Crashing the Party

There’s blood on Park Avenue this summer, shed in an all-out civil war whose front cuts through East Side duplexes, Hamptons mansions, and Wall Street boardrooms. Husbands are arrayed against wives, close business allies find themselves leading opposing armies, and double agents are playing both sides against the middle. Al Gore and Bill Bradley have come to town, both looking for dollars, and the battle for campaign cash is turning into an all-out Democratic showdown. New York, particularly Wall Street, represents the mother lode for campaign fund-raisers, and no local Democrat with deep pockets will be allowed the luxury of remaining neutral. Iowa and New Hampshire voters will get their VIP treatment later this year, but for now the only primary that matters is the money primary, the earliest skirmish in Campaign 2000. Last week, Gore managed to win – and simultaneously still lose – a significant contest when the candidates revealed their first-six-month numbers. The vice-president announced a formidable-sounding $18.2 million campaign war chest. But in politics as on Wall Street, expectations matter far more than raw figures. That’s why Bradley, whose candidacy was ridiculed by insiders just a few short months ago, has won a huge psychological victory by pulling in $11.5 million, enough to guarantee a serious challenge. (Of course, they both look like pikers compared with a certain Republican governor from Texas whose six-month score is already well over $36 million!)

To make matters worse for Gore, Bradley seems to be sweeping people off their feet, attracting supporters whose enthusiasm and evangelism make Gore’s stalwarts look stodgy. Indeed, Bradley’s $7.5 million take over the past three months nearly equals Gore’s $9 million.

“I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people with the money we’ve raised,” Bradley told a rapt crowd at a fund-raiser at the Harmonie Club last Monday. He compared the early months of the campaign to “playing a basketball game without a scoreboard.” Now the world can see he’s very much in the game, and that translates into more dollars. “This shows people they’re not alone,” he told me later. “If they’ve been intimidated not to give to me, they can have the courage to do it now.”

Incredibly, the notoriously unexciting Bradley has become the race’s charismatic leader, something that could happen only in a field where Al Gore is the front-runner. Bradley, a former U.S. senator, has even managed to cultivate the image of an insurgent, albeit an embarrassingly safe one. He seems to fill the role of romantic rebel for comfortable boomers who want to relive the rebelliousness of youth, but without shaking things up too much. “There’s this underground movement for Bradley, real grassroots pressure,” says Gail Koff, an undecided Democrat and founding partner of the law firm Jacoby & Meyers. At the insistent urging of friends, she stopped by the Harmonie Club to hear Bradley’s pitch. “I thought I’d be raising money for Gore by now, but I’ve been pressured by several different people to give Bradley a chance.”

The Bradley campaign’s upstart, anti-Establishment edge is reminiscent – at least for Democrats of a certain age – of 1968, when they went “Clean for Gene,” or Teddy Kennedy’s roisterous challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980. An electric fourth-quarter-at-the-Garden magic follows the shambling underdog, even when he isn’t saying much at all. And though the Gore campaign can count on the traditional party machinery that’s still closely tied to the White House, the Bradleyites are making inroads where it hurts: among the wealthy Manhattan elites who can help finance a nationwide campaign.

Gore has built a formidable New York money machine, orchestrated by a highly ambitious team of Wall Street wizards. Peter Knight, the Washington lawyer-lobbyist who is one of Gore’s closest friends, came to New York eighteen months ago and organized a meeting of recruits at the Sky Club. To harness the natural competitiveness of New York’s leading moneymen, the campaign has developed an elaborate scorekeeping mechanism to make sure fund-raisers get credit for each check raised, as if amassing frequent-flier mileage redeemable for such future rewards as an ambassadorship or a White House dinner. “We keep a list, we know who’s No. 1,” says a prominent Gore-campaign insider. “People do compete against each other, and we encourage that.”

The area’s “team leaders,” nearly all veterans of past Clinton-Gore campaigns, are well-known names from the business pages: venture capitalist Alan Patricof, Lazard Frères deputy chief executive Steven Rattner, Loews Hotels president Jonathan Tisch, Paul Beirne of Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, ICG Communications chief executive J. Shelby Bryan, Allen & Company’s Stan Shuman, and hedge-fund manager Orin Kramer. While there are women involved in the Gore effort, the widespread perception is that this clique of guys is running the show.

The Bradley campaign, on the other hand, has proved adept at recruiting political newcomers like designer Tommy Hilfiger, who had never previously backed a candidate when he hosted a June fund-raiser for Bradley at his Greenwich home, and Spike Lee, who is planning a Bradley fund-raiser at his New York townhouse later this year. (Rallying novices, however, has its downside: $50,000 worth of checks received by the Bradley camp to date have either bounced or been returned for violating campaign laws.)

