PHILADELPHIA ― High-dollar Democratic donors are frustrated their gifts to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation haven’t bought better access at the Democratic National Convention, according to Democratic fundraisers here.
The issue isn’t necessarily about access to policymakers for the purpose of pressing a particular regulatory or legislative agenda. Instead, it’s about admittance to exclusive events, where high-rollers can see and be seen hobnobbing with celebrities and other millionaires.
Convention events come with a price tag, and can cost more than $50,000 to get into. But that’s just campaign money. Some donors are annoyed their charitable contributions to the Clinton Foundation aren’t being taken into account.
“They want it included in their tally, and Dennis is saying no,” said one fundraiser, referring to Dennis Cheng, one of the most powerful if low-profile managers at the convention.
Cheng is finance director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He also served as Clinton’s New York finance director from 2005 to 2008, raising money for Clinton’s campaigns for both Senate and president. He then became head of protocol at the State Department under Clinton, handling visits of heads of state. From there, he became the top fundraiser for the Clinton Foundation, before going back to the Clinton campaign.
“There’s no consideration for, ‘Yeah, well, I shouldn’t let you in, but you did give me $5 million for the foundation,’” said another fundraiser. She said donors are thinking, and saying, “I just gave you 100k, I gave you a million for the foundation ― and you can’t let me into this event?”
Donors are also having trouble getting flexibility to include members of their family in convention-related events. “Can I bring my son? No, that’s another $100. Really? My son’s 12,” the fundraiser said, before offering a measure of admiration for Cheng. “He is really being a hard-ass. I kind of give him credit for that.”
At political conventions, the quality of the credentials hanging around your neck is a status symbol, as is the ability to dole out tickets to parties and small gatherings.
One fundraiser said that Cheng is forced to be a hard-ass because the Clintons have been in politics for so long that they’ve accumulated an enormous number of friends ― long known as Friends of Bill ― who want access for themselves and their friends to exclusive events. It’s impossible for them to turn away many of these longtime allies, so newer friends are now facing stricter rules.
“Dennis is not being warm and fuzzy, but he can’t, because that’s how they used to be,” the fundraiser said. “They’ve got so many old friends they have to take care of, there’s not room.”
The flow of money into the Clinton Foundation has long been a source of suspicion among progressives, who worry Clinton is too beholden to major donors. Donald Trump and the GOP make the same case, and many Republicans still believe the FBI will come down on Clinton for a quid pro quo setup. FBI Director James Comey, testifying before Congress, was pointedly asked if the bureau was looking into the activities of the foundation, and declined to comment. (A campaign spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)
One fundraiser said that while donors are complaining in Philadelphia, they should be glad they weren’t in Cleveland for the GOP convention. “You couldn’t go to the bathroom in Cleveland for less than a million dollars,” he said.