For Congress, Donovan financed by reformers and lobbyists

As a critic of the influence of special-interest money in politics, House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, was nationally honored in 2006 along with Gov. M. Jodi Rell for helping create a system of publicly financed elections in Connecticut.

Now, as a candidate for Congress in the 5th District, Donovan is unapologetically raising money from legislators, lobbyists and others with a direct interest in the legislative agenda he can influence as the top leader in the state House.

With no public financing for Congress, he says he is doing what every candidate does to raise money: reaching out to his personal and professional network. In his case, that covers a career in community organizing, public unions and politics.

“When I first ran for state representative, I worked with people I knew, people from the Little League, people from the neighborhood, to raise money,” Donovan said the other day, standing in the House. “This is my neighborhood now.”

Since creating a candidate committee May 19, Donovan has raised $504,015.

Two rivals for the Democratic nomination, Elizabeth Esty and Dan Roberti, started earlier and raised more: $766,392 for Roberti; $624,899 for Esty. A fourth Democrat, Mike Williams, has struggled, raising just $132,514 before dropping our over the weekend.

The four Democrats combined have out-raised the four candidates for the GOP nomination who have filed campaign finance reports, $2 million to $1.4 million. A fifth Republican, Sen. Andrew Roraback, just entered the race.

Lisa Wilson-Foley is the only Republican to raise more than $400,000, although her $613,361 includes $300,000 she loaned to her own campaign. The others: Justin Bernier, $381,765; Mark Greenberg, $234,739; and Mike Clark, $149,126.

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Donovan is the leader when it comes to the percentage of in-state donations.

Eighty-seven percent of the $319,373 that Donovan raised in itemized contributions–candidates must list every contribution of $250 or more–come from Connecticut, compared to 20 percent for Roberti, 27 percent for Esty and 48 percent for Williams.

The rest of Donovan’s money came as $95,244 in unitemized contributions from individuals who gave less than $250. He also raised $89,396 from political action committees, mostly from labor unions.

More than $50,000 of Donovan’s itemized contributions can be directly tied to the General Assembly. Legislators and employees donated $23,644, with about half that amount coming from 26 House Democrats, which is just slightly more than a quarter of the 99-member caucus.

By the Mirror’s count, lobbyists and government affairs employees of everything from non-profits to unions to major corporations gave him at least $30,000. Harder to quantify: other donors with an issue before the legislature.

About $35,000 of his money came from donors with connections to the health-care industry or health issues, including several employees of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut. Donovan has pushed a variety of health reforms sought by the foundation.

Nearly $50,000 came from lawyers.

The campaign has not created any special guidelines on how or whether Donovan will solicit lobbyists or their clients during next year’s session. State legislators are barred from soliciting lobbyists during the session for state legislative races, but the prohibition does not apply to federal races.

“The campaign is following federal law, and no one has done more than Chris to reduce the role of big money in Connecticut politics,” said Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for the Donovan campaign.

Among his donors is Nick Nyhart of Durham, the chairman of Public Campaign, a national proponent of publicly financed campaigns. It was one of the groups that honored Donovan, Rell and others in 2006.

Nyhart sees no contradiction in Donovan the reformer now raising money from those who may have business before the General Assembly.

“Candidates who don’t have the option of going with a good public financing system have to use the system that is available,” Nyhart said.

Karen Hobert Flynn, who lobbied the legislature to pass public financing of state races as a vice president of Common Cause, said she does not expect reformers to “unilaterally disarm” by limiting their fundraising when seeking offices not covered by the state law.

“To us, it is not fair to penalize people for running under the system as it exists,” she said.

Donovan, 58, a state legislator since 1991, is a former community organizer who later worked for a major public-employees union, SEIU.  By a couple of key measure, he has stayed true to his roots as an organizer: his money is local, with most of it coming in relatively modest amounts.

His average itemized contribution was $517, and only 13 percent of his money from individuals came in donations of $2,500.

Under federal law, donors can give the maximum of $2,500 for each of three phases of a congressional race in Connecticut: the period leading to the nominating convention in May, the primary in August, and the general election in November.

No donor has yet to give Donovan the so-called triple maximum of $7,500, although Ned Lamont, the self-funding Greenwich businessman Donovan supported for governor in the Democratic primary, gave him $5,000.

“I have people in Connecticut who are supporting me,” Donovan said. “It’s not my five uncles giving me $7,500.”

By contrast, $367,500 of the $766,392 raised by Roberti, the son of a Washington fundraiser and consultant, came from 49 individuals who each gave three checks for $2,500. Roberti is seeking office for the first time.

Only seven percent of the $744,670 Roberti raised from individual donors came in donations of less than $1,000.

Esty, 52, a former one-term legislator, has raised $125,000 of her $624,899 from 22 people, including six who gave her $7,500 and 16 who gave $5,000. About one third of her individual donors gave checks of less than $1,000.

One of the donors who gave $7,500 was her husband, Daniel C. Esty, the commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Her campaign declined to say if she has ruled any donors off limits to avoid any conflicts with her husband’s role as a state official

Julie Sweet, her campaign manager, declined to answer questions about Donovan’s fundraising or Esty’s approach to raising money. Instead, she issued a statement:

“Elizabeth Esty is proud of the support she is receiving from everyday folks across Connecticut and the country who are fed up with politics as usual. They are tired of special interests stacking the deck against the middle class. Elizabeth’s supporters are making an investment in strong, independent, common sense leadership because they are ready for someone who will put the middle class first.”

Roberti said he is proud of the financial support he is getting, whether it came through the connections of his father, Vincent Roberti, or people he has met through his work in community service, such as James Carville, the Bill Clinton adviser who gave him $2,500. He said they met while he volunteered in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

To be credible, Roberti said he set a goal of $250,000 every financial quarter.

“I exceeded my goal,” he said.

While Congress has no system of publicly financing campaigns, one has been proposed by U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District. Donovan is a supporter.

“I’ve been the leader on public financing–the leader,” Donovan said. “That’s what I am going to do when I go to Washington. I’ll be supporting the Larson bill. I’ll be doing whatever I can to change the system so we can have a public financing system in Washington. That being said, we don’t have that right now. I need to raise money.”