A master turns the glass on fund-raising
Tuesday, May 20, 1997
By GUY GUGLIOTTA
Washington Post News Service
WASHINGTON -- The first thing Robert G. Torricelli did when he decided to run for Congress was write down the names of everyone he had ever known. His mother was first, followed by his father. Beside his parents' names he wrote "$1,000."
Next came friends from the neighborhood, for "considerably less," Torricelli said, but he pressed on. "It took hours," he remembered, but as a young political operative he knew that money and the ability to raise it were critical prerequisites in modern campaigning.
Today, freshman Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., elected in 1996 after 14 years in the House, is a recognized master who lectures on fund-raising to would-be candidates at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he is vice chairman.
In response to a request, he agreed to describe in detail his techniques and how they served him in his 1996 campaign. Former Rep. Dick Zimmer of Hunterdon County declined a similar request.
What Torricelli provided was a look inside modern campaign finance and a primer on how one politician used a life's worth of friendships, political alliances, policy positions, votes, and ideological biases to raise millions. "You are building a corporation in a matter of months," he said. "And you are testing it on a single day."
He had contacts in the defense industry, in an Indianapolis insurance company, in a New Orleans oil company, and in the office of the Virgin Islands governor. "All I ask is that you open your home, have some friends or associates in, and I'll do the rest," Torricelli said.
Torricelli raised $399,000 in South Florida, mostly among Cuban-American supporters of anti-Castro policies he developed. He also raised money from Portuguese-Americans, Greek-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, and Iranian-Americans.
Torricelli attended more than 300 fund-raisers in a campaign that began in August 1995, and spent three hours on the telephone every day asking for money. The goal was to spend $1 for every $20 raised.
Polls show most voters distrust politicians and the money that supports them, and Torricelli agrees with many of his congressional colleagues that the system "collapsed" in 1996, succumbing to millions of dollars in unregulated party "soft money" and special interest expenditures.
Campaign finance abuse and excess have triggered multiple inquiries into the Clinton administration's fund-raising methods. Campaign funding also lies at the heart of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethics difficulties.
While few of the questionable practices may involve crimes, the scandals of 1996 have enhanced the appearance of corruption in the system and prompted lawmakers to introduce several reform proposals: set spending limits, abolish soft money, and limit interest group participation in campaigns.
None of these proposals is advancing as each party tries to protect its stake in the status quo. In this ambience, Torricelli is a realist who makes no apologies for his expertise in navigating the system. In fact, he says, the ability to dive into the swamp and survive is almost a rite of political passage. "We make hard decisions in Congress," Torricelli said. "I'd like to know that everybody walked through fire to get here."
With party help, a dead heat
Torricelli defeated Zimmer 1,519,328 votes to 1,227,817. Torricelli estimates about $12.5 million was spent on his behalf, including $9.2 million he raised personally. Zimmer personally raised $8.2 million, Federal Election Commission records show, but with a helping hand from the national GOP, Torricelli said, the money race ended in a virtual dead heat.
For Susan Torricelli, the senator's chief fund-raiser and former wife, 1996 was an election year no different than any other, dictated by the need to raise television money. Yes, she said, "there's more scrutiny" after the fact, but "I'm not saying that people were doing things wrong."
Within the rules, however, political pros regard the Torricelli-Zimmer campaign as a prime example of a crumbling system. Interest groups and political parties poured cash into a race denounced from its beginning for its lack of substance, its focus on money, its reliance on misleading and negative television ads, and its vicious and largely unfounded personal attacks.
Through it all, Torricelli's fund-raising machine purred among dozens of small networks of supporters, from New Jersey chiropractors to high-rollers from Las Vegas, Nev., from his home base in Englewood to the movie studios of Beverly Hills, Calif.
FEC records show Torricelli raised 61 percent of his money in New Jersey, while Zimmer raised 71 percent in the state. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics said Torricelli raised $992,903 from political action committees, with the biggest piece ($403,000) coming from organized labor, a typical pattern for Democrats.
Zimmer raised $1.3 million from PACs, the center said, the vast majority from business or professional organizations ($1.1 million), typical for Republicans. Also typical: Nearly 80 PACs gave to both candidates.
Torricelli gave back a $1,000 contribution from Democratic fund-raiser John Huang, the target of several federal investigations, and received about 30 contributions from people who had coffee at the White House. Zimmer received nine contributions from members of the Clinton administration's coffee list.
In one apparent departure from convention, pro-Israel PACs favored Torricelli $28,000 to $19,000 for Zimmer, who is Jewish. "To tell you the truth, I didn't know who Dick Zimmer was," said Denver attorney Norman Brownstein, a vice president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But Torricelli, he said, was a longtime supporter of Israel and a highly visible member of the House International Relations Committee, once known as the Foreign Affairs Committee. In April 1996, Brownstein raised almost $6,000 for Torricelli at a Denver breakfast.
