A long way from humble Woodside, where he officially lives and serves as chair of the Queens County Democrats, Rep. Joseph Crowley conducts the part of his job the public never gets to see: bringing in big money as a leading fundraiser for the national Democratic Party.
Among the donors feting Crowley with fundraisers this election cycle so far has been the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation, the company that processes Wall Street’s stock trades. The scene last November was an Italian restaurant near Capitol Hill, where amid décor of china plates signed by D.C. power-brokers such as Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emmanuel, two lobbyists from the company’s political action committee welcomed guests at $500 to $1000 per seat. The committee then chipped in $2,500 to Crowley’s campaign for re-election.
Depository Trust has plenty of company in donating to the Queens congressman. As of March 31, Crowley had raised more than $1.6 million in the 2012 primary season, with more than $500,000 of it coming from the finance, insurance and real estate industries. He has outraised and substantially outspent all other members of New York City’s Congressional delegation, even though he faces no challenger in the June 26 Democratic primary and is expected to coast to victory in November. Even his 50th birthday this March was an occasion for a fundraiser, with a live performance by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes at the Grand Hyatt – preceded by a robocall musical performance by Crowley urging his supporters to show up.
Crowley’s massive war chest highlights a stark reality of New York City’s congressional delegation: Members who are unopposed in their party have raised and spent an average of nearly twice as much in the primary season as those facing a challenger. The three who have spent the most on their 2012 campaigns — Reps. Crowley, Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler — do not face primaries and expect only token opposition in November.
Fundraising by New York City Democrats in Congress, 2012 cycle
Source: Federal Election Commission. “Total contributed” designates funds given to other members’ campaign committees; “Total contributed to DCCC” shows contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
So why are candidates facing no primaries this year amassing huge warchests? Fundraisers, consultants and political experts say it speaks to three forces churning around this year’s high-stakes congressional elections, in which Democrats hope to take back the House majority.
Heavyweight donors want access to powerful members. “People with seniority get contributions,” said Mitch Draizin, who owns a financial services company and is a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which works to elect Democrats in contested House races. “It’s a sort of an insurance policy so people get their calls answered.”
Draizin said that donors’ motivations vary, and that he and many others support candidates based on their beliefs and their records. But he acknowledged a constant truth of political fundraising: some businesses, banks, and law firms have vested interests in legislation or feel obligated to contribute to powerful local politicians.
Crowley, Maloney and Nadler each have more than a decade of service in Congress. Crowley and Maloney, the city’s top two fundraisers, sit on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and the Financial Services Committee, respectively. Although Democrats have limited legislative clout in the current GOP-controlled House, they can make their voices heard on regulatory issues such as implementing financial reform — and the tables can always turn if the Democrats retake the chamber.
Fundraising is the pathway to leadership positions in Congress. Prodigious fundraisers with easy races donate heavily to their party’s campaign committees, and the biggest contributors to the DCCC parallel the House’s Democratic leadership almost exactly.
“Fundraising has become the most important thing that public officials do to gain power,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist and consultant. He cited the costs of television ads and direct mail, which require heavy spending by both candidates and party committees. The cost of winning a House race has surged from an average of $845,907 in 2000 to an average of $1,434,760 in 2010, according to an analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute.
Crowley, who is already the finance chair of the DCCC and has given it $170,000 so far in the 2012 cycle – fourteenth among all House members – is widely believed to aspire to a top position in the House’s Democratic caucus. Sheinkopf said Crowley’s assignment to the Ways and Means Committee was a sign of favor among national leaders, and that Crowley is often discussed as “on the fast track to leadership.” (You can also read this analysis in Capital New York of why his fundraising prowess wasn’t enough to earn Crowley the top spot at the DCCC in 2010, when he provided it with $280,000. The slot went to Rep. Steve Israel of Long Island, who has raised $450,000 so far for 2012.)
“I don’t know what the future holds for me personally, but I do know the future needs to include Democrats retaking control of the House,” Crowley told The New York World. “I have been tasked by my party’s leadership to help with this effort and that’s why I have been working hard to ensure Democratic candidates have the resources they need to run and win.”
The Democratic Party is counting on New York City’s donors. As Democrats seek to retake the House against an expected deluge of spending by conservative-leaning Super PACs, traditional donors in New York City’s financial, insurance, real estate and legal industries are critical to the party’s competitiveness.
‘Those donations are the lifeblood of the party, and certainly the core of the party’s ability to compete nationally,” said Scott Levenson, the president of the Advance Group, a Democratic consulting firm.
So far, the DCCC has raised $90 million in the 2012 cycle, after receiving a total of $164 million in the 2010 elections. The legal, securities and investment and real estate sectors are three of the top five industries contributing to all branches of the Democratic Party in 2012, to the combined tune of roughly $45 million, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. New York City law firms such as Akin Gump and Susman Godfrey, and financial firms such as Goldman Sachs, are among the companies whose employees have contributed the most to Democrats.
The combination of these factors — entrenched incumbents, donors with interests before Congress, and parties that require aspiring leaders to raise massive sums even in uncontested races — has promoted concerns in the past about whether members were being unduly influenced.
In 2010, Crowley was the target of an investigation by the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics for donations that he and eight other representatives received from Wall Street at the time of the vote on the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. On Dec. 10, 2009 — nearly a year before his next election — Crowley raised thousands of dollars at a fundraiser with financial firms before returning to the House floor in time to vote against amendments to the bill that would have toughened financial regulations.
Crowley was later cleared by the House Ethics Committee, which found that the fundraisers that he and other members had conducted were planned in advance of the votes and “raised no appearances of impropriety.”
As his 2012 totals indicate, Crowley has continued to fundraise aggressively from the financial industry. Depository Trust, the Wall Street giant that hosted his November 2011 fundraiser at the Italian restaurant, spent more than a million dollars lobbying the federal government in both 2010 and 2011. In 2012, its political action committee contributed a total of more than $75,000 to 47 representatives in both parties.
Nor were its contributions the company’s only route to Crowley. This year, Depository Trust is paying Crowley’s former chief of staff, Chris McCannell, to lobby the House on implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
Asked by the Daily News about his formidable fundraising in the wake of the 2010 ethics investigation, Crowley said it reflected his growing political power.
“I think I’ve matured here both personally and in terms of my assignments,” Crowley said. “Many people here in Washington view me as an important figure.”