Capitol fund raising: politics as fine art

Clearly, the coolest office in Sacramento is Dan Weitzman’s second-floor digs on O Street near the Posey’s sign. Political posters everywhere, computers winking and blinking, a couch to fall asleep on, knick knacks and paper, lots of wood. More like home than an office.

It looks casual but it isn’t. It’s a nerve center of political fundraising — an aspect of politics that many people know about, everybody talks about, but very few people know how to do well. Capturing political cash is the hardest of all political functions —  harder than governing, harder even than getting elected.

So how do you do it? “It’s all about relationships,” Weitzman says.   

Weitzman, 37, shown in photo at right, is a lifelong Democrat, a former student of government at Sac State, who eats, sleeps and breathes politics. A Palos Verdes native, his earliest political memories were of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Weitzman’s father and sister are doctors, his mother a real estate broker, and all are avid followers of politics — a perfect background for a political junkie.

He volunteered for campaigns, planted signs, passed out paper, hung flyers on door knobs, worked the phones banks, ran errands, helped get people to the polls, took messages and did any grunt work that needed doing. “I was a Bob Mulholland slave for a while,” he said, referring to the state Democratic Party’s aggressive, long-time political director.  “I grew up wanting to be in politics, I always loved politics.”

Being a Mulholland slave paints an intriguing picture. “He was just joking,” Mulholland recalled. “He volunteered at the party headquarters back in the early 1990s, and I knew then he’d be very successful,” Mulholland recalled. “Lot of energy, he knew what was going on, he read all the papers. He became a regional director of the state party, re-elected several times.”

In a tough 1992 fight between incumbent Democratic Congressman Vic Fazio and conservative challenger H.L. Richardson, Weitzman “walked the precincts by day and worked the phone banks at night” and his candidate won. It was a pivotal moment for Weitzman: He actually got a bare bones salary out of his 16-hour days for the first time.

At Sac State, he helped form the Young Democrats club, and got involved in a number of political causes, including abortion rights. His group wound up in a confrontation at the Feminist Women’s Health Center with anti-abortion activists, which brought him local attention. “I knew at that point that I was in politics. I was taking off.”

Toni Roberts, a long-time political fundraiser, noticed Weitzman when he was a junior in college, and took him under her wing from 1992 through 1999. “She was the best. She trained me,” he said.

In 1996, Los Angeles lawyer Bob Hertzberg was elected to the Assembly  and Weitzman went to work for him. Hertzberg later became Assembly speaker, and Weitzman was near the center of the Capitol’s political fundraising world. The two, close friends, continue to talk almost daily, as he does with former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. Weitzman’s contacts expanded exponentially, and that’s a fundamental rule of fund-raising: The more contacts the better, the greater the pool of potential donors, the better. Everybody knows everybody else, and Weitzman knows them all. The lists of names are everything.

The value of contacts? Once Hertzberg wanted to raise a modest sum and asked Weitzman for help. He said it was possible to raise $1 million, but Hertzberg said no way. Weitzman knew who to call, and he gave the list of names to Hertzberg. In the end, Hertzberg was able to raise more than $830,000  — money that played a key role in the election of Assembly Democrats and added to Weitzman’s reputation.

The public dislikes fundraising, seeing the flow of money as a corrupting force in politics and government. Reform groups typically agree. But the candidates know better, whatever they say for public consumption.

Nobody gets elected to the California Legislature, Congress or statewide office without money. For wealthy candidates, this isn’t a problem. For everyone else, it is a problem. Million-dollar legislative campaigns are run of the mill, statewide races are far higher, $50 million gubernatorial races are not unknown. Voters have approved efforts to curb the influence of money in politics  — such as Proposition 34, which limited political contributions, authorized boosted disclosure but increased the money flow through the state party.

By limiting contributions, the more donors had to be tapped. But they were tapped.

 “It just made my job harder,” Weitzman said.

Typically, fundraisers work on commissions of 10 or 15 percent, or higher, although that figure may vary from campaign to campaign. Major statewide races often have teams of fundraisers who target different communities  — ethnic interests, business groups, retirees, professional associations, the like. But Weitzman doesn’t do statewide races, he generally doesn’t work on commission and he only has a half-dozen clients. He’s earned about $300,000 in the past 18 months, according to a review of financial disclosure reports, and about $1.3 million during the past five years, although the actual figures may be higher.

The fundraising profession carries hazards – and sometimes a whacking in the press. Roberts’ name was linked to a fundraising scandal involving former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, and Weitzman drew fire for sharing an L.A. apartment with Nunez.

He’s not the only fund-raiser in town, although he may be one of the smallest in terms of client load. He has a half-dozen clients, including Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, and Assembly members Kevin de Leon, Ted Lieu and John Perez. He has personal connections to all of them, some of which go back years. Capitol insiders say others would like to be on the client list, and that jealousy blooms in the Capitol, although he denies it.

Only two Republicans have been on his list – Doris Allen and Brian Setencich – and both of those were allied with Democrats in a mid-1990s power struggle in the Assembly as Willie Brown prepared to leave to run for mayor of San Francisco.

How did they got on the list?

 “They were ours,” Weitzman said.

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