In October, a leading Democratic donor named Shefali Razdan Duggal emailed a sweetly worded but insistent list of demands to a staff member at the Democratic National Committee.
Duggal wanted a reminder of how much she had raised for President Barack Obama and the Democrats (the answer: $679,650) and whether it qualified her for the premium package of hotel rooms and VIP invitations at the party’s convention in Philadelphia. She asked whether she could have an extra ticket to Vice President Joe Biden’s holiday party, so she could bring her children. But most on her mind, it seemed, was getting access to an exclusive November gathering at the White House.
“Not assuming I am invited … just mentioning/asking, if in case, I am invited :),” wrote Duggal, who was appointed by Obama to oversee the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and is married to a San Francisco financial executive. “Might you have an intel?”
Duggal’s note was among 19,000 internal Democratic Party emails released on Friday by WikiLeaks, setting off a frenzy on the eve of the party’s quadrennial nominating convention and forcing the resignation of the party chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Some of the emails revealed internal discussion by DNC officials — obligated under party rules to remain neutral in the presidential primary — about how to discredit Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, enraging some of his supporters.
But the leaked cache also included thousands of emails exchanged by Democratic officials and party fundraisers, revealing in rarely seen detail the elaborate, ingratiating and often bluntly transactional exchanges necessary to harvest hundreds of millions of dollars from the party’s wealthy donor class.
The emails capture a world where seating charts are arranged with dollar totals in mind, where a White House celebration of gay pride is a thinly disguised occasion for rewarding wealthy donors and where physical proximity to the president is the most precious of currencies.
In a statement, Amy Dacey, the chief executive of the DNC, said the party had “engaged a record number of people in the political process” and “adhered to the highest of standards.”
The emails reflect the struggles of midlevel staff members in a demanding environment, seeking to bring in money at a steady clip while balancing a stream of demands from donors and party officials.
Some messages suggest efforts by donors to gain access to prominent Democratic officials on behalf of clients. In May, Lester Coney, an executive at a Chicago-based financial services firm, emailed a party finance staff member seeking a contact with “clout within the administration.” Coney appeared to be referring to Gov. Mark Dayton, the governor of Minnesota.
“I have a very importance client/friend needed access with someone within the administration,” Coney wrote. “So I promise him I would investigate.”
The staff member appeared worried about the request, writing “No idea what to tell him here,” to the party’s national finance director, Jordan Kaplan, an Obama campaign veteran with deep ties to Midwestern donors.
“I told him to call rt,” Kaplan replied, referring to R.T. Rybak, a DNC vice chairman and former mayor of Minneapolis.
Rybak, in response to questions from The New York Times on Sunday, said he never heard from Coney.
“I have no idea what this person wanted but the request was never made to me,” Rybak wrote in an email. “If it had been, I would not have made such a call.” Coney told The Times that he did not end up speaking to anyone in Minnesota about the query, which he said had been routine. He said he had sought the contact for a friend’s client, whom he declined to name.
The leaked emails span the period from January 2015 to late May of this year, during which Obama was the party’s chief fundraising draw but the Democratic National Committee was beginning to raise money jointly with the party’s presumed future nominee, Clinton. Many revolve around donors’ efforts to qualify for top packages at the convention that began Monday in Philadelphia.
Donors who raise $1.25 million for the party — or who give $467,000 — are entitled to priority booking in a top hotel, nightly access to VIP lounges and an “exclusive roundtable and campaign briefing with high-level Democratic officials,” according to a promotional brochure obtained by The Times.
For some donors, Obama’s personal presence was most important. In an exchange in May, DNC finance staff members debated how to preserve a $350,000 fundraiser to be hosted by Carol Goldberg, an artist, and her husband, Hank Goldberg, a real estate executive. The Goldbergs had been eager to host Obama at their home, in Chevy Chase, Md.
But after White House officials concluded that the extra drive was not a good use of Obama’s time, aides discussed proposing to the family that they could instead host with other donors an event at the Jefferson Hotel, a luxury establishment a few blocks north of the White House.
Another staff member, given the task of letting the Goldbergs down, knew they would be disappointed. “I think the excitement of hosting at home was a big factor,” he wrote. The Goldbergs pulled out of the fundraiser.
In some cases, the party offered donors the chance to join “roundtables” — meetings for major givers disguised as high-minded discussions of national economic and social policy, where wealthy givers are treated as savants and sages.
“Wonderful event yesterday,” Robert Pietrzak, a New Yorker lawyer and top Obama fundraiser, wrote to a DNC fundraiser after he participated in an event with Obama in May. “A lot of foreign policy, starting with my question on China. The President was in great form.”
As is common in national politics, Democratic staff members kept detailed track of every dollar contributed by targeted donors, aiming to get each of the wealthiest givers to “max out,” or contribute the maximum legal amount to each party account. The biggest national donors were the subject of entire dossiers, as fundraisers tried to gauge their interests, annoyances and passions.
“Jon has an off and on again relationship with the DNC. He does not like DWS and feels we don’t invite him to enough things,” read one memo, about Jon Stryker, a prominent gay donor and heir to a medical supply fortune, referring to the committee’s chairwoman, Wasserman Schultz.
Few details of fundraising events were too small to escape notice. Reviewing one seating chart, staff members debated whether to seat Philip Munger, the son of Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Charles Munger Sr., next to Obama at a May roundtable. Munger was the largest donor to Obama’s political group, Organizing for Action, and a huge potential source of money for the DNC.
The alternative was Sreedhar Potarazu, a Maryland ophthalmologist whose family members were already major Democratic Party donors, and who appears to have alienated some within the DNC for his persistence. In his push to meet with Obama, Potarazu had apparently shared with party officials the story of his battle with cancer, a tactic that some of them viewed as crass.
“The Potarazu family has written $332,250 to us since ‘13. Munger has written $100,600 (and that’s only if you reach back to 2008),” wrote a DNC official in charge of mid-Atlantic fundraising. “I don’t understand why we’d be rewarding someone for giving to OFA over us. I also don’t understand why everyone seems to hate Sreedhar so much.”
Kaplan was firm. “Phil Munger is one of the largest democratic donors in the country,” he said. “He is looking to give his money in new places and I would like that to be to us.”
Though some of the leaked emails are highly critical of Sanders, others show the party’s fundraisers seeking to avoid any appearance that Obama was favoring Clinton.
When the party invited John A. Braun, a Virginia-based defense contractor, to what was billed as a discussion with Obama on economic issues in May, Braun informed the DNC that he had already written a large check to the party through a fundraiser held jointly with Clinton.
“Could I try to strike a deal with him and push for $20k or $15k so he feels like he’s getting a discount for his past support?” a staff member wrote to Kaplan. “I’ll pitch him on doing a second max out to get the main line package. I just don’t know him and am worried about striking out if he won’t do the full.”
Party officials ultimately concluded that Braun would first have to give or raise additional money for the party, to avoid the appearance that Obama’s events were helping raise money for Clinton.
As they looked to maximize opportunities to bring in money, the party’s fundraisers also grappled with delicate personal considerations among the Obama family, who were unenthusiastic about the demands of wooing donors.
There was, however, one potential way to interest Barack Obama in donor maintenance. In May, Kaplan emailed each of his regional fundraising directors with a request: Send the names of donors who would be good golf partners for the president. Obama, it seemed, was looking to hit the links on his upcoming trips.
“Laugh as you may at this because I did — but if you had to pick people from your regions to play golf with POTUS, who would they be?” Kaplan wrote.