Dan Maffei (U.S. Representative, NY)
In a nutshell, why have you come to serve as a member of Congress?
Well, I think it’s, really the opportunity to represent my home town and make it a better place work on national issues but in a way that’s going to help my local community and, and I’ve always sort of been involved in a number of different kinds of things. Journalism is where I started and got interested in politics and policy and worked for some great politicians — Bill Bradley, Daniel Patrick Moynihan — and just sort of following their example. I felt that this was something that I was well-suited for, that I could, could be that representative with the real thing, and that’s why I try to do.
Has fundraising been a challenge?
Fundraising is always a challenge. I think the one advantage that I had, having been a staff person, is that I already understood it because I had seen my bosses have to do it and the toll it took on them. So when I got to run for office myself, I at least understood how the process, though flawed, worked. And so it wasn’t as much of a surprise to me and I knew that that was one of the things that you had to do if you wanted to have a realistic chance of winning — unless of course you were independently wealthy yourself.
I’m not independently wealthy. In fact, I think my debts outdo my assets on my disclosure form. Nothing too major but I have the mortgage and my wife has educational debt. We paid off mine but those sort of things certainly not from money so my mother is a school psychologist, my dad was a social worker for 30 years, now retired and deals in antiques so nothing, no big family money to, to save us.
How’s it been so far?
Well, I think because I understood how the process worked, my way of coping with it is to make it a sort of constant thing. So it’s not like you win the election and then, oh great, you’ve got a six-month break or a nine-month break from fundraising. So I just try to make it constant. I don’t try to spend some much time on it in any one day or any one week that it interferes with the stuff that I’m really here to do for the people of my district.
But it is a part of my life every day. Every day I go make those calls. Every day I have to think about fundraising and the fundraising plan and that’s, that is something that I wish I didn’t have to do so much and I will be willing to trade a few advantages of incumbency certainly to not have to have that distraction every day.
Tell us what making calls is like.
Yes. It’s almost exactly that. Certainly for very good reasons we didn’t want members of Congress making phone calls from their offices or whatever and using any office resources to help them campaign. But in effect, that makes it even more distracting because you have to leave the building, leave the Capitol Hill campus in order to make calls.
For the first year we went to a cubicle at the [inaudible] and I would just make them from there. Then my finance director got a small office in a basement, sort of they’re our little prison cell of call making. No windows, et cetera, and it’s on Pennsylvania Avenue and I walk a couple of blocks there. So it is even more of a time-consuming because then you have the travel time when you’re walking to the place where you make the calls and you’re walking back.
The calls themselves, I mean, it’s always hard to ask people for anything — whether you’re asking for a political favor for your district or money for your campaign. But the biggest thing that wears you down, I think, is how tedious it is and and the fact that it just, it just feels like you really shouldn’t have to do it and a lot of the donors will say that. They say, look, I’m going to help you because I know how hard this is and you really shouldn’t have to do it but since you do and since I may have the resources I’m going to, I’m going to help you.
Can you make some calls for us?
No, but it’s not that different. I mean, I’ve had to raise money for other things. In business, I mean, you’re a salesperson, et cetera. I think the difference is, like when I was in when I worked in trying to set up appointments or something like that for a financial firm that I worked for that was in a way different because there was somewhat more of a transactional value. I mean, you were saying, okay, well, we’d really like to come by and talk to you about what we have to offer, but it wasn’t like just give money.
Now, obviously I think people who give money, they do because they feel that democracy’s better that way or there’s particular things that they support that the candidate supports, but it is one of those things where you’re calling people up and you’re asking for for their hard-earned dollars and I come from a district that doesn’t have a lot of multimillionaires.
In fact, when we took a look at how a tax on people making over a million dollars would affect my district compared to others, we found, for instance, the Greenwich, Connecticut district, it’s 2.5% of that in my district it’s 0.11% — so very, very little wealth. And so, when I’m calling somebody up and asking them to contribute to my campaign, it’s real money, it’s real money to them. And so that always is, is difficult.
Could you describe the routine of fundraising?
Well you do a lot of meet-and-greets. I mean, I fundraise a little bit different, differently from some of my colleagues and then I really try to meet my donors, at least my major donors, certainly in my district and also in even in outside places.
Some of it is because I actually try to get some more value out of these relationships so, for instance, I’m on the House judiciary committee and sometimes if I’m meeting with an attorney who knows a lot about intellectual property — something I don’t know a lot about, then that’s a useful thing. I feel it’s better for them if they know me and frankly better for future fundraising because if they really know me and they sort of know what makes me tick and then they’ll be more apt to be a real, a solid supporter in the future.
But it does drive my fundraisers nuts because you’re supposed to just call up and ask for the money and they either say no or yes and either way it doesn’t take a lot time — meanwhile I’m spending all this time having coffee with, with various people and stuff and getting to know new people. So that’s a little different. I could never run for a higher office raising money that way. You just simply would not have the time to do that.
