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Schwarzenegger’s million-dollar woman

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has paid her more than Rob Stutzman, Marty
Wilson, Bob White and Steve Schmidt–combined. She has earned more than
George Gorton, Mike Murphy, Jeff Randle or Don Sipple.

Her name, unknown to all but the upper echelon of Republican consultants,
donors and candidates in California, is Renee Croce and she is at the
epicenter of the governor’s elaborate and record-breaking fund-raising
apparatus.

All told, Croce has earned $1.163 million from six different
Schwarzenegger-controlled campaign accounts dating back to 2002, plus more
than $29,000 for travel and meals and $76,000 for reimbursed expenses. Only
one other Schwarzenegger consultant has earned within a quarter million
dollars of that figure.

“She was the queen of Orange County fund raising and she has elevated
herself to empress of California fund raising,” said GOP consultant Kevin
Spillane, who worked with Croce on Richard Riordan’s 2002 bid for governor.
“She is the gold standard.”

Her official title with the Schwarzenegger campaign is finance director, a
post she uses to corral millions in donations for the governor’s varied
initiative and reelection campaigns.

“Renee is the fundraiser who calls, makes the ask, and collects the check,”
says Stutzman, Schwarzenegger’s former communications director.

It’s a job that puts the governor and Croce in near constant communication.
“I am with him a couple times a week,” Croce told Capitol Weekly in her
first interview since joining Team Schwarzenegger in 2002.

Croce has outlasted almost every other Schwarzenegger political confidant.
Since his first campaign, the governor has cycled through three campaign
managers, two chiefs of staff and an endless parade of spokespeople.
Schwarzenegger has kept only one other consultant, Jeff Randle, on his
campaign payroll as long as Croce, who began fund raising with the
then-actor during his 2002 after-school initiative campaign.

Asked why she has lasted so long, Croce laughed. “I don’t question that.”
But George Gorton, who was Schwarzenegger’s first political adviser and
architect of the after-school campaign, says Croce’s longevity is a simple
matter of dollars and cents.

“While you and I can have an opinion about my or Mike Murphy’s strategy, you
can’t argue about Renee’s results,” says Gorton, who is the only other
consultant to have earned $1 million from Schwarzenegger, though 80 percent
of his fees came from the Proposition 49 campaign in 2002. “The money is
either in the bank or it isn’t.”

And, with Croce, the money has been in the bank.

For Schwarzenegger’s political-career-launching after-school measure, she
helped the movie star raise nearly $10 million. She did it by inviting
potential donors like Paul Folino, a high-tech company executive, to private
dinners with Schwarzenegger in the fall of 2001.

“Renee actually introduced me to the governor,” Folino fondly recalls. “She
invited my wife and I up to his home for dinner.”

Folino was so impressed by Schwarzenegger that he immediately joined the
campaign. He has since become one of Schwarzenegger’s most generous
individual donors, contributing more than $1.3 million to the governor’s
network of fund-raising committees.

“Renee is really the one that made it happen,” says Folino.

There are countless other major contributors that Croce has mined for
donations, though Croce declined to name them. “That’s not my style,” she
said.

Her style, which colleagues describe as part gentle, part aggressive, has
been successful. Schwarzenegger-controlled campaign committees have amassed
more than $120 million since he launched the after-school initiative. He is
expected to raise another $60-to-$75 million for his re-election this year,
after his handlers publicly floated, and then backed away from, an original
$120 million goal.

Croce’s work for Schwarzenegger isn’t her only job, though in an election
year she says it takes up “150 percent of my time.” She is also the
membership director for the Los Angeles chapter of the New Majority, a
centrist Republican club that supports moderate Republican candidates. Croce
has earned $54,000 from New Majority this election cycle.

The second job blends well with the first: The New Majority has long
supported Schwarzenegger, calling his re-election “the strongest focus” of
the organization in 2006. And New Majority backers, including Folino, have
donated an estimated $10 million to Schwarzenegger. New Majority members dot
the list of gubernatorial appointments, including A.G. Kawamura, the state’s
secretary of Food and Agriculture.

Tom Tucker, a founder and first chairman of New Majority, says Croce and her
connections to Southern California’s elite were critical to the launch of
his organization.

“At the time, we were political neophytes and she was really helpful to us
to understanding politics and the system,” said Tucker. As New Majority
plans to launch two more chapters in the Inland Empire and San Diego later
this year, the membership directors, which are de facto fund-raisers, are
both close Croce associates.

As the finance director for an incumbent governor and membership director of
one of the state’s best-heeled interest groups, Croce is perched at the
pinnacle of the California fund-raising world.

“She is the hot fund-raiser of the moment,” says Doug Boyd, who spent the
last six years as treasurer of the California Republican Party.

She got there quickly. Her first real fund-raising job was for former
Assemblyman Bill Filante’s bid for Congress in 1992. By 1998, she caught her
first big break: then-Gov. Pete Wilson offered her the post of finance
director in his final year in office, after many of his leading
donation-getters had jumped ship for the gubernatorial campaign of Dan
Lungren. In 1999, when New Majority was launched, she served as membership
director. By 2002, she was a sought after commodity, working for
Schwarzenegger, Republican governor hopeful Richard Riordan, and eventual
GOP nominee Bill Simon, who paid her more than $100,000.

Now, Croce has what is known as “the list.” It contains the names and
numbers of all the potential Republican donors she has identified. Croce’s
“list” is considered the best in California.

Croce says her relationships are even more important than the list. “It is
like a relational database, knowing who is connected where and to what …
who lives where, who is friends with what, where do these people travel.

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