Christensen: Former NC debutante heads Obama’s money machine

rchristensen@newsobserver.comSeptember 3, 2012 

— When Barack Obama began his quest for the presidency, one of the first people he hired was a former Eastern North Carolina debutante-turned star political fundraiser named Julianna Smoot.

Her job four years ago was to raise a campaign war chest large enough to take on the vaunted Bill and Hillary Clinton money machine. This year, it’s to raise more money than Republican Mitt Romney.

She raised $880 million for the 2008 election. So far this election cycle, she has raised $600 million.

That makes her the $1.4 billion woman and counting.

Asked whether that would make her most successful political fundraiser in American history, Smoot hesitated a moment and replied: “I guess so.” But that was only because “I am sucker enough to come back for another campaign.”

In fact, Smoot, 45, has been one of the top Democratic fundraisers in the country for years, having started when she was 23. Her clients have include U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois and former U.S. Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and her fellow Tar Heel, John Edwards.

She knows hundreds of the biggest Democratic donors across the country, and she hounds them with the persistence of a hard-driving sales manager, softened by her Southern charm, which is a mixture of “yes sirs, no sirs,” an easy laugh, studied flattery and a fast-talking drawl.

She’s doing little fundraising at the Democratic convention in Charlotte this week, but the Southern charm will still be in evidence as she speaks at state delegation breakfasts and schmoozes delegates on the convention floor. She has been flying from her office in Chicago to Charlotte at least twice a month recently, trying to help the convention, which has been struggling financially, make its budget.

She can be tough

Jetting around the country as a big-time political fundraiser was hardly the life she imagined growing up in the Sampson County town of Clinton. Her dad was a golf pro and not particularly political; neither was her mother.

She, the oldest of three girls, made her debut at the Terp Ball in Raleigh and attended deb parties in Wilson, Rocky Mount and Fayetteville. A scholarship and a work-study program allowed her to attend Smith College, one of the elite women’s colleges in Massachusetts, whose graduates include Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Gloria Steinem and Julia Child.

As freshman adviser, she was the first student to greet freshman Stephanie Cutter, helping unload her car. The two became lifelong friends and have formed a kind of a good ol’ girl network in Democratic politics. Both are deputy directors of the Obama campaign, Smoot in charge of finances and Cutter in charge of messaging.

As a New Englander used to trading sharp elbows on the Sunday talk shows, Cutter marvels at her friend’s ability to be both tough-minded and direct while spreading the charm.

“She’s a warm person,” Cutter said. “She can be tough in getting her point across, but she does it with respect and people appreciate it.”

‘I’m a nag, I think’

At Smith, Smoot began working in the college development office. Fundraising for the college set Smoot on her career path. It was only a short jump to Washington and Democratic politics.

She was the fourth person that Obama, then an Illinois senator, hired in late 2006 for his presidential campaign. She was already a star fundraiser but had never done a presidential campaign before let alone taken on the Clintons.

She had Obama hit the big Democratic money centers in New York, California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and hooked him up with the likes of billionaire George Soros, according to The Washington Post.

Whenever she slid into Obama’s car on the campaign trail, it would be with a long list of potential donors for Obama to call. And if he talked to any one too long, she would tell him to hurry up and move onto the next donor.

And she would remind him – don’t forget to ask for their credit card numbers.

“I’m a nag, I think,” she says with a laugh and admits that Obama would often grimace at the sight of her headed to the car.

But the money poured – from both big donors and from small Internet donations.

After saying all the obligatory nice things about the Clintons – Smoot told The Post that convincing donors to give to Obama rather than to Hillary Clinton was “not a hard sell.”

“You have to believe in the product you are selling,” Smoot told The N&O. “I would not have been with Barack Obama since the end of 2006 if I didn’t believe in him. He makes it really easy.”

But she said persistence is also important.

“I have called people three or four times who have told me no,” Smoot said. “Just the other day, this guy – who had been a supporter in L.A., and was still supportive of the president, hadn’t quite written a check – walks into my office in Chicago and says, ‘I owe you a check.’ He came around. ... It’s a matter of being disciplined and not taking no for an answer. You ask for a high amount. If they say no, keep lowering it, until they give something.”

Like father, like daughter

Friends say she gets some of her charm and her capacity to remember names – a much-need asset for a fundraiser – from her father, who is now retired in the small town of Willow Spring, just outside Raleigh. Ed Smoot, a Democrat, said he has met Obama several times, and the president has promised him a golf game. Before Ed Smoot had triple bypass surgery in 2008, Obama called him from the campaign trail to wish him luck.

“He is the nicest guy,” Ed Smoot said. “He is just like one of us. He makes us feel at ease.”

White House events

After the 2008 campaign, Smoot played a major role in organizing the inaugural before shifting to a lower profile job as chief of staff for U.S. Trade Rep. Ron Kirk – a move that friends saw as an effort to reclaim some private life.

But that lasted only a year. When White House social director Desiree Rogers was eased out following a turbulent tenure that included a Virginia couple crashing the first presidential dinner, Smoot took over.

Her first event was just two weeks later – the annual White House Easter egg hunt for 35,000 people. She also oversaw two state dinners for the leaders of Mexico and China.

She called the $150,000-per year job fun and said it was less nerve-wracking than one might think because of the crack White House staff.

“If I had the wonderful staff that the White House has to help, I would have no problem doing a dinner party at my house,” Smoot said.

In March, Smoot made the fashionable ELLE magazine’s “Capital Dames 10 Powerful Women” list along with the U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and journalist Christiane Amanpour.

By then, Smoot was actually back in Chicago at Obama headquarters raising money for the president’s re-election.

The money comes from people giving the maximum of $75,800 (to the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee) or in $5 denominations from people giving up a Starbucks coffee, she said.

“What motivates me?” Smoot said. “I’m a Democrat. I believe in what the Democrats stand for. I want to help my fellow neighbor. I want to help make sure folks have health care and make sure business owners can figure out how to get small business loans. That is my contribution. That is why I do it.”

Smoot says this will be her last presidential campaign. But her husband – she married businessman Lon Johnson last fall – is running for the Michigan legislature, so there might be another political career that needs some cash soon.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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