On Tour with Nancy Pelosi, Fundraising Rockstar

National Public Radio
March 30, 2012

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to money in politics. NPR's Planet Money team begins a series today that traces the flood of political money in Washington, from industries and corporations, through lobbyists and staffers, to lawmakers and campaigns. This weekend on WBEZ's "This American Life," and over the coming weeks here on NPR, our reporters will show how cash often frames the issues and sets the agenda.

As part of this project, we gained rare access to several fundraising events hosted by a powerful member of Congress, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Here's NPR's Andrea Seabrook.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: Democrats love Nancy Pelosi. Republicans hate Nancy Pelosi. And it's for the same reasons - she is incredibly good at her job. And a huge part of that job is raising money. In the last decade, Pelosi has raised close to $300 million for Democrats, that's according to her political staff. So far this election, she's raised close to 40 million. Pelosi is the party's top fundraiser by far, in some categories, outpacing President Obama. And that takes time.

How many fundraisers do you typically go to in, say, a given week.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: A lot, you know. They're either on the phone or attending events. But I think they've said this year I've attended almost 400 fundraisers in nearly 40 cities.

If we go down this path in the House of Representatives, there is only one outcome that we will accept, victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SEABROOK: Four hundred fundraisers in the year 2011 alone. Fundraisers like this one in a packed community center in San Antonio. I followed Pelosi on a non-stop money-raising swing through Texas, two days, five or six events, three cities.

Now, you might have an idea in your head of what these things are like, but there's actually a pretty wide variety. There's this kind, regular folks in a municipal gym. You don't have to pay to get in here, but staff does pass out envelopes. On the other end of the spectrum, a fancy private dinner in the home of Steven Mostyn.

STEVEN MOSTYN: Look at this house. Do I need to buy another Ferrari out there? No. It's ridiculous.

SEABROOK: There is a Ferrari out front, along with a couple of BMWs and a Bentley. Inside the sleek dining room, the crowd is smaller, but swankier. It's a gospel theme with a singer and big, feathered hats.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I love You, Lord. I love You. (Unintelligible), but now I really love You...

SEABROOK: Pelosi seems to love most of these people personally, giving shout-outs to big supporters, but she gives just about the same stump speech.

PELOSI: Your help here tonight means a great deal to us. With your help, we were able to out-raise the Republicans. This is unthinkable.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SEABROOK: This is the biggest event of the trip. In just an hour or two, Pelosi pulls in some $300,000 for Democrats. Mostyn, the guy with the Ferrari, is a wealthy trial lawyer and, oddly enough, he gives millions to the Democrats because he wants them to raise his taxes.

MOSTYN: I actually started to put a sticker on the Ferrari I have out front that says: Bought by the Bush tax cuts. But I thought I might get killed because they didn't realize it was, you know, irony. You know what I'm saying?

SEABROOK: It's a strange dynamic. Going to these things, I meet a lot of people who hate the outside influence money has in politics. And so, therefore, they're putting a lot of money in politics.

MOSTYN: Too much. It's just too much. It needs to be restricted. I believe in restrictions. I think there should be restrictions. But us on the Democratic side have decided that, until we can get to that point, we must at least allow enough money for the Democrats to communicate.

SEABROOK: We won't go to a baseball game without a bat. We don't want to unilaterally disarm. We've got to fight fire with fire. Insert your preferred metaphor here.

The irony is the Republicans say exactly the same things. They can't just sit back while Ferrari-driving trial lawyers throw cash at Nancy Pelosi. And so it goes, on both sides.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.

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