WASHINGTON -- While Democratic Sen. Barack Obama talks about transforming politics and touts the donations of "ordinary" people to his campaign, a network of more than 100 elite Democratic "bundlers" is raising millions of dollars for his White House bid.
The Obama campaign prefers the emphasis be on the army of small donors who are giving -- and raising -- money for Obama. In truth, though, there are two parallel narratives -- and the other is that Obama is also heavily reliant on wealthy and well-connected Democrats.
While Obama took money from federal lobbyists and political action committees for his Senate war chests, he is not for his presidential campaign. That ban does not preclude non-lobbyists who have interests in federal matters or who lobby other government entities.
Those at the top of the Obama fund-raising pyramid -- people who pledge to raise at least $250,000 -- get a gold VIP lapel pin with the letters "NFC" fashioned in the campaign's logo.
The letters stand for Obama's National Finance Committee, and the group met in Washington on Wednesday for a retreat at a hotel with the Obama professional fund-raisers, campaign manager David Plouffe and chief strategist David Axelrod, among others. After raising $25 million in the first quarter -- creating a national network almost from scratch -- their challenge in the second quarter is to show they were not just grabbing the low-hanging fruit.
Details about Obama's first-quarter fund-raising will be released today, when reports must be filed with the Federal Election Commission. Earlier this month, the Obama campaign released overall figures showing that in the first three months, Obama collected at least $25 million, with $23.5 million available for the primary. He has about 100,000 donors and collected $6.9 million via the Internet.
Obama's campaign on Friday released some other figures: In addition to the Internet cash, he raised $2.4 million from direct mail and about $1 million from paid telemarketeers.
"Bundlers" are people who solicit their networks for donations and, at the elite giving levels, often get some assistance from campaign fund-raising professionals.
Each of the 138 Obama bundlers promised to raise at least $50,000, and many are from Chicago, not surprising since Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker is the national finance chairwoman. Among those from the city are major Democratic donors Lou Sussman, who was John Kerry's chief of fund-raising in 2004; BettyLu Saltzman, one of Obama's biggest boosters; personal-injury attorney Bob Clifford; Capri Capital CEO Quintin Primo; activists Marilyn Katz and Michael Bauer, Ariel Capital's John Rogers and Mellody Hobson.
Hollywood moguls David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg; a string of Harvard Law School friends; Broadway producer Margo Lion, and Bill Kennard, managing director of the Carlyle Group, are among the other bundlers.
However, with the help of Internet fund-raising tools on Obama's Web site, about 7,000 people have become low-dollar, grass-roots do-it-yourself bundlers, pulling in about $700,000.
A man in Los Angeles got this e-mail pitch from an acquaintance who knew Obama from his days teaching law at the University of Chicago: "I'm challenging myself to raise $500 for Barack Obama in the next week."