By LESLIE WAYNE
In terms of lobbyists, few are more connected – both west of the Mississippi and in the corridors of power in Washington – than Steve Farber, a Denver lawyer whose political contacts have thrust him into a central fundraising role for the Democratic National Convention.
Farber’s vast contact list could prove crucial in raising the millions of dollars needed by the Denver host committee to showcase Sen. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in August in Denver. But Farber’s activities are a public display of how corporate connections fuel politics – exactly the type of special influence that Obama had pledged to expunge from politics when he said he would not accept donations from lobbyists.
For two years now, Farber has parlayed his love for Denver and his ability to call on a network of lobbying clients to help him with the daunting task of raising the $40 million, or more, that Democrats need to run their convention. As the host committee’s chief fundraiser, he is on the phone 10, 20 times a day, twisting arms and cajoling potential donors – a task made more difficult by the fact that Denver has few hometown companies with enough resources to help foot the bill.
Yet, as Farber hops on planes, hosts breakfasts and pulls out the stops, he at least can draw on the resources of his law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, one of the fastest-growing lobbying shops in Washington and one of the most powerful firms in the West, thanks to some recent strategic mergers that have fattened his roster of blue-chip corporate clients.
“Steve Farber is involved with a lot of high-level candidates and ones who have won,” said Floyd Ciruli, head of Ciruli Associates, a Denver political consulting firm. “He’s famous for hiring ex-politicians, their children and ex-judges. He’s very good at making connections with people who have access to politicians.”
Farber is a golfing buddy of former President Bill Clinton and has raised money for the Clinton Presidential Library. In return Clinton came to nearby Aurora, Colo., to speak to businessmen at the request of Farber. Members of Farber’s firm have donated around $1.1 million to candidates, parties and political action committees since 2005, with the majority going to Democrats. And Farber chaired former Gov. Roy Romer’s winning campaigns in Colorado.
But his efforts to raise money for the Denver convention have been marred by missed deadlines as Farber has struggled to get corporations and wealthy individuals to open their wallets in a shaky economy. And Obama last week added to the challenge, with his campaign saying the candidate would give his acceptance speech outside the convention hall, distancing himself from party insiders, donors and corporate leaders who typically dominate convention week.
In raising money for the convention, Farber said he was not selling access to the many politicians attending the event, but promoting regional pride and the chance to participate in a historical event.
“We’re selling a convention and we’re selling a chance to showcase Denver as a great area,” Farber said. “If corporate America wants to be a part of it, we welcome them as partners. It’s a question of becoming part of history.”
As a result of Farber’s efforts, dozens of organizations have signed up as corporate sponsors of the Denver convention, including six that are lobbying clients of his firm: UnitedHealth Group, AT&T, Comcast, the National Association of Home Builders, Western Union and Google. In return for these donations, which can go up to $1 million or more, sponsors are promised prominent display space for corporate marketing and access to elected officials and Democratic leaders at a large number of parties and receptions.
Farber is now going through his client list – and also approaching nonclients – in his search for cash. Conventions are one of the last remaining ways for corporations to put big money into politics, since they are banned from giving directly to candidates and parties.
Even more, corporations can give unlimited amounts of money to host committees, in contrast to individuals, who are restricted in the size of their political donations. Corporations can also take a tax deduction on their donations to host committees, but individuals are barred from deducting political contributions.
“Farber has a dual role,” said Steve Weissman, a policy analyst at the Campaign Finance Institute, who has studied convention finances. “He is a businessman and a community activist, and yet he is connected to a law firm that is one of the biggest in Washington. When any of Steve Farber’s clients have a problem, federal elected officials will feel obligated to listen to him if he approaches them later on federal policy interests.”
Although he is a Democrat, Farber’s firm draws political talent from both sides of the aisle. Its lobbyists include Jim Nicholson, former chairman of the Republican National Committee; former Sen. Hank Brown, R-Colo.; and Judy Black, the wife of Charlie Black, Sen. John McCain’s chief adviser, and a major bundler of donations for McCain.
Others who have passed through the doors at his firm include two former cabinet secretaries: Gale Norton, interior secretary in the Bush Administration, and Federico F. Pena, transportation secretary in the Clinton Administration. Farber’s firm also represents the former Liggett tobacco company and a trade group seeking to retain tax breaks for wealthy hedge fund investors.
Most recently, Farber’s firm joined forces, through mergers, with the leading law firm in Las Vegas representing gambling companies and the leading firm in Los Angeles representing water interests.
“I have my list of companies, not only my client list, but companies throughout Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region,” Farber said in a telephone interview. “We’ve got offices in Las Vegas and California, so I have clients that we can contact, and I have friends of clients that I intend to contact. And if they have given to the convention already, I try to get them to double their contribution.”
Obama’s well-publicized statements denouncing special interest money have done little to dampen Farber’s efforts. In Farber’s view, money to the convention – an issue Obama has not addressed directly – is different from money to the candidates themselves.
“The money to the convention doesn’t go to the candidates or the Democratic National Committee, but to the host committee to pay for the cost of the convention,” Farber said. “So what he has said doesn’t inhibit it.”
In fact, given the struggle that Farber has had – the host committee is $11 million short of its fundraising goal – he could welcome a helping hand from the Obama campaign, which, so far, has been more focused on raising money for Obama, the party and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton than for the convention.
“The Obama campaign has been unbelievable in their ability to fundraise,” Farber said. “So if they can encourage their supporters to send money to the host committee, it would be helpful.”
Farber said he was not working with the Obama campaign. “They have a list of contributors and could suggest that we contact some of those people, people they could ask to help with the convention,” he said.
In the absence of that help, Farber said he was “still talking to the corporate community.”
“What I am now selling is Sen. Obama and the excitement he has created in his candidacy,” he added.© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.