A Hard Sell Called ClintonSusan B. Garland
James O. Edwards has taken on a task few corporate executives would touch: raising $50,000 for President Clinton's reelection. The CEO of ICF Kaiser International Inc., a $1 billion engineering construction company in Fairfax, Va., knows most of his business associates are rabid Republicans who wouldn't give a dime to Clinton. So Edwards is hitting up 100 personal friends for $500 each. "The President has done an excellent job of managing the economy," he says. Still, other execs aren't buying that line. "I wouldn't even approach a lot of people," Edwards admits.
It may be a tough sell, but the Clinton '96 campaign already is putting the arm on Corporate America. As its fund-raising campaign formally kicks off, the Clintonites are counting on a clique of CEOs like Edwards to tap into a network of well-heeled business associates.
The goal isn't limited to coming up with cash. Clinton wants executives to spread the word in boardrooms and on shop floors that this President has been good for business and the economy. "We want CEOs active politically, garnering support from fellow CEOs and from the tens of thousands of employees they represent," says Terence R. McAuliffe, a real estate developer who is heading up the campaign's fund-raising operation.
McAuliffe already has a core group of missionaries: Felix G. Rohatyn of Lazard Frres, Bernard L. Schwartz of Loral Corp., Paul M. Montrone of Fisher Scientific International, James A. Harmon of Wertheim Schroder, David Geffen of DreamWorks SKG, Steven J. Green of Astrum International, Richard H. Jenrette of Equitable Cos., and Jerry K. Pearlman of Zenith Electronics.
WALL STREET PALS. That's just the short list. McAuliffe will spend the summer drumming up support from other top execs in time for fall fund-raisers in major cities. His troops will meet with executives and try to convince them Clinton is not just a tax-and-spend Democrat. McAuliffe also will target entrepreneurs. He hopes to match his success as a top fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee, where he boosted the number of $10,000 donors from 120 in 1993 to 900 now--most from smaller companies.
Of course, even embattled incumbent Presidents have little trouble raising money. And Clinton is well on his way to eeeting his yearend goal of $30 million--enough to counter Republican broadsides during the primaries and scare off would-be Democratic challengers. The campaign already has raised $11.5 million, including federal matching funds.
But now things are moving into high gear, with the first Presidential fund-raiser of the campaign scheduled for June 22. Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore were to appear in Somerset, N.J., before 1,000 donors, each paying $1,000--the maximum contribution for a Presidential campaign. Other late-June events in Little Rock and Chicago are expected to raise similar amounts.
The far bigger challenge is getting business leaders on the Clinton bandwagon at a time when Corporate America is wildly cheering GOP vows to trim taxes, slash federal spending, and relax regulations. "I think it's going to be very uphill," concedes Rohatyn, who will sign on to tap Wall Street buddies. After all, business hated Clinton's 1993 tax hike on high-income Americans and his big-government health-care plan.
The pitch of Rohatyn and his colleagues: Look at Clinton's record. He has presided over a strong economy, low inflation, job growth, and aggressive export promotion. And he pushed for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a new world trade accord, and a bailout for Mexico.
Loral's Schwartz says he already may have won some converts with such arguments. After the 1992 election, he says, "all the die-hard [Republicans] were saying that this lucky guy was cashing in on policies Bush put in place. Nobody now can say that the continued strength of the stock market has anything to do with Bush."
As in 1992, Wall Street will be a big source of financial help. Harmon of Wertheim Schroder & Co. says Clinton's 1993 deficit-reduction efforts and his recent balanced-budget proposal will be selling points. "One reason the securities markets are going through the roof is that the financial community recognizes that the President's budget proposal is very reasonable," Harmon says.
"RECOVERING ALCOHOLIC." To woo execs at multinationals, the Clintonites will promote the President's trade policy--not only NAFTA and the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade but also Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's overseas trade missions, which have secured lucrative contracts. "I think that it's to [Clinton's] credit that he supported NAFTA and GATT, sometimes going against one of his major constituencies, organized labor," says Montrone.
Green, CEO of Astrum International Corp., which owns Samsonite and American Tourister luggage, says he intends to raise money, talk up Clinton, and offer advice. He says many GOP proposals may be good for business, but not for the nation. "There's a balance between balancing the budget and being so hard that you create civil problems," he says. "While I truly believe in fiscal conservatism, it's outrageous that we could live in a country that didn't provide medical assistance for ill people."
Clinton strategists say they're finding other like-minded CEOs who worry about Republican excess. Indeed, Edward R. McCracken, CEO of Silicon Graphics Inc., worries that the GOP may be going too far on such issues as affirmative action and immigration. A Republican who supported Clinton in 1992, he is holding back an endorsement this time until he sees who emerges as the GOP favorite. He also wants Clinton to back legal reforms that would make it harder to bring frivolous shareholder suits--a problem for high-tech companies. "If the President vetoes that, he will lose all support in Silicon Valley," McCracken warns.
Clinton may already have lost a major backer in Tech Land. Lawrence J. Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corp., a software giant, says he liked Clinton's support of NAFTA and GATT but worries about his lurches to the left. Ellison notes that he was a big contributor to Democratic Party groups and a strong supporter of Clinton in 1992. "I say that now like a recovering alcoholic," he says. John H. Bryan, CEO of Sara Lee Corp., still supports Clinton but is likely to take a lower profile this time around. One reason: Shareholders at annual meetings have repeatedly questioned Bryan about his high-visibility support of Clinton.
But for every defection, the Clintonites hope to bag many more new supporters. One target: August A. Busch III, CEO of Anheuser-Busch Cos. and a supporter of the Administration on issues such as the 1993 deficit-reduction plan. If the economy stays strong and the President's poll numbers rise, the campaign just might start picking up CEOs inclined to go with a winner. Meanwhile, Clinton's Corporate Campaign Clique has its hands full just getting into boardrooms--and getting someone to listen.
THE CHIEFS STILL HAILING TO THE CHIEF
As Clinton's campaign-finance committee kicks into high gear, it is calling on corporate supporters from 1992. Many of the executives who threw their weight behind the Prez are still standing by their man from Hope.
Sara Lee's chief executive was an active supporter of the Democratic ticket in 1992. Bryan still backs Clinton, but shareholders have pressured him to keep a lower profile during the 1996 Presidential race.
He helped organize the Hollywood crowd for Clinton in 1992 and recently has co-hosted a $2 million fund-raiser for the Democratic Party. Geffen will continue to tap his Tinseltown friends on behalf of the President.
The chairman of Silicon Graphics, a moderate Republican, supported Clinton in 1992. He says he likes the President's performance but wants to see which Republican emerges before he makes a decision on who to support.
The CEO of Fisher Scientific raised money for Clinton last time around and will put together a high-visibility group of CEOs for Clinton in 1996. He says Clinton understands the U.S. role in a global economy.
The CEO of defense electronics giant Loral is a lifelong Democrat and a major party donor. He thinks Clinton should get credit for the nation's strong economic performance and plans to talk up the President's record with other execs.