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So-called bundlers also contributed heavily to both. These ultimate political insiders, who collect donations from wealthy friends, business associates and other contacts, locally included Hollywood moguls David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, both of whom have raised at least $500,000 for Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt insists to L.A. Weekly that such big money — there are prominent versions of Geffen and Katzenberg in virtually every U.S. city — will not unduly influence Obama since “more than 3.1 million Americans” have given an average contribution of $86.
That’s been a great spin for the man the polls say is the presidential favorite. But in fact, only a quarter of his mountain of cash came from donors giving $200 or less. Washington Post reporters Sarah Cohen and Andrew Mosk caused something of a sensation in late October with their investigation showing that Obama was actually beaten by George W. Bush in 2004 in the percentage of money raised from small donors.
The implications of that fact have yet to sink in. “Ideally, contributions would come from Joe the Plumber,” says Hodson, “but more realistically, big-money donors make the major contributions.”
LaBolt says the shift in Obama’s fund-raising, from little guys to huge, will not change the senator’s plans to take on the loophole-filled fund-raising system. The spokesman cites Obama’s work with Russ Feingold to pass a law signed by President Bush last year that requires congressional lobbyists to disclose who they bundle money for.
And Nyhart of Public Campaign sees small donors as a new kind of pressure group that will create a “check” against an Obama administration, steering it away from business as usual even if the president falters. Says Nyhart, “If Obama ends up doing special-interest favors, it will create an intense conflict.”
Other experts aren’t so sure. Israel of the Center for Public Integrity says, “He’s still going to owe big-money donors.”
Whalen of the Hoover Institute adds, “I’m a skeptic. An Obama presidency could be different, but I don’t see it. ...He hasn’t shown he’s uncomfortable with big money, He’s not a puritan on the money issue.”
Yet Hodson, who worked in the California Legislature for 20 years, thinks concerns about big-money donors are overblown — for a reason most voters might find discomfiting. Presidential candidates are so mired in huge contributions, he says, that no specific fat cat can command the stage. “In the ’50s, major contributors could say they gave the most money and then try to ask for something,” Hodson says. “No one has quite the same clout as they once did.”
However, Hodson acknowledges, “There will be low-lying fruit going to big donors,” often in the form of an ambassadorship. “If you go down the line,” agrees Bill Whalen, “they are usually fat-cat picks.”
President Ronald Reagan awarded Ronald Lauder, the billionaire heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune, the ambassadorship in Austria. President Bill Clinton picked for ambassador of Austria oil heiress Swanee Hunt. And President George W. Bush rewarded California billionaire Roger Arnall with the ambassadorship in the Netherlands.
“I find it hard to believe that any of those millions of [small donors] will get an ambassadorship” from Obama, says Josh Israel. “I also find it hard to believe that none of the bundlers will get an ambassadorship.”
Top contributors are often treated to a board membership at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, trips on Air Force One and overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom. But the real influence can come from appointments to sometimes important commissions. “It would be an enormous change if Obama chose not to pay back big-money supporters in any of those ways,” Israel adds.
Israel says the Center for Public Integrity and other good-government groups will be watching closely. “You would want to see who his big appointments are, and how many of them are bundlers. That’ll be a pretty obvious sign that things haven’t changed too much.”
On the other hand, Obama can signal change by resisting the temptation to form mysterious, controversial, closed-door task forces similar to President George W. Bush’s “National Energy Policy Development Group,” which was created the second week Bush took office, was chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney, and met secretly with big-oil executives from Exxon-Mobil, Conoco and the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Corporation. “Obama can say he won’t do that,” Hodson says. “He can set the tone.”
While major oil companies, which did not contribute huge sums to the Obama campaign, probably won’t be demanding a presidential task force if Obama wins the White House, other wealthy supporters almost certainly will be calling with their wish lists.
Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles–based Center for Governmental Studies, says watch for labor unions, trial lawyers and Wall Street executives to aggressively lead that charge if Obama is elected — not to mention the honchos at Fannie Mae, who might go in the other direction, resisting a commission investigation into the disastrous lending practices and alleged cover-up of bad loans, which fed the subprime-mortgage debacle and led to the ouster of top Fannie Mae executives.