K Street support to test Buttigieg

K Street support to test Buttigieg
© Greg Nash

Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats on edge as Iowa points to chaotic race Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal MORE is winning early support from K Street, especially from LGBTQ lobbyists who are rallying behind the openly gay South Bend, Ind., mayor’s upstart Democratic presidential campaign.

Buttigieg has built ties with executives from the influence world throughout his political career. But their support — and money — also present him with some tough decisions as progressive groups urge Democratic candidates to reject special interest money.


Q Street, a group of LGBTQ lobbyists, Hill staffers and public policy advocates, is enthusiastic about Buttigieg’s rise in the polls.

“The excitement in Q Street and the wider LGBTQ community for Pete Buttigieg is definitely growing. It’s exciting to have a credible candidate for the nomination be someone who is so open and proud and representative of the LGBTQ community,” Ben Grove, legislative director for Thompson Coburn and Q Street president, told The Hill.

Grove said many LGBTQ lobbyists are “holding their cards close” with such a wide field of candidates, but he believes support for Buttigieg on K Street will grow.

“I think you see major LGBTQ donors like Steve Elmendorf ... start being more open about supporting and hosting events for the campaign,” he said.

Lobbyists told The Hill that when Buttigieg came to town for the Victory Fund brunch, an event which supports LGBTQ politicians, it was a sold-out affair. Buttigieg headlined the brunch on April 7 alongside Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthSenate Democrat introduces bill to protect military families from deportation Nuclear command nominee sidesteps questions on arms control treaties Senate Dems ask Trump Organization for information on dealings with Turkey MORE (D-Ill.).

Buttigieg can already boast support from some prominent K Street names.

Democratic lobbyist Steven Elmendorf, founder and partner at Subject Matter and onetime chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), only donated to Buttigieg last quarter. While the $250 contribution was a small amount, Elmendorf’s support was a boost to the campaign. Elmendorf, who is openly gay, was a major bundler for former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton3 ways government can help clean up Twitter Intelligence Democrat: Stop using 'quid pro quo' to describe Trump allegations The Memo: Bloomberg's 2020 moves draw ire from Democrats MORE’s 2016 presidential bid, raising over $100,000.

“I just think everything about him is the opposite of [President] Trump in a good way, and when he answers every question, he’s trying to find solutions. He’s not attacking anyone,” Elmendorf said of Buttigieg, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Elmendorf is one of the hosts of a May 21 fundraiser for the mayor, alongside Obama bundler Barry Karas and John Michael Gonzalez, a lobbyist with Peck Madigan Jones. Lobbyist Stephen Neuman of American Airlines also gave Buttigieg $500 last quarter.


An individual can give a maximum $2,800 contribution to a candidate in the primary and an additional $2,800 for the general election.

Buttigieg raised more than $7 million overall in the last quarter, fourth highest among Democratic contenders, and with 64 percent of that coming from small donations.

Gonzalez and his husband both gave to Buttigieg last quarter, he told The Hill. He predicted Buttigieg would see donations rise in the second quarter.

“I think what you are seeing is a real and authentic rise in interest in Pete here in D.C. like everywhere else. And D.C. insiders are more skeptical than the rest of the country,” Gonzalez told The Hill, adding that it is mirroring the candidate’s rise in the polls.

“This means a lot more interest in the second quarter,” Gonzalez said. “Not just by D.C. operatives but by voters all over the country. We are not leading here. We are following.”

Debbie Cox Bultan, CEO of NewDEAL, a group of Democratic elected officials at the state and local level, highlighted Buttigieg’s involvement since 2012. The group participates in an annual Washington conference, where many lobbyists told The Hill they first heard Buttigieg speak.

“Mayor Pete has epitomized the forward-looking leadership that unites NewDEAL-ers,” Bultan told The Hill, saying that Buttigieg’s national profile was “no surprise” to the group.

But the support from LGBTQ lobbyists and Buttigieg’s warmer ties with K Street and business groups pose a challenge for the candidate in a campaign cycle where Democrats are under pressure from progressive groups to reject support from the corporate world.

As a small-town mayor, Buttigieg faced few, if any, questions, about his ties to the influence world. As a top-tier Democratic candidate, that scrutiny over special interest money will intensify.

Other progressive candidates have said they will refuse corporate PAC money, including Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg looks to upend Democratic race Poll: Biden support hits record low of 26 percent The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump demands Bidens testify MORE (D-N.J.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal Women who inspired 'Hidden Figures' film will be honored with congressional gold medals MORE (D-Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSenate panel clears controversial Trump court pick Advocates step up efforts for horse racing reform bill after more deaths Harris proposes keeping schools open for 10 hours a day MORE (D-N.Y.). Rejecting any sources of money would make it harder for Buttigieg to stay competitive with fundraising juggernauts like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats on edge as Iowa points to chaotic race Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal MORE (I-Vt.) — who is also refusing corporate PAC donations.

Buttigieg’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill.

Buttigieg has previously said he won’t take corporate PAC money, and his campaign has said it will be transparent about sharing the names of individuals who are bundling donations.

That may not be enough to satisfy all progressive groups.

One group, Code Pink, told The Hill they were “dismayed” that Buttigieg would accept lobbyist money, calling it a sign he is “out of touch with the American people.”

Ariel Gold, co-director of Code Pink, said that seven Democratic candidates have vowed not to take any money from lobbyists.

“That Buttigieg is not among them is telling about what he would be like as a president and who he would be loyal to, Wall Street or the people,” Gold added.

Grove downplayed concerns about Buttigieg’s support from K Street.

“I think all of the Democratic candidates will be under strict scrutiny for various parts of their past, but I don’t think Buttigieg’s D.C. relationships are much more significant than the other candidates’,” Grove said.

He noted that Buttigieg’s staff doesn’t have the “traditional ties” to D.C. like other candidates’ staffers.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenImpeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Trump DACA fight hits Supreme Court Juan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete MORE, who is expected to jump into the race on Thursday, has D.C. ties that date back decades from his tenure in the Senate and White House. Biden, who doesn’t have a large base of small donors, is expected to rely more on bundlers to stay competitive.

Grove touted Buttigieg’s small donor pool and said that his D.C. contributors were not all prominent established lobbyists like Elmendorf.

“Outside of the few larger donors, I think many of the younger lobbyists who are contributing to the campaign are doing it because, like voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are demonstrating, they are intrigued to meet him, hear what he has to say, and support the first prominent LGBT candidate for president,” Grove said.

Eric Lausten, a principal at Husch Blackwell Strategies, also told The Hill he doesn’t see an issue with Buttigieg receiving support from the influence community.

“There are so many issues that are more important to voters. I don’t think that a lobbyist contribution to a candidate or the size of contributions are going to have much impact,” Lausten, who was chief of staff to Rep. Daniel LipinskiDaniel William LipinskiDemocrats unveil impeachment procedures The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges Booker endorses Lipinski challenger MORE (D-Ill.) before moving to the public policy firm, told The Hill.

“He’s independent and has a fresh, intellectually honest and progressive voice, so I doubt attacks on him based on how he raises money will affect that perception,” he added.

Michael Waxman, president and CEO of Waxman Strategies, said progressives should instead focus on Buttigieg’s views — and the goal of defeating President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE.

“Progressives may favor candidates who make pledges that seem to repudiate D.C.’s swamp culture, but I’d hope Democratic candidates are judged primarily on their vision, character and ability to defeat Trump,” Waxman told The Hill.