House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moves in a rarefied world of high society and high-level politics - and nothing underscores that fact quite like her plans for the August recess.
Pelosi will spend next weekend quietly tending to top party donors and political allies at a series of private events in Northern California.
The two-day "issues conference" starts next Friday night with a dinner for roughly 170 guests on the back lawn of Pelosi's multimillion-dollar home in the fashionable Pacific Heights neighborhood in San Francisco.
The following day, Pelosi will shepherd her guests to a Napa Valley winery with buildings designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry; the speaker and her husband, investor Paul Pelosi, own a nearby vineyard worth between $5 million and $25 million, according to her annual financial disclosure report.
There's nothing unusual about leaders using recess to fund- and friend-raise. Before leaving town last week, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor raked in $1.1 million for fellow Republicans at a lobbyist-heavy fundraiser on Capitol Hill.
And Pelosi's staff notes that her California session will involve more than just schmoozing with the wealthy and well-connected. The speaker will lead policy discussions on health care, energy reform and the economy, among other topics. Scheduled to speak are Obama adviser David Axelrod, CNN commentator and former Clinton adviser James Carville and Mark Zandi, an economic adviser to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign who has been providing advice to the Obama White House.
More than a dozen other House Democrats will be in attendance, too, including Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, a key player on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee; Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller of California, Pelosi's closest ally in the House; Xavier Becerra ofCalifornia, vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus; and Joseph Crowley of New York and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, two up-and-coming Democrats who have previously found themselves in Pelosi's doghouse but are moving to get back into her good graces.
The weekend event is technically not a fundraiser. In the parlance of fundraising pros, it's known as "donor maintenance," a "thank you" from Pelosi to those who have given generously to her and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. To be invited, one must have raised money for the DCCC, been a longtime friend of Pelosi's or contributed $30,4000 to the DCCC this cycle. The maximum an individual may give to a national party committee in any one year.
A donation to the DCCC of that size qualifies a donor to be part of the "Speaker's Cabinet," a fundraising program that gives supporters expanded access to Pelosi. In addition to the annual Napa weekend, Pelosi also will personally provide at least one more private briefing for these maxed-out donors.
According to campaign reports filed by the DCCC, at least 170 individuals, as well as a handful of Native American tribes, reached that maximum donation threshold as of June 30. San Francisco and Bay Area bigwigs are prominent among the collection of big DCCC supporters, including Ann Getty Earhart, an heiress to the Getty oil fortune; Elizabeth Fisher, whose in-laws founded The Gap, the retail clothing giant; and Eugene Eidenberg, a former Carter White House staffer who is now a San Francisco venture capitalist. Paul Pelosi owns up to $50,000 in stock in the investment firm that Eidenberg helped co-found, Granite Ventures, according to Pelosi's annual disclosure report.
Pelosi's aides are tight lipped about who will go to this year's event, but the guest list is expected to include Phil Angelides, a Pelosi ally who unsuccessfully ran against California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006; Steve Elmendorf, a prominent Democratic lobbyist; Dick Gephrdt, the former House minority leader and Democratic presidential candidate; Richard and Judy Guggenhime, Pelosi's close friends and neighbors; Michelle Lerach, wife of the now-imprisoned plaintiff attorney Bill Lerach; George Marcus, a Bay Area commercial real estate broker; Heather and Tony Podesta, a Washington power couple; Marc Stanley, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council and a big party fundraiser; Steve and Mary Swig, Pelosi friends and financial backers; and Brian Wolff, Pelosi's longtime fundraising and political guru who is now a lobbyist for the Edison Electric Institute.
Altogether, more than 165 guests have already committed to attend the Pelosi weekend, according to informed sources.
"Speaker Pelosi has spent years developing and keeping engaged a broad network of support from the best and brightest minds across America, and they care deeply about the issues facing the country and the Democratic agenda," said Jennifer Crider, the DCCC's deputy executive director and Pelosi's political director.
Pelosi, though, will not allow PAC representatives to attend her weekend soiree, and it's not a chance for lobbyists to curry favor with the speaker, so relatively few take part. In the words of one past attendee, "They don't cut any deals [at this event], so those looking to do so are discouraged from coming."
Since her initial run for Congress in 1987, Pelosi has forged an eclectic mix of political and financial supporters - a blend of Bay Area elites, Washington power players, labor unions, progressive corporate execs, trial lawyers, "old money" families from both coasts and Paul Pelosi's business connections. And the veteran Democratic lawmaker has mined this group with enormous success, for herself and for her party.
Pelosi goes out of her way to court these donors. Her personal touches include frequent gifts of flowers - orchids are her favorite - or chocolate. She will call a sick family member of a big contributor or reach out to her supporters for their take on important policy issues.
"She is very good at the personal, retail level of this stuff," said Steven Kazan, an Oakland-based attorney specializing in asbestos litigation. Kazan cut a $30,400 check to the DCCC in February but isn't sure if he will get to Pelosi's weekend gathering.
Kazan is among the wealthy Pelosi backers who take their cues from the speaker when it comes to giving money to House incumbents and candidates.
"With the House of Representatives, I long ago decided that I could not figure out what races were important," said Kazan, who is constantly hit up for campaign donations. "When someone calls [for a campaign donation], I tell them, 'Nancy Pelosi is my leader. If your name is on her list, I'll give you some money. If it's not, I'm real sorry, but take it up with Nancy.'"
Junior Democrats like Reps. Zack Space of Ohio, Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio, Dina Titus of Nevada, Michael Arcuri of New York, Betsy Markey of Colorado, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Steve Driehaus of Ohio, John Boccieri of Ohio and Suzanne Kosmas of Florida have received tens of thousands from Pelosi's friends and supporters.
Republicans have derided conservative and moderate Democrats who accept money from Pelosi's friends for buying into her "San Francisco values" such as support for gay rights, abortion rights and an end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Pelosi's aides and backers dismiss the GOP criticism as misguided and unrealistic. They say that it is the role of a modern speaker to help his or her vulnerable members raise money for their reelection campaigns, especially in a tough political environment.
Pelosi has committed to personally raising $25 million for the DCCC this cycle, and party sources say she has already heped take in $10.7 million, with more than 14 months to go before the midterm elections.
By John Bresnahan