But particularly in my district, when I’m meeting with various people in my district, it’s very, very helpful. I don’t do it to the exclusion, by the way, of meeting non-donors. In fact, I make it a point to have office hours in my district where I meet with people who’ve just requested meetings, who are, well, I think non-donors — I don’t check to make sure they haven’t donated to me but, but people clearly are not necessarily fundraisers so that’s part of the way I try to make sure that there is a balance and that people can see me no matter what.
Are your colleagues preoccupied with fundraising?
Well, members who have been in office before state Senate or state representation, they know the drill. Obviously this is more intense. And they all tend to be the ones who have never fundraised before find it the most difficult. But I mean at this, at this level everybody knows what’s involved.
But it’s kind of interesting. You’ll see a huge amount of support for the Larson bill and other campaign finance reform measures from the freshman class and it does sort of seem like there’s more than just a correlation there. That it’s because we realize that this is not what it’s supposed to be about and and really the only way — and I’ve thought long and hard about this — the only way to truly get rid of it is to have public financing.
Are any lobbyists offering to do fundraisers for you?
Well, sometimes we ask, particularly people that I’ve known a long time that might be my friends from long back — my personal friends, et cetera, we’ll ask them to do a fundraiser — or maybe not a fundraiser per se, but a meet-and-greet where I’ll get a chance to meet people and talk to them about particular issues and then if they like what they hear, they can contribute and if they don’t, they don’t have to obviously, but so we do a lot of a lot of stuff like that. You try to meet people who, anyway when you’re in Washington but certainly it’s helped in fundraising as well.
Well, first of all I think there’s a real stigma in lobbyists. President Obama has attacked lobbyists and there’s a joke in Washington — if you’re a lobbyist, you should wear a scarlet L. I will say that there are bad lobbyists certainly.
There are unscrupulous lobbyists but I don’t know what I would do without the lobbyists who lobby on behalf of institutions and businesses in my district because we simply don’t have the staff to help them go go after some of the government funds that are available — for instance, grants from various agencies and, and departments in the federal government. Or to make sure that they’re crossing all the Ts and dotting all the Is on various things and dealing with the regulatory agencies, et cetera, so that’s very important.
In terms of lobbies in DC a lot of them represent important, important constituencies and you do try to meet people and you, people have meet-and-greets, et cetera. There are a few lobbyists I’ve known a long time, simply because they were staffers when I was a staffer in Washington, et cetera — so you certainly don’t cut them out but you just try to get to know people, see how they tick and see what they’re advocating, what they’re asking. I think that’s okay.
To what degree do they assist in arrange fundraisers?
Well, particularly in terms of meeting people in their industry, et cetera, they assist. Those aren’t always fundraisers where, like, everybody comes and pays $1,000.
Sometimes they’re everybody comes — in fact, far more of our events are what we call meet-and-greets where we meet people. They don’t necessarily have to give us a contribution then but they meet me, if they like what they hear, if they like the way I think about issues then they might contribute to me. There’s some who contribute to me even if they don’t like the way my positions on an issue but sort of like the way I think about things or like the way I communicate, appreciate my candor or whatever.
So they, it is, it is again not necessarily the way I would prefer it but you have to, we all have to fundraise and there is no completely pure way to fundraise. At the end of the day you are asking people for money and you’re not a very good fundraiser if you’re just looking for reasons to not ask somebody for money.
In general, anything cool about being a member of Congress that you didn’t see coming?
Yes, no, look, I love being a member of Congress. You would never go through the trouble of fundraising if you didn’t believe that, there were real things you could accomplish for your constituency. It’s too much trouble.
There’s all these rumors going around the internet that members of Congress get free health care and ride around in limousines and private jets and serve two years and have a pension for life, even if they would retire after one term.
Well, if all that were true, I don’t think you’d have to worry about term limits or any of those other things. People would just get elected to one term and then go and live a good life. I mean, this is not about doing junkets or anything like that — and if it is, you’re in the wrong line of work.
We’re on planes every week, go back and forth to the district, we work very, very long hours, we undergo a lot of stresses, we really try to find where the middle ground is or the consensus is but often just because the country’s divided or your district’s divided or there’s some issues that frankly I can’t find two people in the same household to agree on, so those are tough, tough issues, but I’m somebody who likes challenges and who tries to work well with others. I wouldn’t want to be an executive because that’s not my personality. My personality is to kind of bring people together.
Publicly financed elections like the Larson bill.
Well, that’s the bill that we have in the House that most of us have cosponsored because we actually think there’s a really good chance the House could pass it.
Is it your sense that that would make it easier to focus more purely on policymaking?