Ironically, the current fund-raising fandango is really a battle over chump change: Presidential candidates can accept only $1,000 per person for primaries. The last time Democrats were being pressured to write such small checks for a national campaign was in 1992, when cell phones were still a novelty. In recent years, to the dismay of campaign reformers, the national Democratic and Republican parties have been fixated on hitting up wealthy donors for “soft money,” checks that can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars for so-called issue ads that run once the party nominee is chosen. “It’s a lot easier to ask one person for $50,000 than 50 people for $1,000,” says Gore supporter Alan Patricof. “People used to giving large sums don’t think $1,000 is meaningful.”

At such small increments, it takes enough phone calls to blow the circuits on a speed-dialer to build a $33.5 million war chest, the maximum that the law allows candidates like Gore and Bradley, who accept federal matching funds, to spend. But the checks do add up, and being able to bring in $100,000 can make you very popular with the candidate. “The role of the fund-raiser has replaced the role of the donor at the top of the food chain,” says Fred Wertheimer, director of the campaign-reform group Democracy 21. “People know that this is the way to go if you’re interested in power, influence over government decisions, or government positions.”

Of course, it would be crude – and borderline illegal – to discuss such quids pro quo in public. But that doesn’t mean people don’t think about it constantly. Thanks to Gore’s front-runner status, there’s fierce behind-the-scenes jockeying among donors for position. Every time the vice-president comes to New York, event planners are deluged with calls from people demanding a good table or else. “I get calls the next day, no matter what,” says one weary ego-wrangler, adding that the most difficult people to deal with are the insecure ones near the bottom of the campaign-finance food chain.

The Bradley campaign doesn’t give fund-raisers a script; they improvise their own pitches. “I tell people that I think Bill has a better chance of beating the Republican nominee, since Bill can draw crossover Republicans,” says Len Riggio. Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg says he stresses that Bradley may not be glamorous but is a man of character: “You can trust him. He’s not a conventional politician; he doesn’t stroke you. Maybe it’s time to get rid of sound bites, images, marketing and go for substance.” Azenberg, who met Bradley back in his Knicks days, has organized a number of Broadway fund-raisers for him over the years and is joining this fall with Roger Berlind and Rocco Landesman to host a benefit performance of Kiss Me Kate.

With all the activity and all the millions pouring in, there’s still a dutiful, even depressed feeling hanging over the Gore money machine. It’s as if Democratic givers bequeathed their hearts to Bill Clinton and now, they guess, they have to at least empty their wallets for his chosen heir. Why back Al? His allies say Gore’s a decent, reliable guy; it’s his turn; he’ll make a good status quo president – but they don’t talk about him with passion. As one Gore aficionado quips, “This is not the civil-rights movement.”

Sure, Gore got a rousing welcome at his June 17 fund-raiser at the elegant Pierre Hotel, but the crowd of $1,000 donors was supplemented with hospital workers from Local 1199, most of whom were comped. (Gore, like Bradley, refuses to accept pac contributions.) The crowd surged toward the rope line to shake Gore’s hand as if he were Leo DiCaprio. Jubilant supporters high-fived one another after his rally-the-troops stump speech, yelling out “It’s Albert unchained” and “He’s his own man now.”

But at the bar outside the ballroom, environmental lawyer Steven Russo bemoaned the difficulties of getting his friends to write checks. “It’s tough being the front-runner – he isn’t seen as new or as fresh as Bill Bradley,” said Russo, whose buddies claim their donations won’t make a difference, so why bother? “People say Gore is so big, he’s vice-president, he doesn’t need me.” Indeed, the $1,000 donors didn’t get any face time with Gore that night. That honor was reserved for 150 New Yorkers who had either raised from $10,000 to $100,000 or were seen as hot prospects to do so soon.

What’s poignant about watching Gore work a room is that no matter how hard he tries to connect with people, he’s damned by the inevitable comparisons to Mr. Charisma himself, Bill Clinton. Gore gave a moving speech at the small dinner about his commitment to improve race relations, describing the sobering experience, back when he was a boy, of visiting an old Tennessee mansion with his father and seeing slave rings in the basement. But afterward, people seemed disappointed, as if they hadn’t emotionally gotten what they came for.

