Donor Fatigue, Contribution Limits Creating Hurdles For Obama Inauguration Planning

December 26, 2008

lincoln-Bible-596.jpgFrom the announcement of Barack Obama’s longshot candidacy to the management of his presidential transition, his organization — including the biggest fundraising operation in U.S. political history — has rolled forward with seemingly flawless precision.

But for the team trying to pull in more than $40 million to pay for the festivities at next month’s historic inauguration, the process has had some uncharacteristically bumpy moments. Officials expect to meet their budget and underwrite a colossal celebration that they say will be open to more people than ever.
Still, with less than a month to go, organizers are adding elements to the master calendar. They’ve told some supporters that they might not get all the goodies they’d expected in exchange for big donations. And they’ve scrambled to think up new ways to deal with unforeseen “market frenzy”: the insatiable appetite of wealthy supporters not just to attend, but also to buy themselves VIP status.
An estimated 3 million to 5 million people are expected to squeeze in around the Capitol and onto the National Mall for the Jan. 20 swearing-in. Most will contend with frigid weather, traffic jams, packed subway cars and walks from distant staging areas — all for a fleeting glimpse of the new president.
But those making big donations will be rewarded with exclusive tickets, upfront seating and invitations to fancy events, including a black-tie dinner with Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden for hundreds of the most generous supporters.
Anyone raising $300,000 or more will earn the title “trustee” and get four tickets to every special inaugural event on the schedule, along with seats to the swearing-in and parade.
Rewarding big donors with inauguration day favors is nothing new. But the challenge is especially difficult this time.
Many potential givers are experiencing donor fatigue after the long campaign, especially with the economy in a tailspin. And in keeping with Obama’s promise of high ethical standards, his canvassers have operated under a limit of $50,000 per contribution from individuals. Obama’s camp also banned any donations from corporations, unions and political action committees.
That means more donors were needed — as were more enticements.
The result has been some unusual headaches for a team whose fundraising operations have been run with widely envied precision.
To begin with, planners may have thought too small when putting together events such as candlelight dinners. They had no trouble finding buyers for the high-priced tickets, and some fundraisers have been told that there might not be room for everyone who expected special treatment — not just inaugural donors but major campaign fundraisers and political allies.
The demand for special treatment has been so great that the inauguration committee faced the possibility of well-heeled supporters being turned away from some of the most sought-after events — a fundraiser’s nightmare. Many donors still don’t know whether they will get tickets to coveted inaugural balls such as the one hosted by Obama’s home state of Illinois.
“There is frustration because individuals in some cases still do not know what they are getting for their donations,” said one fundraiser who is bundling money from several wealthy families and helping to coordinate their travel to the inauguration.
The fundraiser, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the problems were “similar to the way it has been in inaugurations of the past, only more so. There is more demand than ever for access to special events, but the capacity is the same.”
In response, inauguration organizers created a new package for $10,000 givers: Each gets the title of “sponsor” and a more limited set of tickets and party invitations. Sponsors also get two tickets to a late-night party the Saturday before the inauguration, as well as two tickets to a candlelight dinner.
Donors giving the $50,000 maximum are called “finance chairs” and get full access to everything, but receive fewer tickets to each event than the trustees.
Many details remain sketchy. The itinerary being sent to donors carries the disclaimer “schedule in formation,” the times of most events are labeled as “TBD” (to be determined), and the headline attraction to each event is described only as “special guest.”
The inauguration budget four years ago was about the same as Obama’s, but President Bush’s organizers took contributions of up to $250,000 and accepted money and in-kind support from corporations and political action committees. Donations poured in with relative ease from companies with issues pending in Washington — such as Exxon Mobil and Occidental Petroleum — as industries took advantage of one of the last remaining opportunities to give directly to a president’s cause.
“We have the broadest inaugural fundraising restrictions in history,” said Linda Douglass, chief spokeswoman for Obama’s inaugural committee. She added that, for the first time, donations are searchable online, at the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s website, by donors and bundlers, and are posted shortly after they are received.
The money is necessary, she said, “to make this the most open and accessible inaugural,” paying for VIP events as well as jumbo television screens and other amenities for the huge crowds expected on the Mall.
Howard W. Gutman, a Washington lawyer and Obama fundraiser, said Americans can “rest at ease” that industries kept at bay during the campaign would not be asked to sponsor the inauguration.
“I guarantee you this inauguration is not about bigwigs,” Gutman said. “It’s about the millions of people who are going to see the parade and the swearing-in for the price of a Metro ticket.”
Campaign finance reform advocates acknowledge Obama’s effort toward transparency and limiting big money in politics. But they say the inaugural fundraising is more similar to than it is different from those that have come before. Most of Obama’s campaign money came from donors giving $1,000 or more, and individuals still have to be wealthy to be able to afford even the minimum tier of exclusive events at the inauguration.
“Obama continues to depend on large donors,” said Steve Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, a reform advocacy organization.
So far, according to the inaugural committee website, $21.9 million has been raised. And despite the strict limits, some donors are finding ways around the rules.
The family of philanthropist George Soros, for example, is providing $250,000 to the inaugural fund, with five individuals each giving the maximum. Director Steven Spielberg and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, gave a total of $100,000.
Other well-known names are among the donors bundling contributions. For example, former Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley and her husband, Smith Bagley, are listed as having bundled checks totaling $450,000.
The $50,000-donor list includes Hollywood personalities such as Halle Barry, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson.
Although the fundraising system may not have changed much, the makeup of those attending the official inaugural parties will be somewhat different — and not just because there will be Democrats this year instead of Republicans.
“The traditional K Street network seems to be less important” to fundraising and planning, said Josh Zive, a lawyer and lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington, referring to the street in the capital that is home to many lobbyists’ offices. Partly because of Obama’s insistence on banning lobbyists from donating to the inauguration, “there aren’t a tremendous amount of solicitations inside the Beltway.”
K Street is not going to be completely left out, however. It is funneling money to parties that are not directly tied to the official inaugural committee.
The Bracewell firm, which is based in Texas, will help sponsor the Texas Inaugural Ball and perhaps other activities. The Democratic Governors Assn. is asking for big donations from potential sponsors.
Contributing to these events, Zive said, “gives you visibility and access to a black-tie event that is at least in the penumbra of the inauguration.”
Source: Los Angeles Times

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