Yes. I think that the difficulty with past proposals — even McCain-Feingold, particularly after the Supreme Court threw out large parts of it — is that they’re partial measures and it’s almost like trying to get rid of a cancer in the body. If you only get rid of part of it, it’ll grow back and that’s what happens, and people find loopholes. What you need to do is figure out a way that spending a lot of money in politics — there’re a lot of private money in politics — is not an advantage.
Now the Supreme Court has ruled, and whether they’re right or wrong, it seems like we’re not going to change it — that money is speech, at least for wealthy people. And so because of that you can’t, you can’t stop somebody from spending a lot of money, on politics. But what you can do is make sure that the alternative also has resources and that’s what public funding allows you to do.
In the case of, of the proposal that we have basically we’re saying that yes, you can have individual contributors but they have to be small and they have to be from your district. Essentially just to sort of show that you have some support, but by far, the majority of your money is going to come from the taxpayers.
Now you think about it. Who are politicians beholden to? Well, they should be beholden to the voters, the taxpayers in their district. They, are also to a certain extent, talking to their donors. Why not make those two the same thing? When people say, I don’t like public financing. I don’t want all that money wasted — it’s sort of — there’s a contradiction in that. They want politicians to be beholden to the taxpayer and yet they don’t want the taxpayer to pay for the campaigns. It’s a far better deal for the American people for taxpayers to pay for the campaigns also — because it means the only people we’ll have to worry about in our day are the taxpayers and constituents in our district, and that’s what we’re supposed to do.
I think our founders wanted, long before campaign finance was much of an issue. So that’s the best solution. Any of these other things that we talk about, we won’t take money from this particular group of people or this particular group or that or whatever, there’s always loopholes, there’s always getting through and they’re, and frankly, whether or not there’s actual conflicts of interest, there’s always perceived conflicts of interest. The only way to get rid of that is to have the same group of people that elect us be the people that fund our campaigns.
Do you think policy is ever effective or is it just a perception?
That’s a good question. I think that it would be naïve to think that there wasn’t an effect on the political process from campaign contributions. Now of course, since they come from various sources and people disagree with each other who give contributions, often to the same member of Congress exactly what that aggregate effect is difficult to say. But like I said, the one way of getting rid of it, whether it’s reality or perception, is to simply have the same people who voted — vote us in be the same people who fund our campaigns in the aggregate. And if that was done, then I think that you would get rid of both of those things.
There’d still be lobbyists, by the way and that’s okay. In fact, it’s in the Constitution that people have a right to address their government. And you may not agree with the bankers or, or a particular lobby group or the pharmaceuticals or whatever — but they have a point of view — and guess what? Those companies have people who work for them, et cetera. But then there wouldn’t be that, that other factor. The fact that they also are at least partially funding campaigns. So the best way to get rid of it is to do campaign finance.
I actually think a lot of the other problems would take care of themselves — at least to an extent. Whether you would need term limits after you did true campaign finance reform, I think we’d have to look at that. I think you would have a lot more members being able to spend time learning the substance of issues. So you’d have less problems with members getting caught by surprise or something. I think you’d have a lot of issues that currently don’t get a lot of attention right now because they, simply there’s, there’s not enough time for members. We’d be able to then devote more time.
Oh, and actually, one other interesting thing is one of the things that I find with us newer members, the more vulnerable members, we tend to be the moderates. Why? Well, because we’re from swing districts. Yes, I have a lot of Republican constituents, I have a lot of Democratic constituents, I have a lot of independent constituents, but because of that, my election’s always in doubt, and so I know I’m going to have a tough election and I need to do the fundraising. But the members from more extreme districts, either on the right or the left, they’re in safe seats. They probably don’t need to do much fundraising. Maybe they’ll face a primary challenge. Because of that, they have a lot more time to spend legislating. That gives them more power.
So in fact, people are worried about partisanship. Well, part of it isn’t that there’s no moderates here but that we moderates have more of a distraction from the political system than the extremists.
Give us an example of what a fundraiser would be.
Well, a lot of the fundraisers we do are at home and they’re more or less a house party where we’ll have somebody, a supporter of mine invite people over to the house. Most of the time there’s not, like, a set dollar amount on those. We do have, of course, bigger dollar fundraisers. We had a fundraiser at the Syracuse University-Georgetown basketball game where the campaign paid for a box and then people came and paid money and got to see the game and also got to be at this fundraiser.
So there really is a big variety, but by far, the bulk of our fundraisers are smaller affairs, usually in someone’s home or maybe an office or whatever and people come and again, because I try to really get to know my donors, these are actually pretty small things for a House member, we’re not household words, even in our districts there are bigger celebrities so it’s not like the $2,000 a plate fundraisers that the President would have or any of that stuff. I mean, when people come to these fundraisers, they expect to be able to talk to us not just hear from us and that’s fine. So, mostly that sort of house setting, maybe with 15, 20 people. That’s probably the average kind of fundraiser.