."

In October, Schiffrin and Aronchick were without a horse. They had been raising Pennsylvania money for former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who had just dropped out of the race.

"Richard and I got immediately swooped on," Aronchick said.

They shared a car ride with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama from 30th Street Station to a Center City event in February. Aronchick had a quiet dinner with Sen. Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) at the Prime Rib in Rittenhouse Square, and a two-hour lunch with John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and the Democrats' 2004 nominee for vice president.

Aronchick and Schiffrin met Hillary Clinton when she was in town in March, and visited her again in Washington before joining up.

"I've been at this too long, so it's not a starstruck thing for me," said Aronchick, an early backer of Howard Dean's in 2004. "She blew us out of the room. She's brilliant. . . . I go with my instincts."

He also did a lot of research, talking to pols and pollsters he knows. In many ways, political fund-raisers are like picky investors.

"I was prepared to throw substantial financial support behind the candidate I thought could win," Schiffrin said. "I wasn't kidding around."

Steve Cozen, founder of the Cozen O'Connor law firm and a big Democratic funder, thinks that Obama is light on experience and that Clinton is too calculating.

He backs New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former congressman, diplomat and cabinet officer, and has raised about $150,000 for him. He also helped bring in about $100,000 for longtime friend Sen. Joe Biden (D., Del.), a virtual favorite son.

Through March 31, the last date for which federal campaign-finance reports are available, Pennsylvania ranked 13th as a source of presidential funds, while New Jersey ranked ninth, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

The mother-lode zip codes in Pennsylvania: 19103, Center City; 19085, Villanova; 19010, Bryn Mawr; 19041, Haverford; 19096, Wynnewood. The top zip codes in New Jersey? Four northern suburbs of New York, and Princeton.

A good portion of Pennsylvania's GOP establishment - and the network of fund-raisers and organizers allied with former Gov. Tom Ridge - signed on early with Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Leslie Gromis Baker, a lobbyist and top Ridge aide, is running the effort.

But former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also are gaining.

In Southeastern Pennsylvania, Manny Stamatakis heads Giuliani's fund-raising, with help from Bob Asher, the Montgomery County power broker who is on the Republican National Committee.

Stamatakis, a longtime GOP fund-raiser, became convinced that Giuliani was the most electable.

"His leadership skills, that's what sold me," said Stamatakis, who organized three events for Giuliani on June 14 that raised an estimated $590,000. He also believes, as other GOP leaders do, that Giuliani's moderate social views would make him competitive in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Others lean to Romney, a GOP success story in the most Democratic state, as the most electable. It took veteran fund-raiser Charlie Kopp 45 minutes last fall to become convinced. He'd never met Romney, but a Boston friend Kopp knew from Bob Dole's campaigns urged him to meet the governor.

Romney came to Philadelphia for a meeting and Kopp introduced him to business leaders. No hard sell yet. But on June 1, Kopp organized two events for Romney, one in Wynnewood, one in Wilmington, that raised about $500,000.

"He talked not like a governor, but like an expert consultant," said Kopp, general chairman of the Wolf Block law firm. Plus, "on television this guy looks like Ronald Reagan."


Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.