Chase Williams grinned broadly as he stood for a photo next to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, chatting briefly with the Massachusetts Democrat before moving on so someone else could have their turn.
It was the kind of moment that has become a ubiquitous part of Warren’s presidential campaign and its long “selfie lines,” where supporters wait for hours to pose with her at no charge.
But this shot, taken in October 2017, was at an entirely different kind of event: an exclusive “backstage” reception that took place in the vault of a former Cleveland bank. And that was the day’s low-rent affair – donors who agreed to pay more attended an even more exclusive shindig with Warren that day, according to two people familiar with her schedule.
The events were part of a high-dollar fundraising program that Warren had embraced her entire political career, from her first Senate run in 2011 through her reelection last year. Warren was so successful at it that she was able to transfer $10 million of her Senate cash to help launch her presidential bid.
But in the past year Warren has undergone a transformation, moving from one of the Democratic Party’s biggest draws at high-dollar fundraisers to a presidential candidate who has sworn them off as sinister attempts to sell access.
In a debate last week, Warren criticized rival Pete Buttigieg for having an exclusive fundraiser in a crystal-filled wine cave in Napa Valley, prompting the South Bend, Indiana, mayor to respond that she shouldn’t issue “purity tests you cannot yourself pass.”
Williams, who supports Buttigieg in the presidential race, said Warren’s position was “disingenuous.”
“I am frustrated because she said, ‘I don’t do this. This isn’t something I do.’ And two years ago she very much did do that, and I was in the room,” said Williams, who had a photo taken after writing a $500 check.
Other notable Warren events from her Senate runs include a private luncheon held for donors at Boulevard, a San Francisco restaurant where the wine list tops out with a $3,800 bottle of a pinot noir from Burgundy and diners can eat in a “wine vault.”
The October 2017 event was to thank her big givers and seek their help for Warren’s 2018 reelection, according to an invitation obtained by The Washington Post, which outlined the requirement that attendees pay at least $1,000 a head to attend.
Warren appeared in June 2012 at an exclusive reception with Kevin Ryan, a New York tech investor who held an event for Buttigieg earlier this month that attracted protesters who sought to tag the candidate as #WallStreetPete.
There was also “an evening of music and conversation with Grammy Award Winning Singer-Songwriter Melissa Etheridge” at City Winery in Boston in June 2018 where those who gave more than $1,000 to Warren received a “souvenir wine bottle,” an event first reported by the Associated Press.
Warren’s campaign acknowledged the misstepfor an April 2012 evening reception with a host committee that included Linda Fairstein, the former Manhattan district attorney who prosecuted five black and Latino teenagers on charges of raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989. The teens became known as the Central Park Five and went to prison but were later exonerated in a case that highlighted deep racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“This was in 2012 but it was wrong,” Warren spokeswoman Gabrielle Farrell said of the fundraiser. “Linda’s record is troubling . . . part of our deciding to run our presidential campaign the way we are is the decision to say Elizabeth is not going to give special access to high-dollar donors through closed-door fundraisers.”
Warren’s new position is part of an attempt to tap into the zeitgeist of the party’s left wing, where activists and voters believe wealthy individuals and companies have far too much influence in American life and over American institutions. But party strategists say Warren’s approach could be damaging for her, as well as her opponents.
“I don’t think it’s good for either one of them to be fighting each other,” Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist, said about the back-and-forth over fundraising between Warren and Buttigieg. “In a multicandidate race, when you knock somebody, they go to someone else. They don’t come to you.”
Rufus Gifford, a longtime Democratic fundraiser who donated the maximum amount to Warren’s 2018 Senate campaign and has donated to Buttigieg, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, said raising money from wealthy donors at private fundraisers is a common practice and that branding it as inherently corrupting is problematic.
“Money in politics can be a corrupting influence, absolutely. But you have to allow it to be corrupting, something there is no evidence of here” with the Buttigieg fundraiser, Gifford said. “In this instance, I believe the attacks are disingenuous. Everyone is in this to score political points, but let’s score political points above the belt.”
