Elected Officials and Barack Obama and Elections and Politics and Government & Economic Development

Pumped-up business leaders give big sums to Clinton, Obama

April 28, 2008

Joan SerVaas usually votes Republican. But in the 2008 presidential election, her money and her vote are going Democratic. The trouble is, which Democrat? SerVaas, the CEO of Curtis Publishing in Indianapolis, has donated to both of the Democratic presidential candidates. A friend invited her last year to a Hillary Clinton fund-raiser in Chicago. There, she met the New York senator and was "impressed." She wrote a check for $2,300. But because of her 17-year-old son's excitement for Barack Obama, SerVaas went to the Illinois senator's March rally in Plainfield. She's given him $2,250. And she plans to give him her vote, if he's the Democratic nominee in November.

"I don't like George Bush," SerVaas said. "I've always voted Republican, but I'm very unhappy with this regime."

SerVaas represents much of Indiana's business community during this election. Many Republicans are disenchanted, which has contributed to slow contributions to their candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain. But those looking to support Democrats are torn this year, as the fierce competition between Clinton and Obama has made Indiana's normally sleepy May primary a battleground.

Those sentiments are borne out in amounts of money raised by the three candidates in Indiana through the end of March. Obama has garnered $883,000, more than twice as much as McCain, who has $383,000, according to figures released April 20 by the Federal Election Commission. Clinton has raised $664,000 in Indiana.

Unlike the unlimited donations allowed in statewide elections, donors to presidential candidates cannot exceed $2,300 in gifts to any one candidate. Donors can give an additional $2,300 to help a candidate pay for legal and accounting work to comply with federal campaign finance laws. Also, candidates can accept a second donation of $2,300 if they opt against using public funds in the general election.

Clinton had the early fund-raising lead in Indiana, winning big donations from such wealthy Hoosiers as mall developer Mel Simon and his wife, Bren, stockbroker David Knall, and the executives of Columbus-based Cummins Inc.

That's largely due to the influence of Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, said Brian Vargus, professor of political science at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Bayh is a national co-chairman of Clinton's campaign and a candidate to be Clinton's running mate, if she wins the Democratic nomination.

"Do not forget to consider Evan Bayh's role. He has leverage to raise money," Vargus said.

Clinton and Obama have split donations from other prominent Democratic donors, such as Emmis Communications Corp. CEO Jeff Smulyan, mall developer Herb Simon and Ice Miller attorney Lacy Johnson.

Obama came on strong in March, raising nearly $219,000 to Clinton's $80,000. Few of central Indiana's big names have given to Obama alone. In spite of that, Obama has drawn a flood of small donations, said Kip Tew, an attorney at Krieg DeVault LLP in Indianapolis and a member of the Obama campaign's Indiana steering committee.

"It's not been the well-heeled. It's been grass-roots Hoosiers getting on the Internet," said Tew, who has raised money in the past for such Indiana Democrats as Frank O'Bannon, Joe Kernan, Julia Carson and Bart Peterson. He said, "Raising money for Barack Obama is the easiest political fund-raising ask I've ever had to make."

Clinton, Obama or both?

One of Tew's easiest sells was Bob Laikin, CEO of Brightpoint Inc. Laikin gave $4,600 to Obama in January after reading a news story on the Internet about a Colorado businessman who joked that if Obama, who is black, becomes president, the name of the White House would need to be changed. Laikin said the racism of the comment made him mad.

"I picked the phone up, and I called Kip Tew," Laikin said. When Tew came to Laikin's office and began to talk about Obama, Laikin said, "I'm not interested in Obama. I'm just pissed off."

Laikin has given to three other presidential candidates during this campaign. In 2007, he gave $2,300 to Clinton, as well as to former Republican candidates Rudolf Giuliani and Fred Thompson.

Laikin said he's been leaning against Obama because of his promise to undo some of the tax cuts advanced by Bush. And he said he's "warming up" to McCain. But as a voter, he's still undecided.

