A $1.3 million infusion on behalf of Dan Roberti in the final days of a Democratic congressional primary has supercharged an already volatile race and renewed questions about how much of the cash is attributable to the candidate’s father, Washington power broker Vin Roberti.
The candidate loaned his campaign nearly $900,000 in recent weeks, a sizable sum for a 30-year-old with wages of $45,769 in 2010, plus between $50,001 and $100,000 in income from a family trust established by his father. A new super PAC whose donors include his father’s clients is spending $417,000 on his behalf.
“My father has definitely been helpful. He has introduced me to folks that have helped fundraising. He’s been very helpful,” Roberti said in an interview. “He gets more credit from some in the media, and definitely from my opponents, than he maybe necessarily deserves for it. It’s not all him.”
But Vincent A. Roberti Sr. is a hard man to overlook, even as he has stayed away from his son’s campaign events in Connecticut, while making introductions in Washington and New York. He cut a wide and ragged swath in Connecticut, replete with political battles, two marriages and two divorces, a bankruptcy and an acquittal on arson charges.
As a freshman state legislator from Bridgeport in 1978, Vin was ranked in a Connecticut Magazine survey as one of the General Assembly’s 10 worst legislators, a tough-talking, impulsive lawmaker who said of his leaders, “They screw me, I screw them.”
The son has heard the stories.
“In the last seven or eight years, he always talks about how he has a Ph.D in mistakes and lessons learned,” said Dan, the youngest of two boys from Roberti’s first marriage. Vin had a daughter from a second marriage, which ended in 1997 when Dan was in high school.
After falling off Connecticut’s political radar, Vin Roberti re-emerged in Washington as a super lobbyist and public affairs adviser with a list of blue-chip clients, including General Motors and AT&T. His fall and rise would make a great movie, another business Roberti knows about. He is the executive producer of documentaries about the 2000 presidential race and the life of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and a comedic short with a title sure to amuse old friends, “Asshole.”
Along the way, he has sipped Champagne on the Côte d’Azur with Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and proved himself, like Weinstein, a hall-of-fame raiser of campaign contributions for Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate. In April 2008, it was Roberti whom Sen. Joseph Biden thanked from the stage of a Democratic fundraiser for flying him from Washington to Hartford.
In 2010, the first year bundled contributions had to be disclosed, the $221,400 gathered by Roberti made him the fourth most prolific lobbyist-bundler, according to the Washington watchdog group Center for Public Integrity. The man who flamed out as a politician and businessman in Connecticut is a major guy in Washington.
‘A fascinating race’
“Who doesn’t know Vin Roberti?” asked Edward C. Sweeney, the treasurer of New Directions for America, the super PAC created to back Dan Roberti, laughing as he repeated a reporter’s question. “Somebody said to me he has three lives.”
Ask Sweeney, or Dan Roberti, for that matter, if a bunch of wealthy donors would have rallied around Dan were he not Vin’s son, and they talk in generalities about the race for the state’s only open congressional seat: the 5th District of western Connecticut.
“This is a fascinating race,” said Sweeney, a businessman and Democratic activist with an office in Manhattan and relatives in Litchfield County, the northwest corner of the district. “These don’t come up very often.”
But why Roberti?
When the PAC was formed in April, Roberti seemed like a long-shot behind two better-known Democrats: House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden and former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty of Cheshire.
It wasn’t until May 31 that Donovan’s campaign was rocked by a federal investigation into illegal campaign contributions, making the three-way primary anyone’s to win.
Sweeney, who describes himself as the volunteer treasurer, said only, “I believe Dan Roberti has the best shot at winning.”
One friend of the family, a prominent Democrat who did not want to be quoted by name talking about the relationship of the father and son, said there is nothing nefarious about a father trying to help his child’s first race for Congress, even if the father makes his living lobbying Congress.
Esty, he noted, is the beneficiary of the resources she shares with her husband, Dan Esty, a reknowned Yale author and business consultant who is the state commissioner of energy and environmental protection. She has loaned her campaign $500,000.
In a TV commercial criticizing Roberti, a sure sign of his competiveness, the Esty campaign says, “The Register Citizen even said it should scare every voter that a powerful D.C. lobbyist would try to install his own personal congressman.”
