IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Wall Street bankers, reelection backers

NEW YORK -- One unseasonably cool evening in late October, a group of Wall Street bankers waited aboard a ferry in New York Harbor for the short trip to Ellis Island and a thank-you event for major backers of President Bush's reelection campaign.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

One unseasonably cool evening in late October, a group of Wall Street bankers waited aboard a ferry in New York Harbor for the short trip to Ellis Island and a thank-you event for major backers of President Bush's reelection campaign.

Ordinarily, the bankers -- unaccustomed to waiting for anything -- might be annoyed. But on this night they were placid, despite the fact that Charlie Black, a top adviser to the campaign, was running late.

The Bush administration had given the bankers almost everything they ever dreamed of: a reduction in dividend and capital-gains taxes, a phase-out of the estate tax, an overall reduction in income taxes. So they waited patiently, eager do whatever they could to ensure the president's reelection.

"Wall Street runs on a good economy and the president has given us that," said Mallory Factor, a merchant banker who was among those on the boat. "Then you look at the alternatives on the other side. Either one of those things is enough to make you support the president."

And that's just what Wall Street has done, to an unprecedented extent. Unlike in 2000, when the industry hedged its bets between Bush and Vice President Al Gore, Wall Street thus far has put the bulk of its muscle behind the Republican incumbent.

Through late November, employees of securities industry firms had given at least $4 million to the Bush campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That number will rise significantly -- probably to well over $7 million -- when figures for the full year are reported at the end of this month. As of late November, no Democrat had raised more than $1 million from the industry.

The Bush campaign is not eager to discuss the enthusiastic support it is receiving from Wall Street. Spokesman Scott Stanzel declined to discuss the matter, saying only that the president had raised money from "nearly half a million supporters representing every county in every state."

That reluctance may reflect the fact that the 2004 campaign is unfolding in a very different environment from 2000, a year in which stocks hit their bull-market highs and Enron was still a corporate powerhouse.

Since then, the stock market bubble burst and a series of corporate scandals -- many either directly or indirectly involving Wall Street firms -- rocked investor confidence. Some of those scandals have been pursued by New York Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, a politically ambitious Democrat who has become a thorn in the side of the industry, and corporate wrongdoing has become a frequent theme in the message of Democrats vying to run against Bush.

Meanwhile, the figures for Bush actually understate the power of his Wall Street support.

Top bankers and Wall Street executives have Rolodexes brimming with wealthy friends from every industry, people for whom writing a $2,000 check, the new limit for individual contributions to federal candidates, hardly requires a second thought.

Brokers and bankers in New York and across the country said in interviews that they had made dozens of calls on Bush's behalf, helping in part to explain the campaign's ability to raise $130 million in 2003, shattering the previous record for fundraising by a presidential candidate in a single year.

"I placed a cold call to Mercer Reynolds and asked if I could be supportive," said a top executive in a Midwestern office of one of Wall Street's biggest firms. He was referring to the Bush campaign finance director, himself a former banker with deep ties to Wall Street. "Mercer asked me to call clients and friends, and that's what I did."

The banker, who requested anonymity, said he talked to chief executives of big companies as well as the heads of major law and other professional service firms. "Almost no one said no. And most of them agreed to solicit contributions themselves."

The list of "Rangers," who have raised at least $200,000 each for Bush, reads like a roster of Wall Street power brokers. It includes the chief executives of Merrill Lynch & Co., UBS Wealth Management USA, Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. and insurance giant American International Group Inc.

Factor, an independent banker and major GOP fundraiser in New York, is on the list as well. So is New York Gov. George E. Pataki, who put his powerful Wall Street fundraising network at Bush's disposal. Other Wall Street executives, including Goldman Sachs & Co. chief executive Henry M. Paulson Jr., Bear Stearns & Co. chief executive James E. Cayne and Goldman Sachs executive George Herbert Walker (the president's second cousin) are "Pioneers," meaning they have raised at least $100,000 for the president.

There is even whispered talk on Wall Street of a new category of super-fundraiser, those able to bundle $500,000 or more. A Bush campaign spokesman who sits in on finance meetings, however, said he had heard nothing of such a plan

Bush already has raised more from Wall Street than he did during the entire election cycle in 2000, when he raised about $4 million from securities firms. Gore raised about $1.4 million from the industry in 2000.

"I don't mean to sound flip but they have essentially have been the fattest of Bush's fat-cat supporters," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity and author of a recent book on presidential campaign finance. "And for the past three years, they have been rolling in catnip."