“Al Gore is an idea guy,” says Deborah Alter, an environmental activist who attended the dinner, adding wistfully, “The president has such charisma, he uses it to draw people in.” Other guests noted that Clinton would have known the name of every person in the room; Gore, eleven years after his first New York campaign in the abortive 1988 primary, still had to be introduced. “He’s just so physically uncomfortable that people aren’t sure he knows them,” says a Gore sympathizer active in national politics. “He winked at me, but with others the warmth wasn’t there.” The press corps, herded to the side, joked about the lack of electricity in the room – or as one news-magazine reporter quipped, “What’s the difference between a Gore event and a Clinton event? No cleavage.”

In an effort to give the impression that he loves New York almost as much as Hillary Clinton does, the vice-president opened a three-person branch office on West 45th Street back in February, and he and Tipper have dropped by the city twice in just the past two weeks. Last Wednesday, Al mingled with Internet entrepreneurs and invited ubiquitous Clinton fan Harvey Weinstein of Miramax and about 50 other CEOs to drop by NYU for an afternoon get-together. Tipper probably had more fun, hosting a gay-and-lesbian fund-raiser at the National Arts Club (a few protesters nothwithstanding).

But Al and his wife are simply not in a position to spend all their time making new friends these days, so campaign insiders are trying to stress all the other fun people you can meet if you join the Gore team. Fund-raisers, in other words, are good places to network. Indeed, the first New York meeting of GoreNet, a group for young professionals, took place at the Tribeca Film Center last week. Morton “Tim” Fry, a New York entertainment lawyer and an organizer of a lawyers’ group for the vice-president, says, “The allure of campaign events is not just Gore but the quality of the people he’s attracting. It’s cool to be out at a dinner with many of these people.”

A member of the Gore staff puts it this way: “No one’s under the illusion that if they write a $1,000 check they’ll spend quality time with the vice-president. But they might spend quality time with Orin Kramer or Steve Rattner.” That might be more interesting than watching Al dance the Macarena, but Kramer sounds amused by the notion that people might want to curry favor with him. Still, he’s well aware that many donors do have an angle. One money manager told him, “I’ll get involved because I hope I’ll meet a bunch of wealthy people who’ll become investors for me.” Kramer remains dubious. “That’s a poor use of his time,” he says. “People don’t get investors through politics.”

Kramer tasted White House power twenty years ago as a member of Jimmy Carter’s domestic-policy staff, and he has no interest in going back, so now his motivation comes from a lifelong allegiance to the party and the sheer fun of being a player. At the Gore Wall Street rally on June 17, the lanky Kramer plucked whistles and a placard from protesters, throwing himself into the effort like an eager new volunteer.

Steve Rattner, who is stepping down as deputy chief executive at Lazard Frères to become the company’s deputy chairman in September, is often portrayed as wanting to be the next Bob Rubin, but those who know Rattner well say that his reasons for getting involved in the Gore campaign are more complicated, reflecting a mixture of personal loyalty to the vice-president and fidelity to centrist Democratic politics. “I have no idea what I’m going to do next,” says Rattner of his professional life. “I could do something else in the next eighteen months that would preclude Washington. And going to Washington is less intriguing after watching people like Dick Holbrooke get chewed up.”

But all speculation about anyone’s job prospects is academic at this point. First Gore has to win, and the job of calling around to ask for money is a thankless one, so the Gore campaign has tried to make it into a competitive game by creating detailed rules for keeping score. Gore’s fund-raisers get credit in a kind of pyramid scheme for every check that can be linked back to them. As a result, people are fighting over checks, yelling at each other, “I brought that money in.”

The system works this way: Zagat Guide’s Tim Zagat and New Line’s Robert Friedman both received calls this year from Jonathan Tisch asking them to give money to Gore and call their friends. “Jonathan asks me for something, I do it,” says Zagat. Similarly, Friedman says, “I’ve called ten or twenty people.” Under the Gore bookkeeping formula, Tisch will be credited with any checks these men bring in, since he made the initial calls. But Zagat and Friedman would also get their own gold stars in this double-entry system. The highly competitive Tisch declined to be interviewed. A spokeswoman said he turns down all requests to discuss his political activities. (His reticence is not surprising, given the Tisch family’s ownership of Lorillard tobacco, makers of Newport and Kent cigarettes, and Gore’s recent record as an anti-smoking crusader.)

The Bradley campaign has a less formal way of keeping track of who’s doing the most work. “We don’t do elaborate scorekeeping,” scoffs Lou Susman. “Gore’s donors are lobbyists and Washington-lawyer types, people who are looking for favors. A substantial number of our donors are independents, Republicans, people looking for something fresh.”

Crashing the Party