Sunday, August 29, 2004

Most Americans of Nate Morris' age -- 23 -- don't bother to vote, and those who do often charge into politics as ideological vikings. Morris, of Jefferson County, is a different breed. Avoiding the spotlight, working his cell phone like a cash register, Morris has raised more than $50,000 from dozens of donors for President Bush's re-election campaign.

Kentucky 'Maverick' reels in serious cash for GOP campaign

By John Cheves, Lexington Herald Leader
Sunday, August 29, 2004

LOUISVILLE - Most Americans of Nate Morris' age -- 23 -- don't bother to vote, and those who do often charge into politics as ideological vikings. Morris, of Jefferson County, is a different breed. Avoiding the spotlight, working his cell phone like a cash register, Morris has raised more than $50,000 from dozens of donors for President Bush's re-election campaign.

That sum qualifies him as a "Bush Maverick," the youngest and lowest rank in an elite group of fund-raisers who helped fill the president's record $228 million war chest for the primary season that ends this week.

Morris, just a year out of college, might be the nation's youngest Maverick. As such, he illustrates a rising political class that stays behind the scenes to eagerly undertake the task so many politicians say they loathe -- asking people for money.

Bundlers, they're called: independent fund-raisers who wring checks from others on behalf of candidates. It's an unpaid job, but it wins its practitioners access to power and perks: cuff links, golfing vacations, even ambassadorships.

Typically, bundlers are middle-aged corporate executives or their wives, or politicians themselves -- civic leaders whose calls are swiftly returned.

"A lot of bundlers succeed because they can apply business pressure. People want to make them happy," said Steve Weissman, associate director of the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Frankly," Weissman said, "I'm not sure what kind of pressure a 23-year-old can apply."

It's not what you know ...

To succeed, Nate Morris eschews partisan stridency in favor of an ingratiating manner, a talent for cultivating his elders and a thickening Rolodex. Aside from his efforts for Bush, Morris has helped to elect Kentucky Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and two McConnell proteges, U.S. Rep. Anne Northup and Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

He hopes to run for office one day, and bundling is a fine way to raise his profile among the players. More immediately, Morris is a passionate advocate for what he calls "investing in your beliefs."

"You can really be effective in government even without holding office, by helping people with great ideas to get elected," Morris said recently. Politicians are quick to praise him.

"Everybody knows Nate," said McConnell, one of Morris' mentors and a master fund-raiser in his own right.

"Nate is the kind of kid you remember because he seems to be so sincere and so dedicated to the cause, he kind of stands out," McConnell said. "It's obvious that it's an important part of his life."

Ask Morris what his cause is, though, and the answer's unclear. He's conservative. He supports Bush because of "his strong leadership." But he deftly avoids answering questions about specific controversies, such as the Iraq war, tax cuts and gay marriage. He would rather not criticize Democrats. "We have to remain positive and upbeat about working with the other side," he said.

Morris, clean-shaven and stocky, has a dark thatch of hair and a taste for polite discretion -- particularly where the names of his donors are concerned.

"They're folks who have a vested interest in what the president is trying to accomplish," he said. "I have to respect their privacy. They were nice enough to contribute, and I don't want to make them unhappy."

Typically, say those who know him, Morris avoids confrontation in favor of camaraderie. In the divisive political arena, that's rare and invaluable, they said.

"When you talk to him, it's like you're the only person who matters at that moment. You're the only person in the room," said Kelly Knight, a Bush bundler in Lexington.

Big-time perks

Presidential candidates depend on bundlers for batches of "hard money" -- individual gifts of no more than $2,000 each. Bundlers' work became more important after campaign-finance laws banned the use of unlimited "soft money," which had been given to political parties by corporations, unions and the wealthy.

Bush leans on a backbone of more than 525 people who have earned the titles of Rangers, Pioneers and Mavericks by raising $200,000, $100,000 and $50,000, respectively. That's twice as many Bush bundlers as four years ago.

The perks, for Morris and other bundlers, included a golfing weekend with the president in April at an exclusive Georgia resort.

The race for recognition among fund-raisers can lead them to compete for the same donors. Campaigns credit a bundler only if his or her tracking-code number is written on a check.

Dennis DeWitt, an engineer in Louisville, said he fielded multiple requests from bundlers when he wrote a $2,000 check to the Bush campaign last winter. Ultimately, he jotted down the number of his old friend Catherine Todd Bailey, a Bush Ranger in Louisville and a member of the Republican National Committee.

"It's a matter of who asks you, and what your relationship is with that person, whether they're a friend or a neighbor or a client," DeWitt said.

"They have access to places, and you want to maintain a relationship with them."

By its very nature, critics say, bundling is formal recognition by campaigns that certain fund-raisers are their top performers, which creates an elite group in line for special favors.

"Bundlers get the same paybacks and perks we used to associate with the major donors -- maybe access to presidential aides, or a visit to the White House or a flight on Air Force One," said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the public-interest group Common Cause.

Texans for Public Justice, another watchdog group, maintains that nearly one-fourth of the Bush bundlers from 2000 and this year have received presidential appointments. Of Kentucky's three Bush bundlers in 2000, Elaine Chao was named secretary of labor and W.L. Brown became ambassador to Austria.