The tension between Warren’s current fundraising practices and her former one has been present at other times in the campaign. In April, Warren attacked Biden for holding a high-dollar private fundraiser in Philadelphia, blasting out a note to supporters contrasting her practices to his: “Our democracy is not for sale, and neither is my time,” Warren wrote.
But Warren had swept through Philadelphia the year before to solicit money from some of the same people, including former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and Philadelphia lawyer Stephen Cozen, who helped organize the Biden fundraiser.
Both were co-hosts at a Warren fundraising event in 2018 where donors gave the maximum amount to her Senate campaign. “It didn’t make sense why it was okay for us to give her $2,800 for her Senate campaign, but why we were bad people if we gave $2,800 to Vice President Biden’s presidential campaign,” Rendell said.
Rendell added that Warren sent him a “wonderful” thank you note. “And less than 12 months later, I’m an influence peddler and a fat cat,” he said dryly.
On Sunday evening, after speaking at a rally in Oklahoma City, Warren acknowledged that she used to have a big donor program. “I’ve been to those fundraisers,” Warren said. “And I think we can do better.”
Her campaign tried to play down the high-dollar program from the Senate races, saying that only $6 million of the $26 million she raised for herself that cycle came from big- money events.
Her top strategist, Joe Rospars, said in September on the Campaign HQ podcast that skipping high-dollar fundraisers “gives you a different kind of diet of incoming to the campaign organization and the candidate. It can’t be good for a candidate to be spending a third, two-thirds of their time taking incoming from a donor class that is disproportionately old, white, rich and male.”
In Oklahoma City on Sunday, Warren said she made a decision to halt big-dollar fundraising when she decided to run for president. “When I first got into this presidential race, I said, ‘I’m not doing these closed-door meetings. I’m not doing special call time and special access to people with money,’ ” Warren told reporters in Oklahoma City on Sunday night. “I’m going to run a grass-roots campaign.”
But the decision wasn’t easy or straightforward.
As recently as three months before Warren announced her presidential campaign, she had sought to meet with donors in New York, said one prominent Wall Street donor who spoke anonymously to describe private conversations.
“Right before she announced and everything, she came to New York and she wanted to meet with folks who had money,” to see whether those donors would contribute to her campaign, said the donor, who declined the meeting. During her Senate campaigns, “she’d come to New York, she’d raise money. Back then, she didn’t hate people [who are wealthy], she was just a liberal,” the donor added.
A month before her initial New Year’s Eve presidential announcement, Warren met with one of Hillary Clinton’s former major supporters in her Cambridge house and asked whether he would support her and raise money for her presidential campaign.
“She wanted the folks that raised money for her Senate campaign and the kind of money we raised for Hillary and Obama to be part of her team,” said the donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the conversation.
Warren’s team didn’t hire regional fundraising consultants as she prepared to run, which her campaign staff points to as evidence that they were long considering a grass-roots-only approach.
But Warren launched her race with her longtime fundraisers on the payroll – the pair, Michael Pratt and Colleen Coffey, both left the campaign shortly after Warren announced that she wouldn’t do a traditional big-dollar program in February.
Vestiges of a big-dollar program remain. Businessman Paul Egerman and another longtime fundraiser, Shanti Fry, serve as the campaign’s finance co-chairs.
The pair have been courting wealthy donors on Warren’s behalf, helping the campaign maintain ties to the big-donor world by asking them to donate individually, rather than organizing private events for them and Warren.
“Being asked by fundraising staff to contribute to a candidate who refuses to sell access is literally the opposite of being asked to contribute in order to get access,” said Warren spokeswoman Kristen Orthman, defending the practice.
But it works.
Steven Grossman, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former Massachusetts state treasurer, said that his wife Barbara received a phone call from Fry asking for a donation to Warren’s campaign.
“I know you care deeply about her and believe deeply in her,” Fry said, according to Grossman.
His wife agreed, he said, and wrote a $2,800 check.