Political Donor Shuns A System He Funds Peter L. Buttenwieser Of Chestnut Hill Is A Major Contributor To The Democrats. But He Rejects The Perks.

Posted: October 01, 2000

If a big donation to the Democratic Party can buy coffee with the President or a sleepover at the White House, then Peter L. Buttenwieser of Chestnut Hill could make a pretty compelling case for calling the Lincoln Bedroom his home.

By Buttenwieser's count, he's donated more than $1.5 million.

Nationwide, he ranks second among the Democrats' soft-money contributors since January 1999, behind retired Slim-Fast chairman S. Daniel Abraham.

But unlike some donors who have sipped the Clintons' coffee, Buttenwieser shuns the perks.

He says he despises this system. He applauds the challenge that Al Gore made last week, to have both parties foreswear ads funded with soft money from big donors.

"Sometimes, it is a quid pro quo," Buttenwieser said. "You give and you give heavily, and you become part of the inner group. They invite you to do one of these prestigious things. And I can see the general excitement about the Lincoln Bedroom or Air Force One. But we've been very careful not to do that."

One top party official says it is true: Buttenwieser seeks no favors.

"At this level of contribution, most people are in a position in life where they don't need help from a U.S. senator and don't want anything from the government," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D., N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Peter Buttenwieser is the best example."

Buttenwieser, 64, hasn't slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. He turned down a White House lunch four years ago, protesting that the party official who invited him had asked for a $50,000 donation. He passed up this year's Democratic convention and its offerings of galas and receptions for the leviathans of the donor world.

Charles Lewis of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity describes Buttenwieser as part of an "odd phenomenon" - wealthy donors who profess disdain for the same fund-raising apparatus they are feeding.

"Their thinking is if they write a check, they'll get inside the tent and effect more change by talking to those in power than by lobbing grenades from behind the barricades," said Lewis, whose center criticizes both parties' fund-raising practices. "Honestly, who's to say they're wrong?"

Buttenwieser is in some respects a consummate insider, having donated upward of $1.5 million to various Democratic causes over the last two years, getting private briefings from national party officials, hosting fund-raisers for Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Tom Carper of Delaware, and other Democratic Senate candidates at the posh Rittenhouse Hotel in Center City.

He is so reliable a giver that when Al Gore, Cher and the party put on a fund-raiser at the Waterfront Entertainment Center in Camden on Sept. 12, Democratic money men quietly planned to ask Buttenwieser to pony up the difference if the event fell short of its $1 million-plus goal.

Buttenwieser wants to see the Democrats win the White House and retake Congress. He is willing to spend what he concedes are eye-popping sums to get it done.

"I wouldn't say I can afford it easily, but I can afford it," he said.

But he favors totally banning soft money - the unregulated, unlimited contributions to political parties by corporations, unions, interest groups and wealthy people.

He talks of the "insanity" of today's political fund-raising - of money raised at what he calls "a terrifically high price."

"It's logical that people will want things when they're spending literally hundreds of thousands of dollars."

He adds: "It's just gotten out of hand . . . the amounts of money that it now costs to run for these offices and the kind of time the candidates need to spend traveling all around the country" in pursuit of campaign dollars.

On a bookshelf in his office is a copy of Lewis' book, The Buying of the Congress. "They're more right than we are," Buttenwieser says of Lewis and the campaign-reform set. It is unusual reading for a man who just this month gave $250,000 to underwrite TV commercials in support of Ron Klink, the Democrat running against Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.). But Buttenwieser is a walking paradox.

His mother's family founded the New York investment banking firm Lehman Brothers. His great-uncle, Herbert Lehman, was governor of New York in the 1930s and once served as Democratic national finance chairman.

Today, Buttenwieser splits his time between philanthropic work, consulting on public-school reform, and electoral politics.

The reality is this: The party needs Buttenwieser more than Buttenwieser needs the party.

"You're not going to say, 'The hell with you, Peter,' There's too much there," said Alan Kessler, a Philadelphia lawyer and Democratic fund-raiser who is close to Gore.

Buttenwieser doesn't make excuses for his party. He is dismayed by Gore's visit to a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in California four years ago. Gore denies he knew the purpose of the event.

"He handled it badly," Buttenwieser said in an interview last week at his office, a converted cottage on the grounds of his Chestnut Hill home. "I think he [Gore] had a pretty good sense it was a fund-raiser. If he didn't, he should have. . . . It was not only harmful to the vice president, it was harmful to all of us who are in this."

Buttenwieser was dressed casually in a sweater, slacks and brown loafers. He made the coffee himself that morning - an aide apologized for it, saying her boss likes it strong.

Four years ago, he balked at attending a private White House lunch with Clinton - because the invitation sounded like it had a $50,000 price tag.

He wrote to the man who invited him, Terry McAuliffe, a major Clinton-Gore fund-raiser and a close friend of the President's: "I would not, under any circumstances, pay $50,000, or any stipulated amount, to break bread with President Clinton," he wrote.

McAuliffe at the time denied Buttenwieser's contentions, saying he must have misconstrued something McAuliffe had said earlier.

Buttenwieser said last week: "To me, it feels uncomfortable. I'm not friends with the President of the United States. And there's no particular reason why I should be at the White House."

Not that Buttenwieser is out of the loop. On a recent morning he received a 45-minute, state-by-state phone briefing from the party's Senate campaign committee, to which he has given $600,000 since last year. He goes to Washington several times a year for campaign meetings.

If he disagrees with the direction of a campaign, he'll say so. In January, Buttenwieser bowed out of state Sen. Allyson Schwartz's U.S. senatorial campaign after Schwartz refused to accept a deal where either she or Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky would leave the race, so as to improve the other woman's chances in the primary - which Klink won.

"Peter insists that I offer proof that the person is not only a good candidate and will do good things in office, but can actually succeed," Torricelli said. "For all his idealism, he is not without a sense of practicality."

Peter Nicholas' e-mail address is pnicholas

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