In Connecticut, some Democrats who remember Vin Roberti speculate that the father is more interested in making a gesture to a son, not buying the vote of a future freshman congressman. Even another lobbyist who dislikes Vin Roberti says the election of Dan Roberti probably would be a complication for his lobbying business, not an asset.
One thing is clear: The father has promoted the son’s campaign.
A Washington Democrat friendly with Vin Roberti says the father tried to get the Connecticut delegation and officials with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to endorse Dan Roberti. It was a brash move. The DCCC generally stays out of primaries, and Roberti was asking Democratic politicians to snub the speaker of the House in favor of a young man seeking office for the first time.
At the time, Dan Roberti was a 29-year-old who worked in New York and had no political base, other than serving on the board of Think Blue, a group of young Democrats from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.
The Washington friend laughed and said Vin Roberti has changed over the years, but he still is brash.
Ana Marie Cox, writing for GQ in 2010, placed Roberti second on her list of “the influencers,” behind only Tony Podesta.
“Roberti embodies the Hollywood ideal of a Washington Power Broker: His drink of choice is champagne, his cufflinks are elegant and chunky, and his conversation is peppered with references to ‘Nancy’ (Pelosi) and ‘Chuck’ (Schumer),” she wrote.
Cox also wrote that the publicity-shy Roberti, who declined to be interviewed for this story, would hate being included on the list. If so, one of his firms, Roberti + White, evidently decided it was good for business: The piece is prominently quoted on the company’s website, along with a list of results delivered for clients, such as a share of the Wall Street bailout for Citigroup.
“Vin doesn’t just tell you how what’s happening in Washington, DC will impact your business — he helps you change the outcome,” says the firm’s website.
Raised on a schoolteacher’s salary
The son is soft-spoken, halting at times on the stump. He is the product of a Jesuit prep school, Fairfield, and college, Loyola in New Orleans, with a master’s degree in pastoral studies and a post-graduate year working at a shelter in Spokane, Wash. He was at Loyola when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and worked with political consultant James Carville on relief efforts, which Carville talks about in an endorsement video released Friday. He says Roberti became “like a family member.”
Roberti says he was maybe 17-months-old when his parents split in a less-than-amicable divorce.
While his father eventually would set up a trust valued at between $430,000 and $950,000 — money now being drained into his campaign — Dan Roberti says his mother, Kathleen Lenihan, raised two boys on a schoolteacher’s salary. They lived for most of his childhood in a rented two-family house in Westport, overlooking an industrial parking lot.
His campaign bio mentions his mother, not his father. Ask how close was he to Vin, and Dan answers indirectly, talking generally about his life as the son of divorced parents.
“I think it was probably not too dissimilar from a lot of kids who had divorced parents, who was raised by one of his parents, primarily one of his parents. In my case, it was my mom,” Roberti said. “I don’t say that to knock my dad.”
During his senior year at Fairfield Prep, he said his mother sold her engagement ring to help pay tuition and other expenses.
“Those were the sacrifices that my mom made that I witnessed and saw and understood. I didn’t necessarily see what was going on with my dad,” he said.
His mother surprised him by announcing one day she was attending his father’s 50th birthday, which Dan recalls as the beginning of the end of the parental hostilities that hovered over his childhood. He described it as burying the hatchet, ending “whatever it was for two decades.”
In 1999, two years after his second divorce, Vin Roberti became ill with a lung ailment. The son says his father was different after his recovery. After his mother was diagnosed in 2006 with an advanced melanoma, Dan Roberti says he and his mother moved into a house his father provided in Kent.
(Update: Lenihan, 60, died Saturday.)
“My father has been unbelievable as she’s gone through six years of hell,” he said. “Like any family relationship, it’s complicated.”
Roberti said his father was not pleased when he decided to use his trust to fund the last weeks of his campaign. A trust that benefits his brother, Vincent A. Roberti Jr., is buying the assets, including a 50 percent share in his father’s lobbying firm.
For most first-time candidates, putting $900,000 into a race amounts to an audacious, all-in bet. A winner can make the money back, because Washington is always willing to write checks for a winner. But a loser generally would have no expectation of getting the money back.
Not so with the son of Vin Roberti.
“I don’t see it as gambling,” he said. “It’s a loan, and I’ll know I’ll be able to recoup, possibly not all of it, but a fair amount of it.”
It is a supremely optimistic attitude, one that is a product of youth, or being the son of one of Washington’s best fundraisers, or a little bit of both.