McConnell -- an ardent defender of private fund-raising, who is married to Chao -- said politicians naturally turn to the people who aided their campaigns. "People who work hard are always going to have more influence than people who sit on the sidelines," he said.

Nate Morris fell into politics because he had to sit on the sidelines, after a disastrous sports career.

Raised in Louisville by his mother, a divorced housewife, Morris played varsity football at Eastern High School. But in his sophomore season, he took simultaneous hits to his neck and back that broke bones and put him in bed for weeks.

This was the fall of 1996. Stuck at home and forced to choose between soap operas and news channels focused on that year's presidential race, Morris chose the latter.

He quickly was hooked.

"I'd never really thought much about politics," he said. "But this was the early days of several all-news networks going all the time. It gave me something to watch while I was recuperating."

Rather than return to the gridiron and give opposing linebackers another shot at his spine, Morris dove with characteristic enthusiasm into school politics.

He joined the debate team. He ran for senior class president and won. He crafted a patriotic presentation that persuaded the American Legion to send him to Washington as one of two Kentuckians to participate in its Boys Nation, during which he met President Clinton, a Boys Nation alumnus. Pete Gramig, past commander of the American Legion post that sponsored Morris, said he remains touched, six years later, by what happened next.

"He showed up at the post on a meeting night, unannounced, and took the podium to thank us for sending him," Gramig said. "It was days before people stopped talking about what a polite and eloquent young man he was." In 1999, Morris won an academic scholarship to study politics at George Washington University in the nation's capital.

He arrived early to run for dormitory president, a position not widely known to exist until he hit the stump. Within a few days, he knew the names and hometowns of his neighbors.

"Nate was clearly the guy who was going to win. He went door-to-door to explain to people how he would make the dorm better, and frankly, none of the other candidates put that sort of effort into it," said classmate Lia Testa, who works for a non-profit organization in Washington.

Morris organized a dance as his first executive action. Conversations stopped as he descended the dorm's staircase to the hip-hop song Back That Azz Up, rapping, "Call me Big Daddy ..." and shaking his rear. Above all, Morris wants to be liked, Testa said.

"We didn't agree much on politics -- I mean, I'm a Democrat from Massachusetts -- but once he senses that, he doesn't push you on it. He walks the line very well so that he doesn't turn anybody off who might be his friend later on," she said.

Natural networker

Morris studied the nuts and bolts of politics during the next four years -- in class as well as the halls of power.

He answered phones and ran errands as an intern for Northup, the congresswoman from Louisville; McConnell, the Senate majority whip; Chao, the energy secretary; and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. In the summers, he drove back to Kentucky to work on Northup and McConnell's re-election campaigns.

He built an enviable network of contacts and learned how to use it from one of the best.

Jack Oliver, a friend of the Bush family, ran the president's fund-raising in 2000 and this year, raking in a record $100 million and $228 million, respectively.

As soon as Morris heard that Oliver taught a graduate-level class in fund-raising at GWU, he asked for special permission to attend. Again, Morris stood out.

Oliver teaches the importance of relationships -- don't just ask donors for money in election years, he says, but stay in touch with them, ask about their families, make them feel like important members of the campaign teams. Above all, say "Thank you." You can't show too much gratitude. Morris is a natural, Oliver said.

"He's been pointed in the right direction by people," Oliver said. "But Nate's a self-starter, somebody who can get going on his own."

Building the Rolodex

The Bush re-election campaign collected $2.1 million in Kentucky, half of which came from a $2,000-a-plate lunch at Louisville's Galt House in February. The lunch featured oven-roasted salmon in rosemary honey and a presidential pep talk.

It also helped Morris raise most of the $50,000 that made him a Maverick.

"That was a terrific event," said Morris, who didn't pay the cover charge and is pretty sure he didn't eat anything.

"The president reassured us, and the American people, that the country is on the right track, and we're really helping him to get out the message," he said.

Catherine Todd Bailey, who organized the lunch as the Bush campaign's Kentucky finance chairwoman, said she was delighted to get a phone call in January from recent college graduate Morris who offered to do "whatever he could" for Bush.

Morris "was very, very focused on wanting to help the president," Bailey said.

Aside from targeting young professionals, she said, Morris frequently called her for the names of potential donors he could add to his list.

"He networks really well," Bailey said. "He's been able to build a Rolodex, and that's what it's all about. You spend the majority of your time on the phone, you make lots and lots of calls, and a lot of the time, you're turned down."

Wide-open options

Morris will watch on television this week as Bush, in New York, accepts nomination for a second term. Morris wanted to attend the Republican National Convention, but a family illness kept him in Louisville.

One day, it could be him on the screen.

Morris, who pays his bills at present as a freelance campaign consultant, is weighing law school against a career in real estate development. Or perhaps he'll do both. His long-term plan involves a decade or more of earning money and putting down community roots, at the end of which he'd like to run for office himself.

The more he learns about politics, the more he likes it.

"It would be a terrific way to give back," he said.