Nicole Sexton was a wide-eyed intern in the White House Office of National Service when she first caught Potomac fever: an addiction to DC politics, and the belief that government could make any number of “grandiose ideas” real. She made the transition into the secretive and highly lucrative world of DC fundraising, where she spent fifteen years rising to become one of the Republicans’ top fundraisers.
But gradually, she grew disillusioned with the entire system. And today, after helping the Republicans regain their majority in the Senate as the 2002-2005 Director of Finance for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sexton has done what few fundraisers in the field are willing to do: leave. Today, she works for the ONE campaign, helping to raise awareness about AIDS and the crisis of extreme poverty around the world.
Author of the forthcoming Party Favors–a fictionalized account of her experience as one of the GOP’s most well-connected insiders–Nicole Sexton sat down with The Nation to share her perspective on the rarely talked-about world of political fundraising, the stakes involved, and the difficulty of defining your priorities when your politics are for sale.
So tell me, if I’m running for a seat in the House and I hire you. What’s the process? What do you tell me?
First, we’ll look at your personal Rolodex. We’ll put a finance crew together of people who believe in you–it might be someone who owns a grocery store, or someone who’s president of a bank. It’s grassroots, and you’ll build your donor list from them. You’ll also receive support from the NRCC (National Republican Congressional Committee) and state parties, and they’ll provide resources or outlets for you to raise money through.
But what if I wanted to run for Congress? I mean, I don’t really know any bank presidents. I probably wouldn’t get very far.
Everybody has somebody that they know who has a Rolodex. Or you know someone who’s a stockbroker or banker, or in some sort of corporate capacity is connected to people…Most of the people I ended up working for–well, a few came from the House, but the majority had come from a governor’s position or had been in the private sector, so it wasn’t an overwhelming challenge for them.
When you’re working for a candidate, what kind of dynamic exists between you and your client? What’s that relationship like?
As the fundraiser, you probably have the most intimate relationship with the candidate of anyone on staff. You get to know his friends, his network. Sometimes it’s tough. Some people that I’ve worked with really love raising money and it’s not been an arm-twist at all, but others can’t stand it.
What’s the norm?
Can’t stand it. It’s a chore. Most of the time for senators, the calls are preset so the donor knows you’re calling, and you know that you’ll get the contribution. But still, they’ll want to fill your ear with how they feel about the war, or a piece of legislation, or pending legislation. After all, you know, they’re paying for time. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s dollars for legislation–but you’re certainly getting someone’s ear. That’s part of the deal.