Financial planning for political donors

People lined up early in the morning to hear oral arguments in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission at the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, October 8, 2013. The case eliminated certain Constitutional limits of campaign finance laws involving contributions to candidates and political parties

The boom in political giving has given rise not only to countless television advertisements and myriad political action committees, but also to something of a new type of job: financial planner for wealthy political donors.

“They [wealthy donors] have other activities in their lives," says Bob Biersack, a fellow with the Center for Responsive Politics. "So they don’t follow the ins and outs of politics – who’s up, who’s down."

Enter what’s known as a donor-side consultant, like Ella Arnold, who works with five Bay-Area families. These are very wealthy families whom she declined to identify.

Arnold and her company, Buell Private Political Management, are in touch with clients every day, “managing their political giving and making sure they stay within federal and state limits – contribution limits,” she says.

Some of those limits disappeared recently, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in a case called McCutcheon versus FEC. Arnold says that actually made her kind of consulting more attractive to big donors. That class of political activist recognizes that candidates can now hit them up for more cash.

They’re thinking, “now that I can give all this extra money,” Arnold says, “I want to make sure that I’m sticking to a budget.”

Arnold meets with politicians. If she thinks one has a platform one of her clients might support, she’ll set up a meeting. And if everything goes well, maybe a fundraiser. She calls the role something akin to being a “wedding planner.”

“Donors, particularly businessmen, are typically risk averse, and the rule of do no harm to either their own good name or their business is their first and primary consideration,” says Dora Kingsley Vertenten, a professor at USC, who used to do this kind of work.

Arnold calls it a growth industry, especially in San Francisco and Silicon Valley; home to a lot of very rich people, many of whom are young, and are new to politics.

“I don’t think that there is a place where it is happening as fast as it is in the Bay Area, given the tech industry and all for that,” she says.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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