Two years after Mitt Romney’s first run for president and about a year before the official start of his current one, aide Spencer Zwick took his pitch to coffee with a Washington lobbyist.
The argument, recalled the lobbyist, was simple: Romney’s qualified, ready, and has no skeletons in his closet -- and if anyone would know, it would be Zwick.
Few advisers are as close to Romney, 65, as Zwick, the 32-year-old aide who’s spent nearly all of his professional life working for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. For about a decade, Zwick has been by Romney’s side, traveling from the spires of Salt Lake City to the halls of the Massachusetts statehouse.
Now, as Romney takes his fundraising effort into overdrive in preparation for the fall election, he’s once again entrusted the task of bankrolling his campaign to Zwick, who is so close to the Romney family that he’s often referred to as their “sixth son” by campaign workers.
“I feel close to him and his family,” Zwick said in a June 8 phone interview. “That allows me to certainly convey with even greater passion my willingness to do anything I can to help him and his cause.”
Their relationship helps Zwick sell the campaign to donors, who say they are getting a direct line to Romney through him.
Proximity to Mitt
“The number one thing is that he’s got such a good relationship with the candidate himself,” said Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets football team and head of Romney’s fundraising in the New York region. “It’s just his proximity to Mitt.”
It’s also a connection that has made millions for Zwick. His fundraising consulting firm, SJZ LLC, has collected nearly $7.5 million from Romney’s presidential bid, making it the campaign’s third highest paid vendor. In April, the company received $900,000 from the campaign, 7.16% of the total expenditures.
In addition to that firm, Zwick in 2008 began meeting with major campaign donors about a month after Romney ended his first White House quest to raise money for a private equity fund Zwick was starting with Romney’s son, Tagg. Two of the early $10-million-dollar investors were Romney and his wife, Ann. When it opened, the firm was headquartered in the same office building as the Romney campaign offices and press aide Eric Fehrnstrom at times helped with media strategy.
Solamere Capital, named after a wealthy Utah ski area where the Romney’s have a vacation home, is in line to collect at least $16.8 million in fees over the next six years, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. When it came time to select a speaker for the company’s first investor conference, the choice was obvious: the former Massachusetts governor.
“Zwick’s focus has always been Romney,” said Kirk Jowers, a former Romney aide and director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “And there’s been plenty to keep him busy.”
Last month, Zwick and his team outraised President Barack Obama’s campaign for the first time. The Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee raised nearly $77 million in May compared with $60 million raised Obama and the Democratic National Committee.
Romney yesterday raised more than $3 million at a fundraiser in Atlanta, where about 900 people paid $1,000, $5,000 or $50,000 apiece for dinner and a reception with the candidate. Today, he greeted 150 donors at the Isleworth country club, a gated community in Florida that’s home to several professional golfers.
Zwick’s performance has impressed even his rivals. After Romney lost in the 2008 Republican primary battle, top finance aides to the winner, Senator John McCain of Arizona, invited Zwick and several of his fundraisers for a meeting to discuss their strategy.
Over dinner in a private room of a Northern Virginia steakhouse, Zwick described Romney’s fundraising operation, including its software, dubbed ComMITT, that was exclusively designed for the campaign.
“It was very impressive and very helpful,” said Fred Malek, a co-chairmen of McCain’s finance committee.
Unlike last election, when the Romney campaign focused largely on a regional network of donors, Zwick said this year they are building out an organization structured around industries --including Wall Street -- or interest groups such as Israel supporters.
“You have groups of industries or affinity groups that are willing to organize around Governor Romney because of issues that they care about,” said Zwick. “My whole hope in the fundraising is that we can go from a candidacy to a cause.”
The fundraising software has been updated to allow donors who solicit contributions from friends to track from an iPad or mobile phone what people in their network have given.
“One thing I’ve learned from the governor is that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” said Zwick.
Donors and Romney staff members describe an interwoven relationship between the candidate and his aide, based on a deep level of trust, hard work, and a shared background.
“There are a number of similarities,” said Staples Inc. founder Tom Stemberg, a long-time Romney friend and donor. “Spencer, very much like Mitt, is incredibly low-key, buttoned-down, and well-prepared.”
Like Romney, Zwick is Mormon and a graduate of Brigham Young University. His father, W. Craig Zwick, is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, a body of priests charged with administering church policy nationally. The family company, Zwick Construction, has built important church buildings across the country, including the Church Museum of Art and History and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
“They understand each other,” said U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah and Romney backer. “Spencer knows what the governor wants and needs and Governor Romney flat-out likes being around him.”
Fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and Thai, Zwick was volunteering as a translator for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics organizing committee when he was tapped to become Romney’s personal aide. After the games were over, Romney asked the then-22-year-old to move to Boston to work on his 2004 gubernatorial campaign. That led to a position on Romney’s transition team and appointment as his deputy chief of staff in the statehouse.
When Romney started exploring a bid for the presidency, Zwick was asked in 2005 to figure out how to start a campaign. He realized that Romney would need political veterans to run the campaign machine.
“But I did tell him that I thought I could help him raise some money and build a national network,” Zwick said in an Oct. 4, 2010, interview for an on-line video series produced by Brigham Young University.
From his work as founder of private equity firm Bain Capital LLC, Romney had connections to rich investors across the country. Zwick began reaching out to those associates, some of whom were surprised by the aide’s youthful appearance. “Spencer was probably in diapers when I began raising money for Romney,” said Connecticut Republican Tom Foley, who first donated to Romney for his unsuccessful 1994 Senate run in Massachusetts -- when Zwick was 14 years old.
Vacation Home Visits
To maintain relationships in between campaigns, past and potential donors have been invited to Romney’s New Hampshire vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee for lunch, policy talks and boat rides. Zwick even helped arrange for some to interact with his boss on trips abroad.
A trip to Israel in January 2011 helped convince Jets-owner Johnson to back Romney. Meetings with top officials, including the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, started at seven in the morning and went late into the evening. At the end of the long days, Johnson recounted, the group would ask Romney to analyze the meetings.
“He was very fair and open and really very impressive,” said Johnson. “I got to know Mitt a lot from a foreign policy standpoint.”
Today, donors regularly receive e-mail missives from staff members on the trail and invitations for policy briefings and conference calls with top aides.
At a May 14 breakfast hosted by Johnson, donors were able to put questions to Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, a potential vice presidential candidate, on policy positions and strategy, said Georgette Mosbacher, a New York fundraiser who attended the meeting.
“They call me, they send me e-mails,” she said. “That’s unbelievable to take that kind of time.”
The outreach stretches across the globe. During a fundraising swing through New York City last month, the Romney campaign hosted video conferences with donors in Hong Kong and Singapore.
In July, Johnson hosted a fundraiser in London at the Dartmouth House, a building close to Hyde Park that features marble fireplaces, walnut paneling, and a painted ceiling.
Zwick, too, is in constant contact with supporters. The father of three young boys travels constantly and is notorious for responding immediately to emails -- even those sent at one or two in the morning, say donors. “You e-mail him, you have an e-mail back in five minutes. Maybe ten,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a long-time Republican fundraiser from Virginia.
And he is rarely spotted without a mobile phone to his ear. Last month, in between fundraisers at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida, he paced between the columns in the opulent lobby working his phone.