Wall Street is not lining up behind the president only for past favors. The industry has a long legislative and regulatory wish list for the presidential term ahead.

"People are looking for the next administration and Congress to expand and make permanent the tax cuts" of the last three years, said Marc E. Lackritz, president of the Securities Industry Association, Wall Street's main trade group.

Other items on Wall Street's wish list include increasing the number of tax-favored savings and investment accounts. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Bush reiterated an earlier proposal to allow some Americans to divert some of their Social Security money into private investment accounts.

The industry is also interested in consolidating regulation. Right now, Wall Street firms are regulated by the New York Stock Exchange and by NASD, former parent of the Nasdaq Stock Market.

Wall Street has failed in this mission before, but with turmoil at the NYSE over the compensation of former chairman Dick Grasso, the industry may soon have its best opportunity in years. Wall Street also is keeping a close eye on proposed reforms in the wake of the mutual fund trading scandal, willing to accept greater disclosure of fees but fighting against limits on them.

In addition to filling the Bush campaign war chest, Wall Street is helping to underwrite the 2004 Republican convention in New York. Goldman Sachs's Paulson, a former New York Stock Exchange board member, and Joseph J. Grano, chief executive of UBS, are both convention co-chairs, meaning they have pledged to raise $5 million for the event. So has Sanford I. Weill, chairman of Citigroup Inc., the nation's largest bank. Together, the three executives expect to raise nearly a quarter of all private funds for the convention.

Paulson faces possible scrutiny by Spitzer for his role as a director at the NYSE in approving Grasso's pay. Weill is out of the woods now, but he also squared off with Spitzer in the fall of 2002 over allegations that he pressured a Citigroup analyst to change a stock rating. Spitzer's highly visible targets have included allegedly fraudulent research reports by Wall Street analysts and wrongdoing in the mutual fund industry. In general, Wall Street has looked to the SEC to deflect Spitzer's aggressive probes.

With the campaign year now finally underway, the Bush campaign has by no means finished shaking the Wall Street money tree.

The reelection effort held three fundraisers in the New York area last year, raising about $5 million. The first, hosted on June 23 by chief executive John J. Mack of Credit Suisse and Paulson raised $4 million, the biggest Bush fundraiser so far.

The president plans to appear at another event on Jan. 29 in Greenwich, Conn., home to many of Wall Street's top executives. The event is expected to bring in another $1 million. Sources say a final "clean up" event will take place in the New York area in March to make sure the campaign has gathered up all the Wall Street cash it can.

"People are asked, and then they are asked again," said Bush adviser Black. "People are politely given several chances to give."

Black said a combination of factors spurred the outpouring of support from the financial industry. "Most importantly, they like the economic policy," he said. "But the absence of a Democratic front-runner who might be able to make a case to Wall Street has also helped."

Black acknowledged that when a Democratic nominee does emerge, the candidate might generate significant support from Wall Street. Gore, however, raised nearly all of his funds from the securities industry before defeating former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley for the Democratic nomination, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Black said he did not expect a repeat of 1992, when Bill Clinton reached out to Wall Street executives such as Robert E. Rubin, then at Goldman Sachs, and received a warm welcome for his New Democrat message of balanced budgets and middle-class tax cuts.

"There won't be a Clinton or even a Gore being squired around by Bob Rubin or someone else Wall Street trusts," Black predicted.

Some Wall Street executives privately disagreed, noting that there are still Democrats at the big investment houses as well as economists who believe Bush's failure to reign in the deficit may lead to higher interest rates, hurting economic growth. "I have a number of good friends who are Rangers and Pioneers," said a Wall Street economist who declined to be identified by name or firm, for fear of angering the White House. "But there are plenty of us who differ from this administration both because of its foreign and economic policies."

Among Democrats, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, winner of the Iowa caucuses on Monday, has raised the most from the securities industry, about $1 million according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Kerry is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which handles tax legislation and other issues critical to Wall Street.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who has raised about $660,000, has based his campaign on centrist credentials and a firm embrace of the Clinton economic record. And he has long been friendly to the securities industry, which employs many of his Connecticut constituents.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who grew up on Park Avenue as the son of a Republican stockbroker, has run a populist campaign and raised just over $300,000 from the securities industry.

One Democratic candidate who appears to be gaining some momentum on Wall Street is retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Alan J. Patricof, a New York venture capitalist and co-chair of Clark's fundraising effort, said three recent private events in Manhattan for big donors were standing room only. He said a fourth event in Grand Central Terminal for smaller donors also drew a big crowd. The four events raised about $250,000, according to Patricof.