For freshman in Congress, focus is on raising money
New members get the message quickly or they’re gone. It’s a fact of life in a gridlocked capital.
Fifth in a series.
WASHINGTON — Newly elected congressional Democrats had just a week to savor their victories before coming face to face with a harsh reality of Washington.
At a party-sponsored orientation session, the freshmen — many still giddy from winning close races in which they espoused grand plans to change the Capitol’s toxic atmosphere — were schooled in their party’s simple list of priorities for them.
Raise money. Raise more. Win.
The newcomers were told to devote at least four hours each day to the tedious task of raising money — so-called dialing for dollars — so they could build a war chest and defend their seats, according to those present. That’s twice as much time as party leaders expect them to dedicate to committee hearings and floor votes, or meetings with constituents.
Some members were flabbergasted. One rolled his eyes and walked out of the room.
But just about everyone
in Congress signs on. Four months into a new session, Democrat and Republican freshmen in targeted districts say they often spend up to half their days raising money, whether through dreaded “call times” at a party-run phone bank near the Capitol, or attending fund-raisers.
“It may not be exactly like the Bataan Death March, but there are some similarities,” said one freshman representative who did not want to speak on the record for fear it would harm his campaign.
The all-consuming quest for dollars is part of Washington’s permanent, intensely waged campaign for party dominance. It cuts deeply into the typical day of lawmakers, robbing them of time they could spend building relationships with colleagues, dealing with constituent problems, and delving into policy issues. It is a major contributor to party gridlock, and keeps lawmakers dependent on the good graces of lobbyists and other special interests seeking favor on Capitol Hill.
The chase for campaign money is especially grueling for the 18 freshmen who have already been identified as top targets by the opposition in the 2014 election.
Almost immediately after being sworn into office — or in some cases even before — targeted politicians in both parties have been forced to defend themselves against negative attacks, bankrolled, in many cases, by the growing array of groups freed to spend without limit on elections by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.
Democrats and Republicans alike are compelled to sign confidential agreements with their parties’ campaign committees, pledging to meet specific fund-raising goals each quarter in exchange for a commitment of heavy financial support as the election draws near. Both parties’ campaign committees monitor their members’ progress weekly.
The Democrats’ program to protect its most vulnerable — called “Frontline’’ — commonly requires a member to promise to raise $250,000 per quarter.
Such benchmarks have had a measurable effect. The average amount raised by each freshmen in the first quarter has jumped 76 percent over the past decade to $188,313, according to data compiled for the Globe by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for open government.
Members routinely duck out of the House office buildings, where they are prohibited by law from campaigning, and walk across the street to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee offices in the salmon-colored party headquarters. There, on the second floor, 30 to 40 legislators and their staffers squeeze into the “bullpen,” as some members have dubbed it — a makeshift call center of about two dozen cubicles, each 2½ feet wide and equipped with two land lines.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and its GOP counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, function “basically like telemarketing firms,” said Tom Perriello, a Democrat from Virginia and former Frontline member who lost in 2010 after one term in the House. “You go down on any given evening and you’ve got 30 members with headsets on dialing and dialing and dialing, trying to close the deal.”
The room, devoid of decor or character, is abuzz with the sound of members courting money in all the accents of America. But it can be depressing, participants say, to witness fellow elected officials methodically working through the list of names and numbers that a staffer has organized into thick binders, or index cards, or a computer database — only to have appeal after appeal rejected in the full hearing of their peers.
But despite such inevitable humiliations, they drive on.
“This is a deadly dull business, and you need to do anything you can think of to motivate yourself to continue doing this,” said the freshman lawmaker who compared it to the Bataan Death March.
Some members eschew the cubicle farm, preferring to make the calls from their cars. Or just about anywhere.
“I’ve made calls on park benches,” said Representative Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican who had just wrapped up a fund-raising strategy session with his team before arriving at an interview with the Globe. “It’s unfortunately part of our political process that you have to take time to do that. If you don’t, it’s at your own political peril.”
Davis is part of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Patriot’’ program, organized to raise money to protect 11 especially vulnerable members, including four freshmen. He squeaked out the closest win by a Republican in 2012, prevailing by just 1,002 votes. Arriving in Washington the week after the election, he opened a Capitol Hill newspaper and saw his name already on the Democrats’ 2014 hit list.
“The Democrats began attacking me during orientation, trying to beat me two months before I even raised my right hand to get sworn in on the House floor,” Davis said. “It’s indicative of what goes on in Washington, where the campaign seemingly never ends.”
In addition to the steady barrage of press releases attacking Davis, the Democratic committee released a Web ad in February blaming him for layoffs in his district resulting from across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester. In March, it unveiled a billboard in Decatur accusing Davis of putting radicalism and partisanship over middle-class interests.
So instead of putting his election behind him and turning his full attention to the business of governing, Davis had to immediately resume the campaign that he just barely won. He sleeps on the navy leather couch in his office instead of renting an apartment in Washington, because he spends as much time as possible back in his district.
During a congressional recess before the end of the quarter, he met with donors and potential donors at a hodgepodge of fund-raising events revolving around every meal of the day. He raised more than $390,000 in the first quarter, the most among targeted Republican freshmen and more than double the amount raised by the average new member of any party.
“The problem is not members of Congress, per se,” Davis said. “It’s the political arms of both parties who see it as their jobs to identify who they want to beat. That’s what we as new members in competitive districts are up against. But I get it.”
