Politics Biden aides headline DNC fundraisers with lobbyists
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When Barack Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, he barred the Democratic National Committee from accepting contributions from lobbyists in an attempt to purge their influence from his future administration.
Joe Biden doesn’t appear to have the same concerns.
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The DNC started accepting checks from lobbyists again in 2016 and has continued to do so as Biden prepares to accept the Democratic nomination next week. And while the Biden campaign has sworn off contributions from lobbyists, it has dispatched top staffers to headline at least four Zoom fundraisers this month benefiting the DNC and hosted by prominent Democratic lobbyists.
Steve Elmendorf, a well-known lobbyist who hosted a DNC fundraiser last week with other Democratic lobbyists at his firm, said that since the Biden campaign won’t take lobbyists’ checks, he has turned to giving to the DNC and state parties as the way for lobbyists to contribute to the campaign against President Donald Trump. Elmendorf has also written checks to the Wisconsin and Michigan Democratic parties and plans to give to two more battleground state parties ahead of the election, he said.
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Biden has said he would implement rules to reduce the “improper influence” of lobbyists if elected, building on the Obama administration’s ethics policies. But his decision to let lobbyists fund the DNC demonstrates that Biden — who has spent decades in Washington and has deeper relationships there than Obama did when he ran in 2008 — may not be as hostile to K Street as president as Obama was.
The K Street fundraisers come as left-leaning groupsnot to staff his transition or administration with people who would be regulating industries they had recently worked in. But several of Biden’s closest confidants over nearly half a century in politics have worked as lobbyists at some point in their careers. And while Biden has banned his campaign from accepting lobbyists’ contributions, his campaign's first fundraiser was hosted by David Cohen, who oversaw Comcast's lobbying efforts at the time (though he is not a registered lobbyist himself). Biden's campaign has responded to criticism by rejecting the idea that his donors influence his decision-making.
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The fundraisers have drawn top Biden staffers, including Steve Ricchetti, the campaign’s chairman who is himself a former lobbyist for clients including AT&T, General Motors and Pfizer. He has appeared at three of the four events this month, according invitations obtained by POLITICO.
Bruce Reed, a senior adviser on the campaign who served as Biden’s chief of staff while he was vice president, headlined one of the events with Ricchetti; Jake Sullivan, another top Biden aide, appeared with him at another.
Rufus Gifford, Biden’s deputy campaign manager; Stef Feldman, the campaign’s policy director; and Reed headlined a fourth fundraiser on Wednesday afternoon hosted by Democratic lobbyists at Capitol Counsel, a lobbying firms that represents clients including Comcast, Lockheed Martin, the National Football League, Walmart and the GEO Group, a private prison company, according to disclosure filings. The event sought contributions of as much as $25,000, according to the invitation.
John D. Raffaelli, Capitol Counsel’s founder and one of the hosts of the fundraiser, said the event drew about 40 or 50 people. A longtime Democratic donor, he said he was puzzled by the scrutiny that lobbyists’ contributions have drawn in some corners of the party.
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“The amount of money that lobbyists give is insignificant” compared to the party’s megadonors, he said.
With the Biden campaign unwilling to take their checks, giving to the DNC is viewed by some Democratic lobbyists as the next best option.
“We’ll do whatever we can to beat Donald Trump,” said Al Mottur, another veteran lobbyist who hosted a fundraiser for the DNC last week with other Democratic lobbyists at his firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. “This is what we’re able to do.”
Biden’s campaign referred questions about the fundraisers to the DNC, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The DNC has stepped up its efforts to raise money on K Street in recent months, according to three lobbyists familiar with the efforts. Democratic lobbyists, meanwhile, are eager to attend the events.
“We increased our financial goal for the event a few times because of the strong demand to participate,” said Jonathan Mantz, a lobbyist at BGR Group who helped organize the fundraiser that drew Ricchetti and Reed on Tuesday evening, in a statement. “There’s an incredible amount of support in Washington and around the country for Joe Biden in November.”
“I’m pretty confident we will be doing more events like this one over the next couple months to accommodate those who couldn’t attend this event,” Mantz added.
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The fundraiser draw more than 60 people, including several lobbyists at other firms, and raised about $160,000, according to someone familiar with the matter. Mantz served as Hillary Clinton’s national finance director when she ran for president in 2008, and some other attendees had longstanding ties to the party.
“My grandfather was DNC chairman under Truman and Roosevelt, so helping the DNC was a no brainer for me,” said Tim Hannegan, a lobbyist at HLP&R Advocacy who attended the fundraiser.
The fundraisers aren’t the Biden campaign’s only outreach to K Street and corporate America. Patti Solis Doyle, a former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton who’s now a partner in the Washington office of the Brunswick Group, a consulting firm, plans to host a webinar next week featuring Gifford and Carmel Martin, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign.
“What might a Biden presidency look like?” reads an invitation for the event. “How would his policies affect business?” More than 150 people have RSVPed to the event so far, including lobbyists and Fortune 100 chief executives, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The event — which is not a fundraiser — is one of dozens of briefings Biden’s campaign is holding with labor unions, think tanks, advocacy groups and others, according to a Biden campaign aide.
The fundraisers are a shift from Biden’s last time on a presidential ticket, when Obama’s change-focused campaign forbade the party from accepting lobbyist contributions days after he clinched the nomination.
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"We will not take a dime from Washington lobbyists or special interest PACs,” Obama. “We're going to change how Washington works. They will not fund my party. They will not run our White House. And they will not drown out the voice of the American people when I'm president of the United States of America.”
The DNC reversed the policy eight years later as Obama prepared to relinquish control of the party. A party spokesmanat the time that the change “will ensure that we continue to have the resources and infrastructure in place to best support whoever emerges as our eventual nominee.”
Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesperson for End Citizens United, a Democratic PAC that advocates for getting big money out of politics, said the group wasn’t overly troubled that Biden hadn’t barred the DNC from raising money from lobbyists.
“We know he will be a president for all Americans instead of the corrupt tool of corporate special interests we have in the White House today,” he said in a statement. “We encourage all Democrats to follow the vice president’s lead in rejecting corporate PAC money and applaud all Democrats who go the extra step to reject lobbyist money, too.”
Elmendorf, the Democratic lobbyist who hosted one of the recent fundraisers, said he thought the DNC was doing all it could to bolster Biden’s chances of beating Trump.
“The world is on fire here in many ways, and I think they are turning over every stone, looking under every tree, trying to find every dollar they can find,” Elmendorf said.
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