The dinner was $25,000 a plate, but after the last cups of coffee were poured, most diners agreed they had gotten their money’s worth.
The real main course was Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the Democratic vice presidential candidate, and the take at the Baltimore fund-raiser and cocktail reception last week — $975,000 — was almost double what sponsors originally anticipated.
That scene is being repeated all over the country. Joe Lieberman has turned into a kosher cash cow for the Democrats, bringing in millions of dollars to fuel the national ticket.
Lieberman has quickly established himself as a fund-raiser second only to this era’s long-reigning champion, President Bill Clinton.
Clearly, Lieberman’s breakthrough candidacy — he is the first Jew on a major party ticket — has turned thousands of Jews into enthusiastic fund-raisers.
Some are just proud of his achievement; others are vying for access to a man who has become the most important Jew in America.
“The amount of money is unbelievable, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said a leading Jewish Democrat. “And the hard money is not coming from traditional Democratic sources.”
In fact, some of it is coming from Jewish Republicans.
Six months ago, Rosalie Zalis, a Baltimore native and vice-president of a Los Angeles investment house, was a leading supporter of Sen. John McCain, an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination.
Zalis backed Ronald Reagan in both of his presidential runs and said she never gave to a Democratic ticket — until now.
Recently she gave $1,000 to the Gore-Lieberman campaign, because of “pride” over Lieberman, she said, praising him as “a man of great integrity, a great public servant.”
She said other Jewish Republicans are contributing to the Gore-Lieberman campaign for similar reasons, despite ongoing qualms about the Democratic platform and Al Gore.
“We’d still rather have Lieberman in there,” she reasoned, “because we know that deep down in his heart, he’ll be with us, no matter what he says during the campaign. When push comes to shove, he’ll never sell short Israel and the Jewish community.”
Some estimates place Lieberman’s contribution to the ticket’s war chest at almost $20 million in the three months since his nomination.
At a Silicon Valley fund-raiser early in the month, the take was $3.2 million, a record for a vice presidential candidate. The audience was a mix of high-tech executives and Jewish leaders.
The same day, Lieberman was the main reason the Democratic National Committee was able to raise $500,000 at a Seattle lunch event.
A fund-raising brunch in Washington just before Yom Kippur netted $450,000. Lieberman appeared there with his wife, Hadassah — herself a formidable fund-raiser who has been particularly successful before Jewish audiences.
Even the senator’s mother has gotten into the fund-raising act.
At the same time, Lieberman’s candidacy has galvanized a new army of Jewish fund-raisers. Shortly after his nomination, 100 prominent Jews in Washington got together and promised to raise $250,000 each from friends and associates. Many participants were new to the fund-raising game, attracted by Lieberman’s breakthrough status and their contacts with him at a Washington synagogue.
In some cases, their pledges have led to ferocious competition as they strive to raise the money, sometimes from the same people.
The most dramatic results occur when Lieberman himself is the pitchman.At last week’s Baltimore event, 300 contributors, mostly Jews, paid $1,000 each to schmooze with the candidate over cocktails; later, 90 attended a dinner and paid either $10,000 or $25,000 for the privilege.
“Joe Lieberman has always been one of the top fund-raisers in the Senate,” said Howard Friedman, a Baltimore executive and one of the hosts of last week’s event. That ability made him “attractive to Gore,” he noted, “especially because the Republicans have oil money coming out of their ears.”
Friedman describes Lieberman as “a natural” fund-raiser. “He’s warm, he’s friendly and he makes you see him as a real person, not just a politician asking for money,” he said. “The only person you can compare him to is Bill Clinton. When you’re with Clinton, he makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world.”
Friedman said that much of the money Lieberman is raising in the Jewish community is “new money,” adding that “half of the money given at our event last week came from people who have never written major checks to any political campaign.”
That influx has allayed early fears that Lieberman would divert into the presidential campaign money that would otherwise go to House and Senate candidates — a major concern for the party in view of the too-close-to-call struggle for control of both Houses of Congress.
Lieberman’s ability to bring new money to the Democrats also bodes well for the party after the 2000 elections, said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn, who suggested that if Gore wins, Lieberman will help raise funds for Democratic House and Senate candidates in 2002.
Others note that even if Gore loses, the additional contributors Lieberman has brought into the party could help Democrats for years to come, and could help finance a Lieberman run for the presidency in the future.