Please check out the latest article in today's Variety Blog "Wilshire & Washington"
Lifting the Lid Off the Money Trail
The plot of the new novel "Party Favors" doesn't seem so unusual when weighed against other fish-out-of-water tomes like "Devil Wears Prada": A young and ideal Midwestern woman who rises to the top of the world of D.C. fund-raising, then realizes what such a powerful world is really like.
But "Party Favors" is written by Nicole Sexton, who from 2002 to 2005 was at the GOP's money source: She served as director of finance for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The book is fiction, not a tell-all, but D.C. insiders surely will read the tome trying to connect the dots, for it's not a very flattering look at senators and their tactics for soaking up campaign dollars.
What's more, Sexton's alter ego, Temple Sachet, encounters a cast of characters that include a small army of closeted gay Republicans, and a 70-year-old senator who is also a pervert, and other lawmakers who seem to love being wined, dined and coddled by lobbyists. The most amusing of the figures is Senator Griswold, "old Blubberboy," an incompetent Ivy Leaguer who is dangerously overweight yet fancies himself as a "modern-day toupee wearing Roy Rogers." It doesn't take too much head-scratching to figure out who she's referring to when she writes, "People were whispering that Senator Ogburn had a penchant for public bathrooms."
But the book is really about the insanity of campaign finance, the endless drive for the next donor check and the overall corruption of the system.
"My intention was to entertain and to cast a light on this world," says Sexton, speaking by phone earlier this month.
She has since moved on to more altruistic circles as part of Bono's ONE campaign, but she says that her novel, written with Susan Johnston, has received "some negative rumble from a few fund-raisers who I worked with" who felt that it attacked the business of raising political money too broadly. Other fund-raising friends have told her they "cringe at how realistic and truthful you were." Among other things, Sexton is up front about how fund-raisers take a percentage off the top of each contribution --- 10%, even 15% in some cases --- often unknown to those donors who write a check.
"I saw the middle men, the gross waste and the overwhelming greed, and the blinders were really ripped off," she says. "I was angry with myself and disappointed and subsequently left."
It's clear from Temple's story that Sexton found herself lost in the world of campaign cash. As she says, the book attacks an entire sector of government that "is supposed to be based on reality and telling the truth, but there is a real clouded view of what should be and what matters."
It wasn't just that it became a "numbers game" and how many seats the GOP was winning rather than its ideological stances, as Sexton has said. In the book, Temple struggles with supporting a "party of 'family' when most of the senators were divorced (one on his eighth wife!) having affairs, or otherwise living by a different set of rules than they espoused."
Sexton supports some serious measures at reform: Limits on the time that candidates raise money and on the amount that can be spent, as well as requirements to that TV and radio stations provide free airtime to campaigns.
Although she would have liked to have seen Barack Obama participate in public financing for the general election, she's encouraged by his ability to raise huge sums of small contributions over the Internet, eliminating the middle man, and is anxious to see how his 1.5 million contributors translate into votes. "He didn't come in with this huge war chest and spend through it," she says.
"I think there is something to be said for your ability to get out your message and inspire people," she says.
And she notes the irony that John McCain, hobbled by dismal fund-raising throughout 2007, came out on the top of the heap, and that Mike Huckabee, who didn't even have a finance director, made it so far.
Still, she finds fault with the lack of disclosure of campaign bundlers. Campaigns aren't required to disclose their names, and although Obama and McCain have following a great deal of pressure, the information is still scant, she says. Also troubling are the 527 committees, the independent expenditure groups that amount to a campaign finance loophole, where individual donors can contribute unlimited amounts of money.
"There is a place for fund-raising," she says. "But fund-raisers have to be held accountable to the donors they raise money from and the candidates they work for."
Sexton says she sensed even back in 2004 that things were coming apart. She left right before Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff --- two of the most notorious scandals that preceded the GOP's loss of both houses in 2006. She believes that the GOP faces the loss of "a lot of house seats" and five Senate seats.
"That is a big reason why I wanted to get out," she says. "I could see it coming."
Her next step, naturally, is the "Prada" route: Selling the film rights to the book.
Posted by Ted Johnson on July 22, 2008 at 10:39 PM in Current Affairs Permalink