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As November 2004 approaches, the handful of politicians vying for the presidency have begun to fill their campaign chests—and they’ve found plenty of help from within Harvard’s walls.
According to the most recent information from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), 51 Harvard employees—along with four students from the College and Harvard Business School—have donated a total of $49,600 in the last year to the presidential campaigns.
Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., landed by far the most money from those listing Harvard as their employer or occupation—$31,000 went to his campaign, dwarfing the respective $7,200 and $5,000 drawn by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., his closest competitors for Crimson cash. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., came in third among the contenders for the Democratic nomination, with $1,250. Ranking a distant fourth and fifth were Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., with $500, and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio, with a single donation of $250.
On the other side of the major-party divide, the re-election campaign of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney received $4,400 from those identifying themselves with Harvard.
Donors and political experts said they thought Kerry’s overwhelming success in securing contributions from Harvard employees likely resulted from the fact that he represents Massachusetts in the Senate, rather than any special connection to the University.
“Candidates always do very well raising money in their home state,” said Maxine Isaacs, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG). Isaacs, who served as Walter Mondale’s press secretary in his 1984 bid for the White House, gave money to the presidential campaigns of Kerry and Gephardt between December 2002 and this May.
As a result of the limitations imposed by the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, no individual donation came to more than $2000, and many were for as little as $250. But many donors said that when it comes to campaign contributions, size doesn’t matter.
“Small amounts add up,” wrote Alix Smullin, chief of staff for the School of Public Health, in an e-mail. “I am a strong supporter of publicly financed campaigns but in their absence broad participation in political giving is crucial to the political process.” Smullin gave $1,000 to Dean’s campaign.
Weatherhead Professor of Public Management Steven J. Kelman ’70, who donated $500 to Kerry’s campaign, explained the importance of relatively small donations in more philosophical terms.
“Why do you vote when your vote won’t necessarily determine the election results?” he asked. “You want to make your voice part of the system.”
Justin Deri, a software developer with Faculty of Arts and Sciences Computer Services who donated $450 to the Dean campaign, said he felt political donations like his were part of his civic duty.
“I think it’s important for individual citizens to exercise their right to donate small amounts of money,” he said. “The election process is often controlled and dominated by large contributions—the power to make a real change in this country comes from the people.”
Similarly, Fernanda W. Winthrop ’04, who gave $500 to Kerry’s campaign, said she thought contributions were a simple matter of necessity.
“Even if they vote, it is naive for people to think that presidential campaigns can be successful without an army of volunteers and without money,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Smullin echoed this statement, calling individual donations to nomination campaigns a “critical” part of the process—perhaps even as important as the act of voting itself.
“If you wait until it is time to vote the contributors have already narrowed your choices,” she said.
It’s A Small World After All
Harvard donors said they had come to give their money in a variety of ways—many after being approached by fundraisers. But many of them shared a trait: personal links to the candidates whom they supported with cash.
Linda J. Bilmes ’80, a KSG lecturer in public policy who gave $1,000 to the Edwards campaign, said she was a personal acquaintance of Edwards and his wife.
Kelman said he had known Kerry’s younger brother when they were both Harvard undergraduates.
And Winthrop said she is the senator’s first cousin once removed.
But those with ties to the recipients of their political gifts stressed that those connections had not been the main force behind their donations.
“Regardless of the fact that he is a blood relation, if I didn’t completely agree with his ideas or trust him I would not have donated to his campaign,” Winthrop said.
Bilmes wrote in an e-mail that she contributed to Edwards’ campaign in large part because her personal experience with him had led her to believe he has “charm, intelligence and charisma.”
For many contributors such individual factors were joined by enthusiastic intellectual support for their candidates of choice—support which was often related to the donors’ academic roles at Harvard.
Kelman, the professor of public management, said he donates to political campaigns because he is “interested in public policy and in the government working right.”
This fall, in fact, Isaacs will be teaching about the very campaigns to which she has donated, in the latest rendition of a KSG course she has offered on each presidential election since 1996.
But Isaacs said her academic expertise in the field was not joined by the kind of specified enthusiasm other donors said they felt for their chosen candidates. As a result, this year she donated to the campaigns of both Gephardt and Kerry—men who are, so far, declared rivals for the same nomination.
“I’m more supportive of the process than being a particular partisan at this point,” Isaacs said. “I’m for a strong Democratic field of candidates.”
And Isaacs stressed that as a teacher on politics who is herself something of a political insider, she has always worked hard not to let her own biases affect her conduct in the classroom.
“I don’t try to interject myself in the discussion except when I can draw on my own experience, and then I’ll say I’m speaking as a Democrat,” she said.
Grin and Bear It
Though they were eager to support their candidates of choice, many Harvard-affiliated donors expressed distaste for the system which they said forced them to show that support financially.
“I feel strongly that American politics suffers from the ever-growing role of money in political campaigns,” Bilmes said. “Despite the McCain-Feingold reforms, candidates for elective office must spend an absurd amount of time and effort devoted to fundraising.”
Deri, too, who believes that “election reform needs to happen,” lamented the necessity of political contributions, which he said has come to rival that of the ballot.
“I can make a vote, [but] in this country it comes down to money too,” he said.
Deri said he no longer gives donations to national political organizations, and limits his money to individual candidates.
Smullin said that in a system where relatively few give money to campaigns, the democratic process is thwarted.
“If you think about how few people vote and the fact that the candidates were pre-selected by the givers, we end up with very small numbers of people making the choices,” she said.
Until that changes, Bilmes said she could only continue making donations and looking to a better future.
“I look forward to the day when our campaign finance system is overhauled so that campaigns are publicly funded, political TV ads are restricted, and I no longer need to contribute to campaigns,” she said.
Among many Harvard-affiliated donors to Congressional campaigns and national parties in the last year, the FEC report showed Swanee Hunt, a KSG adjunct lecturer in public policy and former ambassador, to be a particularly high roller.
Hunt, who was unavailable for comment, gave a total of $317,000. Other than two gifts of $1,000 each—to the Congressional reelection campaigns of Gephardt and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.—Hunt’s cash went to the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Party umbrella funds.
Also to be found in the ranks of Harvard donors was University President Lawrence H. Summers, who made two contributions, adding up to $700, to last year’s losing campaign of Democrat Daniel B. Wofford for a Pennsylvania seat in the House of Representatives.
—John P. Kehoe, Rafe H. Kinsey and Heloisa L. Nogueira contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at email@example.com.
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