One evening in late September, Mitt Romney supporters gathered at the $3 million Boca Raton, Florida, home of Marc Leder, the Sun Capital Partners Inc. co-founder behind the takeovers of retailers Friendly Ice Cream Corp., Limited stores and ShopKo Stores Inc.
Waiters served brie-stuffed French toast and short-rib tartlets as guests including Daniel Staton, chairman of social-networking company FriendFinder Networks Inc., lingered about the 10,657 square-foot (990 square-meter), six-bedroom waterfront home. Then they gathered inside for a half-hour speech by Romney, whose years of buying and selling companies for Bain Capital LLC left him with a worth of as much as $250 million and a natural rapport with the crowd.
“It’s kind of hard for Romney to come across being a regular Joe,” said Staton. “But put him in a room full of 400 business guys that are all successful, that relate to him, he comes off beautifully.”
Romney raised $57 million last year, more than any of his Republican presidential rivals, and entered the primary season with $20 million to spend. He garnered $24 million alone from October to December, almost twice as much as his chief competitor, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, took in all of last year, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission this week. And he has benefited from Wall Street support in that pursuit.
Romney’s benefactors include prominent executives at hedge funds and in private equity, an investing specialty that his candidacy has put under fresh scrutiny because its deals can lead to lost jobs. Romney’s days as chief executive officer at Bain Capital are drawing campaign cash from hedge funds, former colleagues, business contacts and private-equity investors such as Marc Rowan, the billionaire senior managing director of New York-based Apollo Global Management LLC, federal and state campaign records show.
Also among the donors: Tiger Management LLC founder Julian Robertson and three of his former hedge fund managers, Lee Ainslie, John A. Griffin and Chris Shumway, who donated a combined $2.1 million to Restore Our Future, a so-called super-political action committee, or PAC, backing Romney’s campaign. Hedge-fund managers Paul Singer of Elliott Management Corp., Renaissance Technologies LLC co-chief executive officer Robert Mercer and John Paulson of Paulson & Co. each gave $1 million.
The support comes with political risk to Romney, who has been dogged by criticism from rivals that he’s out of touch with average Americans. Romney said in a Feb. 1 CNN interview that he isn’t concerned about America’s very poor because they have a “safety net.” Yesterday he accepted the endorsement of Donald Trump, the billionaire developer and television personality.
“I think it plays into that narrative that Romney is an elitist and he doesn’t understand the common people,” said David Damore, who teaches politics at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Wall Street remains publicly tarnished for its role in the credit-market crash that has left the economy struggling two-and-a-half years after the recession’s end. In Washington, banks and securities firms face new regulations stemming from the Dodd-Frank banking overhaul signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. That has sent campaign cash flowing to Romney, who, like Gingrich, says he would repeal the law.
‘One of Them’
Restore Our Future is allowed to collect unlimited sums to back Romney’s campaign. Its $7.7 million in spending on broadcast television ads in Florida helped lift Romney to a 14-point victory on Jan. 31, cementing his status as the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
“Romney is a candidate who is one of them,” said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who follows campaign finance. “They see the Obama administration as pursuing a course that is detrimental to their interest.”
Securities and investment firms and their employees gave more than any other industry to Restore Our Future in 2011, providing $13.5 million of the $30.2 million raised by the group, according to federal records and the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group that tracks campaign giving. Winning Our Future, the PAC backing Gingrich, raised just $500,000 from the industry, the center’s data show.
Among Top Groups
Financial services companies including New York-based Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Blackstone Group LP made up eight of the top 10 employers of people who gave to Romney’s presidential campaign, where donations are legally limited to $2,500 per person. JPMorgan Chase & Co. was the only financial institution on Obama’s top-10 list.
In addition to imposing new financial regulations, Obama wants to let Bush-era tax cuts on top-earners expire and has suggested eliminating a provision that allows private-equity managers to count earnings as capital gains. That lets them pay at less than half the rate imposed on the highest incomes.
“To the extent anyone is supporting Mitt Romney over President Obama it is because the state of the economy and the president’s failure to create jobs,” Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, said in an e-mail.
Siding With Republicans
Kevin Landry, the vice chairman of Boston private-equity firm TA Associates Inc., gave $100,000 to Restore Our Future. Landry said he has long backed Romney, whom he admired from the candidate’s time at Bain, and expressed concerned about Obama’s attitude toward the wealthy and his ability to oversee the economy.
“Democrats begin with the central thesis that if you have wealth you stole it from someone else,” he said by telephone. “Republicans have the bias if you have it you must have created it. You can attack both of those biases as extreme, but I come down on the side of the Republicans.”