Party leadership is sensitive — up to a point — to criticism by members that the focus is too heavily skewed to fund-raising at the expense of governing. Tim Walz, a representative from Minnesota and chairman of the Democrats’ Frontline Program, said, “Unfortunately in the era of Citizens United fund-raising is a part of life, but the needs of your district and advocating for constituents always come first.”
When members are not engaged in the requisite “call time,” they attend breakfast, luncheon, and evening fund-raisers at one of many restaurants with private function rooms dotting the Hill or in one of the handsome lobbyist-owned townhouses located blocks away from the Capitol.
At a March fund-raiser at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, party leaders debuted the committee’s list of the 26 most endangered House members in the 2014 election, half of whom are freshmen.
As lawmakers mingled with lobbyists – who paid up to $5,000 for the privilege of some face time at a gathering of elected officials — House minority leader Nancy Pelosi called out legislators’ names, ceremoniously disbursing tens of thousands of dollars from her own campaign coffers over the course of the evening. Her personal largesse is just the beginning of support they will receive from the party and party leaders, as they seek to defend themselves and their seats from partisan fire.
Party leaders introduce freshmen to lobbyists right off the bat and actively encourage them to start working the phones, said Representative Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida who was a Frontline member in 2009, lost his seat in 2010, and was reelected in 2012 in a newly created district that’s considered safe.
The pressure to raise money opens the door for special interests, a timeless source of ready money, now available in greater amounts than ever.
“Of course they are all people with specific agendas, generally corporate agendas. So that’s how the ball gets rolling in terms of the interaction that leads to lobbyists influencing legislation, and members turning to lobbyists for money,’’ Grayson said.
Some of the newer lawmakers say privately they feel frustrated by the grinding process and the accommodations it requires. But most declined to even talk about the grab for cash, seeking to downplay the demands of fund-raising on their time and attention.
New Hampshire’s Ann McLane Kuster, a freshman representative elected in November, is among the Democrats’ Frontline corps who has plunged into the fund-raising fray with gusto. She tapped Washington lobbyists, unions, special-interest groups, and ordinary citizens for $316,880 in contributions in the first three months of the year. That is more than double the average haul of House freshmen in safe districts and places her eighth among freshmen Democrats.
But Kuster would not discuss details of the fund-raising side of her new job. Through her staff, she rebuffed multiple requests for interviews on the subject of the permanent campaign. Approached in a Capitol hallway and asked to describe her views of the rush for money, she replied only, “I am fortunate to have great support.’’
“I’m not distracted by any kind of campaigning at this point,” Kuster added, before hustling off. “I’m not thinking about the politics.”
A crucial swing state, New Hampshire has been the scene of some of the most intensely partisan campaigns in recent years. Kuster’s district has switched between Democrats and Republicans three times in the past four elections. In the last election, Kuster was the top recipient of DCCC money.
Even before an opponent has formally announced plans to challenge Kuster, the National Republican Congressional Committee has begun weekly attacks on her, hoping to soften her up for an eventual GOP rival. It released a Web video highlighting nearly $11,000 Kuster owed in local property taxes. In April the NRCC, in a publicity stunt, delivered tax preparation software to Kuster’s office.
The Democrats, meanwhile, have a new weapon to help protect their most vulnerable. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Massachusetts freshman and the latest member of the Kennedy political dynasty to hold elected office, last month launched a leadership political action committee — a special committee that allows him to raise money to distribute to colleagues and party campaign funds — called “4MAPAC.” The PAC signals his intention to use the Kennedy name to build a political base through fund-raising.
“Some of my fellow freshmen had opponents before we were even sworn in,” Kennedy said. “In theory the cycle doesn’t really kick off until the end of the year, but the reality of the situation that’s not lost on anybody is that some campaigns have already started.”
Kennedy raised $239,105 in the first quarter, well above the freshman average. He has appeared at a fund-raiser in Chicago for fellow freshman Brad Schneider, an Illinois Democrat and Frontline member.
Kennedy is following the path blazed by his cousin Patrick Kennedy, a former US representative from Rhode Island who served until 2011 and is a former chairman of the DCCC. Patrick Kennedy said that, as a freshman, the Democratic leadership deployed him all over the country on behalf of vulnerable members.
“I would be added value because they could raise money around a Kennedy coming to town. That was pretty much good enough for them to put together an event,” Patrick Kennedy said. Because Democrats were in the minority then, as they are now, he said, “We weren’t in the law-making business. We were in the political business from day one.”
Representative Pete Gallego, a freshman Democrat who represents the only competitive district in Texas, said this grim political calculus is what makes being a congressman frustrating.
A longtime state representative, Gallego said he is accustomed to living life in two-year increments, moving at a fast clip to get things done, never knowing which term will be his last.
“But the challenge here is that this place is so slow. It’s like watching paint dry,” Gallego said, referring to how long it takes for legislation to be drawn up, then hardly ever passed because of the resistance to compromise by both parties. The partisanship trickles down to routine matters like office maintenance requests and the approval of House minutes, he said. “The intransigence, the hard-core nature of the partisanship, is really frustrating to me.”
For Gallego, fund-raising, it turns out, is a welcome break from the legislative gridlock.
On Friday afternoons, after final votes, members stream out of the House floor and Speaker’s Lobby, a crush of them nearly sprinting along the marble corridors past the elevators and out onto the Capitol plaza. Parked cars waiting to whisk members to the airport jam the normally deserted plaza. Their work done for the week, lawmakers are headed home. Constituents — and contributors — await.
Gallego jets off to San Antonio, where he has a standing Friday dinner with new groups of campaign contributors. “I make myself like it,” he said of the constant fund-raising. “After awhile, it’s not so bad.”