The Barack Obama-Steve Westly connection

About fifty people gathered in the Silicon Valley home of attorney John Roos on Monday night for a fundraiser for Barack Obama. And they had more in common than the means to donate at least $25,000.

“It looked like a Steve Westly reunion,” said Wade Randlett, a fundraiser and donor to Westly’s Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign.

The fledgling political machine that nearly brought Westly from relative obscurity to winning the nomination appears to have lined up squarely behind the charismatic junior Senator from Illinois. The crowd at Roos’ event included Westly himself, who has endorsed Obama prior to him actually announcing his candidacy this coming Saturday .

Randlett said that Westly would likely serve as California co-chair for the Obama campaign. Westly said that he was invited to Obama’s official announcement in Chicago on Saturday, but has been traveling a lot lately and decided to stay home with his family.

The event at Roos’ house in Hillsborough raised about $300,000 for Obama, Westly said. Other Westly-backers who have gotten behind Obama include Mark Gorenberg, Eileen Donahoe, and venture capitalist Doug Hickey. Obama’s first official in-person fundraiser in the Bay Area is scheduled for Feb. 19 at Donahoe’s house in Portola Valley.

“There are a lot of people looking for a fresh face who isn’t part of the Democratic Party establishment,” Westly said.

Sort of like Westly was in the governor’s race when he faced Phil Angelides, Randlett said. And like Westly, Obama faces on uphill battle against a better-known establishment candidate–one Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York.
And also like Westly, technology industry money will help fuel the ride. While the Westly candidacy was derided by some as self-funded, his campaign manager, Jude Barry, noted that he also raised $10 million of other people’s money for a dark-horse run.

In fact, Westly said, it was financial support from California that helped convince Obama to run. Obama was still one the fence when he passed through on his book tour for “The Audacity of Hope” in early December. His Bay Area stops included meetings with some major political donors with tech industry ties. A month later, Westly said, Obama came out for an in-person meeting with himself and several others–and told them he was going to declare.

Meanwhile, Obama’s presidential exploratory committee has also hired fundraiser Tammy Paster, who served in that role in Westly’s successful 2002 run for controller. Randlett is serving in an advisory role.

Which is not to say that some from the Angelides camp aren’t involved as well. The Obama exploratory committee has retained the services of political advisor Larry Grisolano, who also advised the labor unions backing Angelides. Meanwhile, the treasurers for Obama4America are Stephen Churchwell and Vona Copp; the pair, who have more often worked for Republicans, also covered treasurer duties for the independent expenditure committee set up by Angelides sponsor Angelo Tsakopolous, Californians for a Better Government.

But Angelides big donors appears to be behind Clinton. Esprit co-founder and major Angelides donor Susie Tompkins Buell is hosting a fundraiser for Clinton in San Francisco later this month. At least nine members of the Tsakopoulos family have filtered over $60,000 to Hillary’s Senate campaign and her HillPAC in recent years.

Barry has gotten behind Obama as well. Last month he announced a “draft Obama” website, A PAC of the same name has gathered $30,000 in $5,000 donations from Barry, his brother Patrick, and a quartet of wealthy Silicon Valley Westly donors: eBay multimillionaire, Tom Adams, his wife Jeane Lavan, financial manager Martin Bicker and his architect wife Janet.

Barry said the website has pulled in about $12,500 from 120 individual donors. This money will be given to the Obama campaign within 10 days of his official announcement.

“We are doing our best to help,” Barry said. “Our mission is to demonstrate the Obama has lots of support.”

So is Barry auditioning for a spot in the Obama campaign with the slick, well-designed website, as some in the blogosphere have implied? Randlett called the idea “nonsense,” noting that Barry has his “plate full” particularly with his work on the San Francisco 49ers stadium. Which is not to say that he might not be asked to join at a later date.

“If someone called me up and said they had hired him, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Randlett said.

Adams said that the website was his idea, and he sought out Barry to run it. He’s also been involved with some of the more mainstream fundraising, and plans to be at Donahoe’s house in two weeks.

“Someone in Steve’s position, where he could run for governor again in four years, you might think he would want to wait and see how things turn out,” Adams said. “It says something about Obama and how well he’s doing in California.”

Barry has established a track record in “webroots” campaigner, using online visibility–and lots of small, web-based donations–not only in the Westly race but for Howard Dean’s out-of-nowhere brief lead in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2004. But if Obama is playing to role of Westly and Dean, it would not appear to bode well for him, since both lost.

But Obama is starting with a bigger political base than either one. Westly campaign advisor Garry South said that one must remember that Westly started out with single digit support and ended up forcing the closest California gubernatorial primary either party has seen in a generation. He lost by less than five points to Angelides, who had wrapped up labor and much of the Democratic establishment early on. Part of this rise was due to the to the Internet-based, “webroots” campaign designed by Barry, South said.

Whoever ends up on the Obama team, South said, he expects the campaign to do well, both on the Web and across California.

“He’s the perfect Internet candidate: young, exciting, fresh and vibrant,” South said. “All the things that Californians think about themselves.”

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at

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