Federal election reports released this week show Romney’s broad base within the finance industry, with almost all of the donations to Restore Our Future coming from first-time givers. Three Bain Capital employees -- Domenic Ferrante, Steven Barnes and John Connaughton -- combined gave $625,000 to the PAC.
Among repeat donors to the committee are private-equity executives, including some with former ties to Bain & Co. Romney worked for the Boston-based consulting firm before starting Bain Capital, which pursued takeovers, in 1984. He was Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007.
Kevin Rollins, a former partner at Bain & Co., and his wife gave the PAC $250,000. Rollins joined computer maker Dell Inc. in 1996 and rose to chief executive officer. In 2007, he became an adviser for TPG Capital, the Fort Worth, Texas, buyout company whose $48 billion in investments include stakes in casino owner Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Petco Animal Supplies Inc.
Richard Boyce, founder of TPG Capital’s Operating Group and also a former Bain & Co. partner, gave $200,000 to the PAC. W/F Investment Corp., a Los Angeles private-equity firm whose portfolio includes beer brewery Uplifters Spirits, gave $275,000. William Fleischman, W/F Investment’s chairman and CEO, also gave $100,000.
TPG spokeswoman Lisa Baker said Rollins and Boyce declined to comment. A receptionist at W/F said Fleischman is declining to comment on his donations.
So-called super-PACs have raised concerns about the potential for secrecy and anonymity in political giving. One contribution to Restore Our Future that drew criticism was made by Edward Conard, a former managing director at Bain Capital, who gave $1 million while trying to shield his identity by creating a corporation called W Spann LLC.
Conard acknowledged he was the source of the contribution after campaign-finance watchdogs brought complaints to the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department. He didn’t respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Rowan, who started Apollo with Leon Black and Josh Harris in 1990, has contributed to Restore Our Future four times, giving $75,000. His wife, Carolyn, chipped in $30,000.
Rowan has been part of prominent private-equity deals, including the takeover with TPG Capital of casino giant Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., which is now known as Caesars in Las Vegas. Apollo buys the debt of companies that have borrowed too much, to gain control. It typically restructures them and aims to sell its stake through initial public offerings.
“Where we look for opportunity on our new investment side is where there has been complete destruction,” Rowan said at a 2010 Milken Institute Global Conference.
Apollo, which went public in March, owns stakes in Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and retailer Claire’s Stores Inc. The company lost about a fifth of its market value as it wrote down its buyout holdings.
Rowan, who the Center for Responsive Politics says has given at least $244,650 to Republicans and Democrats in the past three election cycles, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Romney’s candidacy has drawn scrutiny to the private-equity industry, including the tax advantages managers enjoy and the effect the industry’s deals sometimes have on employment. Gingrich has questioned whether Romney’s fortune -- which provided an income of almost $21.6 million in 2010 -- was built at the cost of workers’ jobs. Private-equity deals can burden firms with debt while paying management fees and dividends to buyers, which can put financial pressure on the companies.
Sun Capital, the Boca Raton, Florida-based firm started by Leder and his partner, Rodger Krouse, has purchased at least 15 companies that wound up in bankruptcy since 2006. In May, Berkline/BenchCraft Holdings LLC, sought to liquidate its assets under court protection.
In October, Friendly, a 76-year-old restaurant chain owned by Sun, also entered bankruptcy, only to be repurchased by Sun after shedding debt. In court papers, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. said Sun was trying to escape from unfunded pension obligations. Sun objected to the characterization. Leder didn’t respond to a request for an interview made through Katrin Lieberwirth, a Sun spokeswoman.
Staton, the social-networking executive who attended the fundraiser at Leder’s house, said Leder and Krouse’s firm represents a great success story. During his 2009 divorce, Leder’s wife estimated their assets at more than $400 million. She described the couple’s “very high standard of living,” including private jet travel and a summer home in Vermont.
Leder, Krouse and former Bain Capital managing director Conard all supported Romney’s run for the White House before he officially entered the race last June.
In 2010 the three contributed $174,500 to four state political action committees affiliated with Romney that donated money to local candidates in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and Alabama.
Leder and Krouse also each gave $125,000 to the super-PAC supporting Romney, FEC records show.
“These are two guys that didn’t have anything a few years ago,” said Staton. “Now they’re uber wealthy. They’ve got tens of thousands of employees in their companies. Their companies, for the most part, have all done well and grown. And the people who’ve invested with them have done well.”