"A lot of [House] members duck Foreign Affairs because it doesn't bring lots of money to your district," Torricelli said. "But I never felt disadvantaged." In raising money in ethnic communities, he said, "Nobody does it better than me."
"He was always accessible to us," said Paramus accountant Andy Comodromos, who remembers when Torricelli took some Greek-American constituents to Cyprus in the early 1980s. When Torricelli ran for the Senate, Comodromos helped translate the district's biennial Greek-American fund-raiser into a $25,000 statewide gala.
'It was my time'
Torricelli, 45, got his political start as a young attorney working for Gov. Brendan T. Byrne, then served as an assistant to Vice President Walter F. Mondale.
At the end of 1981, after dinner with Mondale in Tokyo, he "decided it was my time." He returned to his room, picked up a yellow legal pad and began to scribble the names "of every person I had known in my life and a number." The list has been with Torricelli ever since.
During his House career, Torricelli established contact with county Democratic Party officials across New Jersey, he said, and moved quickly to enter the race when Sen. Bill Bradley announced his retirement.
"We figured it would take $6 million, spending 85 [percent] to 90 percent of it on television," Torricelli said. At that moment, he had a $1.3 million war chest, a hefty lead over fellow House incumbent Zimmer, who had a bit over $631,000.
Candidates need millions to compete, but under federal election law, individual donors can give only $1,000 to a candidate for the primary and the general election, while PACs can give $5,000 in each cycle. This "hard money" is the mother's milk of American politics, but politicians readily admit that raising it a tiny nugget at a time is pure drudgery.
But Torricelli was good at it. In late 1995, an old friend from the insurance business raised about $10,000 among company employees in Indianapolis. In Las Vegas, friends in the gambling industry raised nearly $30,000.
The Coleman family of New Jersey sponsored an event at their New Orleans oil company affiliate that earned around $12,000. Ken Pincourt, an executive Torricelli met through House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., raised nearly $40,000 at a Palm Beach, Fla., event. Virgin Islands Gov. Richard L. Schneider, whose Washington representative met Torricelli at a Young Democrats convention in 1975, arranged a St. Croix event that raised $20,000.
In March, New Jersey Council of Chiropractors President Gerald Mattia, who met Torricelli during the 1994 health care debate, invited 3,000 colleagues to contribute, raising almost $15,000. "Chiropractors talk to more people in a day than anybody else in New Jersey," Torricelli said.
In December 1995, Torricelli raised more than $65,000 at a Miami fund-raiser sponsored by Cuban-Americans. He returned to South Florida repeatedly for nearly a year.
"If you have a good cause, raising money is simple, and the freedom of Cuba is a wonderful cause," said Miami nurseryman and anti-Castro activist Tony Costa. "We are very appreciative of those who help us."
It wasn't all smooth as silk, however. In March 1996, Ruth Dugan, who had known Torricelli since the Byrne years, co-hosted a $2,000-per-person fund-raiser in Saddle River with Donna Walsh at a mansion owned by Donna's husband, Frank, a trucking executive.
It turned out that Frank, a client of Ruth's attorney husband, Jim, had gone to prison in the 1980s for paying bribes to a mob-influenced union. "In retrospect it wasn't a good idea," Jim Dugan said of the March event. Zimmer used the fund-raiser to imply a Torricelli link to organized crime.
Despite this glitch, June 30, 1996, FEC reports showed Torricelli with $6 million in the bank to Zimmer's $2.5 million. But at that point, he said, the national Republican Party began to spend large amounts of unregulated soft money.
Hard money battles soft
Parties spend soft money on "issue advocacy" ads that do not specifically call for the election or defeat of a candidate and are difficult to document. Torricelli and the Republicans agreed that the Democrats spent $1.3 million on his behalf, but GOP sources could not confirm Torricelli's contention that Republicans spent $4 million for Zimmer.
Still, Torricelli said he felt he had been ambushed, and did "what I swore I would never do": try to match GOP soft money with his own hard dollars, usually a quick way to go bankrupt and lose.
Two trips to Miami yielded around $35,000. On Sept. 26, New Jersey contributors gave him about $29,000. Four days later he raised almost $6,000 at breakfast in Providence, R.I., with Ed Maggiacomo, an old party boss whom Torricelli knew from Mondale days.
In late October, Frank Biondi, an MCA entertainment executive Torricelli met through Italian-American groups, organized a Beverly Hills luncheon that produced at least $35,000. Torricelli flew to Los Angeles overnight, spent 2 1/2 hours at the event, and returned to New Jersey the same evening.
Torricelli believes he was able to win because he hung in against Zimmer's soft money.
With the system in tatters and little prospect for meaningful campaign reform, Torricelli said, candidates can expect more surprises in 1998. "If you campaign on your memory of previous campaigns," he said, "you're at a disadvantage."
Copyright © 1997 Bergen Record Corp.