Bill Mays, president of Mays Chemical Co. in Indianapolis, is going for Obama all the way. He gave $1,000 to Obama at a fund-raiser in Chicago last year. And he plans to give more after Indiana's primary May 6.

Mays has been attracted by Obama's personality, platform--and his race.

"It's the youthfulness and the hope that he brings," said Mays, who is black, adding, "It does not hurt that he's African-American."

Mays said he's also excited at the prospect of Hillary Clinton's becoming the first female president. But if the former first lady occupied the White House again, Mays said, he would be concerned whether she or her husband, former President Bill Clinton, would actually be running the country.

Other prominent donors that have given only to Obama include Marni McKinney, former CEO of First Indiana Corp., and Jim Carr, a bankruptcy attorney at Baker & Daniels LLP.

Steve Crane and his wife, Phoebe, have given only to Clinton, but had a hard time deciding. Steve Crane is president of Crane Capital Management in Indianapolis and Phoebe Crane is a Democratic super delegate.

"We are strong Democrats. We are going to support the Democratic nominee," Phoebe Crane said. "This has been difficult because I like both of the candidates very, very much. It's an embarrassment of riches."

The Cranes have given a total of $4,600 to Clinton. Phoebe Crane said Clinton is more "electable" because she's "resilient" in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

McCain gathering GOP rainmakers

For all the excitement generated by the Democratic primary, Vargus, the political science professor, thinks Indiana will be the first state in McCain's column come November. A Democratic presidential candidate has not won Indiana since 1964.

And McCain eventually will raise a lot of money here, said Bob Grand, an attorney at Barnes & Thornburg LLP who was a key Bush fund-raiser in Indiana during his successful 2000 and 2004 campaigns.

McCain's national campaign staff signed up Grand in mid-April to play a lead role in raising money for McCain in Indiana. Before that, Grand had been leading fund raising here for Mitt Romney, who dropped out of the race in February.

Grand said he expects Indiana's typical Republican rainmakers to raise money for McCain. That team likely will include Indianapolis businessman Al Hubbard, former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, current Mayor Greg Ballard, Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi and Gov. Mitch Daniels. Daniels was one of the first Republicans nationally to endorse McCain.

"I believe they'll all be there for him," Grand said. But, he added, "Our challenge will be to raise as much money as the Democrats."

Grand said Clinton and Obama have been helped by their competitive primary, which has brought them in person to Indiana more than two dozen times. Grand believes McCain can catch up with Democratic fund raising by the November election. But even if he doesn't, Indiana still might provide money for McCain to use in other states, as it did for Bush in his two victories.

"We have the advantage that we can raise money and use it" for the general election, Grand said. "The dilemma of the Democratic Party," he added, is that "a lot of that money will be raised and spent."

Bush raised $2.3 million from Indiana in the 2004 campaign. He spent little of it here, as 60 percent of Hoosiers voted for him.

McCain has drawn donations from many prominent business types. Fred Fehsenfeld, chairman of The Heritage Group, and his wife, Barbara, gave a total of $9,200. So did James Armour, the CEO of A.M. General in South Bend, and his wife, Maryann. James Armour declined to comment; Fred Fehsenfeld did not return a phone call seeking comment.

But the list of donors for Giuliani and Romney who have not given to McCain is far longer.

Conseco Inc. founder Steve Hilbert and his wife, Tomisue, gave $4,600 to both Giuliani and Romney. Eli Lilly and Co. CEO John Lechleiter gave $2,000 to Romney. The Finish Line CEO Alan Cohen gave $4,600 to Giuliani.

Investor Tim Durham, who was heading up fund raising for Giuliani, has not made any contribution to McCain. Durham did not return a phone call seeking comment.

But Durham's son is certainly active. Timothy Durham Jr. is also Joan SerVaas' son.

The younger Durham camped out at 5 a.m. before Obama's rally at Plainfield High School. At 8 a.m., he called SerVaas, asking her to come stand in line so he could take a bathroom break.

She did, and eventually talked her way into the gymnasium, though she didn't have a ticket. There, SerVaas was sold.

"I really liked what he had to say," she said of Obama. "I agree with everything he says."

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