San Francisco philanthropist Susie Tompkins Buell, one of the Democratic Party’s most generous benefactors, is keeping her checkbook closed when President Obama holds high-priced California fundraisers this week.
“I want to look him in the eye and say, ‘Thank you so much’ ” for his work, said Buell, who expresses deep disappointment in the president’s leadership on environmental issues, especially climate change.
With Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign in full swing, “I would just love to write my big check … or have a high-dollar dinner here” on his behalf, she said. “I can’t.”
Buell, a co-founder of the Esprit clothing company, has donated millions of dollars to Democratic causes and presidential candidates, including Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore and her good friend, Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the past 10 years, she has given $25 million to progressive political and charitable causes and has raised $10 million for candidates and committees, her office said.
But as Obama flies from Southern California to San Francisco today to vacuum up donations in the reliable Democratic ATM, Buell will attend neither of his $35,800-per-plate fundraisers in San Francisco, nor a fundraising rally at the Masonic Auditorium.
Buell is a loyal Democrat, but says she hasn’t yet opened her wallet for Obama’s campaign and probably won’t anytime soon.
“I’ve just given so much money away, and I’ve never asked for anything,” she said in an interview at her Pacific Heights home this week. Now, “I’m asking for something: He’s got to be a leader.”
Buell and her husband, Mark Buell, have long devoted energy and money to environmental causes such as the Go Green Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit designed to get young people involved in environmental causes. She said she is “very concerned that President Obama has not talked enough about this issue.”
“I thought that he really did understand ‘the urgency of now’ on climate change,” she said. “He has not been vocal enough … and I want to encourage him to lead me.”
Buell’s glaring absence from Obama’s fundraising events this week underscores the challenges the president has with his progressive base.
Political angel investor
At the same time, Buell has become an angel investor to promising Democratic candidates in the Bay Area and across the country, and she encourages other donors to do the same.
Candidates who have gotten boosts from Buell include Senate candidate hopeful Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, who was recently feted at a fundraiser at Buell’s penthouse.
She is also on the finance committee for Democratic North Bay congressional candidate Stacey Lawson and plans a fundraiser in her home Feb. 23 for the candidate, who is running to fill the seat of retiring Rep. Lynn Woolsey.
Ro Khanna, a Democratic rising star in the South Bay, also has Buell’s support and donations, as he mulls a future run against 20-term incumbent Rep. Pete Stark in the new 15th Congressional District.
Such strategic actions by Buell do not go unnoticed by the White House as it builds an election war chest.
Protesting the pipeline
In October, Buell made headlines after she led a protest of monied Democrats in San Francisco against the controversial 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline. Her fellow protesters outside an Obama fundraiser included Michael Kieschnick, co-founder of CREDO Mobile and Working Assets, which has donated $75 million to progressive causes; IT executive David desJardins; and Anna Hawken McKay, wife of Rob McKay, a wealthy philanthropist whose father founded Taco Bell.
The Democrats, who could have easily afforded the $5,000-a-plate Obama fundraiser, stood on the curb outside the W Hotel as Buell delivered a tough assessment of the president: “I don’t know where he stands on anything,” she said.