By Alexander Bolton
March 20, 2007
Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) presidential campaign may have missed out on millions of dollars by failing to return the calls of a small group of highly influential donors and operatives in New Jersey.
The high-rollers, having waited in vain for more than a month for Obama’s campaign to get back in contact, signed up to support Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
The gaffe highlights Clinton’s organizational advantage over her chief rival for the Democratic nomination. It also shows how Obama’s focus on the Internet and running an outsider’s campaign may undermine his ability to cultivate traditional political allies.
The coterie of Garden State Democrats supporting Clinton, which calls itself “The Group,” plans to hold three fundraisers in April and May and to raise about $2 million for her campaign before the Feb. 5 state primary, said its leaders.
Knowing that only three states raised more money for Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential race in 2004, this year’s crop of White House hopefuls courted The Group intensely, particularly in light of its decision to switch to the early-primary date in February, a few weeks after the Iowa caucuses.
Sens. Clinton, Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) each met privately with The Group. Biden even invited its members to his home in Delaware and spent six hours trying to convince them to support him.
The Group includes John Graham, co-chairman of Kerry’s 2004 campaign in New Jersey, and Al DeCotiis, who served as New Jersey co-finance chairman for former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 campaign and former President Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns.
Before The Group decided whom to support, it tried for several weeks to get in touch with Obama but never received a response. “They never got back to us,” said DeCotiis, The Group’s co-founder, who said it tried to contact Obama’s campaign for “five or six weeks” at the beginning of the year.
“We wanted to get a sense of what he was all about, whether he had what it takes [to be president.] Unfortunately we never got to meet him.
“They got back to us when we had already decided,” DeCotiis continued. “When they found out we were endorsing they called and we said it was too late. We wanted to be fair and reach out to all of the major candidates.”
The Group endorsed Clinton last month.
Obama did not have much to say about the New Jersey Democrats. “I’m not familiar with the issue — why don’t you talk to my fundraising staff?” he said. His campaign declined to answer questions about The Group’s contacts.
Members of The Group have been active in the last several presidential elections. Obama’s lack of familiarity with them and other behind-the-scenes powerbrokers around the country could hamper his ability to keep pace with Clinton’s fundraising and grassroots organizing.
“Those are some of the biggest fundraisers,” said New Jersey Democratic State Committee Executive Director Robert Asaro-Angelo in reference to DeCotiis, Graham, and other members of The Group. “On the fundraising end of it they’re pretty big.”
Clinton’s campaign has outworked her rivals in New Jersey in other ways. During the Democratic National Committee’s Winter Meeting last month, she met with state delegates to seek their support.
“Hillary’s campaign was the only one [that] reached out to the New Jersey delegation,” said Asaro-Angelo.
That is surprising given that New Jersey is the 11th most populous state in the country and the second richest, in terms of personal income per capita, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“One of Hillary’s biggest advantages is her organizational strength,” said Asaro-Angelo.
The Group’s influence goes beyond fundraising. One of its leading members is the Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey. African-American voters are estimated to comprise between 15 percent and 20 percent of the state’s Democratic electorate. It is a constituency that both Clinton and Obama made a public show of wooing recently during the 42nd anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Ala.
Other members of The Group are Zenon Christodoulou, president of New Jersey’s Greek-American Chamber of Commerce; Highland Park Mayor Meryl Frank; labor leader Vincent Giblin; Bill Harla, legal counsel to former Gov. Jim Florio; Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes; and Michael Kempner, president of MWW Group, a public-relations firm. Hughes has not yet endorsed Clinton but is expected to later this year.
Graham, who led Kerry’s campaign in New Jersey in 2004, said The Group was in the process of creating an executive fundraising committee for Clinton and also recruiting donors capable of raising $100,000 each, borrowing the “pioneer” fundraising model that President Bush used successfully in the last two presidential elections.
New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) is expected to endorse Clinton in a few weeks and work closely with the team of elite fundraisers now behind her, said New Jersey Democratic sources. That would give Clinton dominating support among the state’s Democratic establishment.