Sunday, June 13, 2004

Super-salesman's product is the president

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Mercer Reynolds' job sounds like a sales executive's.

He meets with staff. He scrawls potential clients' names on a dry erase board. He makes 40 phone calls. He exhorts workers to sell more, to step up their goals.

He flies to Las Vegas for an event and catches a late flight to Albuquerque for a meeting. He gets up at 4:30 a.m. to fly to a meeting in Phoenix.

What Reynolds is selling is President Bush.

And sold him he has, bringing in a record $201 million for Bush's re-election campaign.

chart The Indian Hill millionaire, a longtime friend of President Bush, is charged with raising more money for a presidential campaign than has ever been raised before.

"It's not a glamorous job. That's a misconception a lot of people have," Reynolds said during a recent interview in his glass corner office at Bush campaign headquarters here.

Now Reynolds' job is getting tougher.

Instead of prying $2,000 a pop from people, he's seeking $25,000.

He switched employers from the Bush-Cheney campaign, which can accept only $2,000-a-person donations, to the Republican National Committee.

Now he's going back to those $2,000 donors and asking them - or more typically asking other people to ask them - to contribute another $25,000. Although the new check goes to the Republican National Committee instead of the Bush re-election campaign, much of the money will go to re-elect Bush.

The goal: Raise another $50 million.

If anyone can do it, even critics say it's Mercer Reynolds.

Craig Aaron, who runs Public Citizen's "White House for Sale" Web site, called Reynolds' fund-raising incredible.

"There aren't too many people who can run a $200 million operation," Aaron said.

Reynolds has perfected a system in which he doesn't raise the money: he finds the money-raisers. They go out and collect checks from their friends. Each fund-raiser gets a tracking number, so that the money he or she raises gets credited to them. Collect enough - $100,000 - and they are designated a Pioneer. Collect $200,000 and they get named a Ranger.

"So far, he's done it better than anyone else," Aaron said.

No wonder Reynolds keeps a photo on his office wall of himself with one of the world's best-known hypesters: electric-haired boxing promoter Don King. King is a big donor to Bush and Republicans, Reynolds said. (The most recent contribution: $25,000 to the Republican National Committee in January.)

To critics like Aaron, what Reynolds really is selling is access to the president. A $2,000 check or a $25,000 check buys entree into an exclusive fund-raiser where donors get a little face time with the nation's chief executive.

Yes, donors probably can get on short lists for ambassadorships or other government appointments, Reynolds said. But that's been the case with every president.

"He doesn't have any idea what people raise for him and he doesn't care. He doesn't keep a score card," Reynolds said of Bush.

The campaign does keep a score card. It keeps meticulous records on which Pioneer or Ranger recruited which donation, and competition can get quite heated among fund-raisers, Reynolds said. Part of his job is mediating those disputes.

Reynolds receives no salary from the campaign. He gets back to Cincinnati only once a month. He and his wife, Gabrielle, have bought a house in Georgetown.

But Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, a Democrat, said Reynolds' abilities have aided his adopted hometown.

"Cincinnati's clearly known to Bush, particularly when it comes to fund-raising," Luken said. "I think it is helpful to us in this respect: I do believe that Cincinnati gets fair - and sometimes more than fair - treatment from Washington."

In the past few months alone, the city was designated to get $50 million in tax help to redevelop downtown, selected for a new Energy Department office, and tapped as one of four pilot cities for a $10 million Homeland Security research project.

Whether that's coincidence, the result of fund-raising, or powerful local congressmen, Luken said he didn't know.

"Those ties are very strong, and Mercer is a part of that," Luken said.

But Reynolds' principal job is selling.

Imagine a company that spends $50 million a month - yet has no revenue source except donations. That's Reynolds' plight.

"I think it's an investment," Reynolds says of the campaign contributions. That's what he tells potential donors.

Like any good salesman, Reynolds has his mantras to keep going after prospective customers: "You never run out of donors. You just run out of time."

He has to fend off constant requests for presidential visits.

"We have to go to the venues that are most financially attractive," Reynolds said. This summer Bush will be appear at about 20 such fund-raisers, including one in Cincinnati.

While Reynolds denies his job is glamorous, he's flown on Air Force One "more times than I can count."

The hardest part of his job is waiting for people to return calls. Some don't return calls at all. Sometimes Reynolds said he has to chew people out, event chairmen or people who volunteered to raise more money but aren't following through.

He holds "pre-sell" events in cities where fund-raisers are scheduled, gathering local donors at a fancy hotel or club.

Louisville philanthropist Cathy Bailey, who chairs Bush's Kentucky fund-raising operation, said Reynolds' secret is that of any top seller or team coach: He can motivate.

At a pre-sell in Louisville before a February fund-raiser, Reynolds made every donor and fund-raiser feel special, she said.

"By the time he left, they were so pumped up, so inspired," she said. "He fired our people up. He has the ability to inspire you, to motivate you to go on to the next level, push a little bit harder, do a little better than a month ago."

He keeps track of everything, returns calls within an hour and constantly offers support.

"He's leading a nation of fund-raisers," she said.

The $201 million he has raised is 21/2 times as much as Bush's campaign had collected by this point in 2000.

It's no wonder that Bush mentions Mercer Reynolds more often than anyone else except for his wife, Laura. (He thanks Reynolds in every fund-raising speech.)

Reynolds estimates that he sees the president about twice a week. Reynolds calls him "Mr. President;" Bush calls him "Merce."

"No one else calls me Merce except for him," Reynolds said.

The Mercer Reynolds file

Name: Mercer Reynolds III

Age: 58

Born: June 17, 1945, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Education: Bachelor's degree from University of North Carolina, 1967; master's in business administration from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Business School, 1968.

Family: Wife, Gabrielle; five children, ages 19 to 30.

Home: Indian Hill; Washington, D.C.

Came to Cincinnati: Late 1960s, to work for Coca-Cola Bottling Co.

Service to Bush: Raised more than $100,000 for Bush's 2000 election, making him a Pioneer. Named ambassador to Switzerland, 2001. Named finance chairman for Bush-Cheney re-election campaign April 2003.

What he owns worth more than $1 million:

• Aladdin Capital, doing business as Buddy's Carpets, Cincinnati

• Arby's, Cincinnati

• Cincinnati Sports Mall, Cincinnati

• DixonMidland, Chicago, lighting manufacturer

• Linger Longer Development Co., Greensboro, Ga., an 8,000-acre real estate development.

• NextLec, dba Tallon Communications, Chattanooga, Tenn., telecommunications

• Reynolds DeWitt Transport, Cincinnati, private plane

• Reynolds Lodges, 250-room Ritz Carlton, Greensboro, Ga., spa and conference center under construction.

• Reynolds/American Real Properties, Greensboro, Ga., 600 acres of undeveloped land.

• St. Louis Cardinals, ownership stake.

• U.S. Playing Cards, Cincinnati.

Sources: Enquirer research, Reynolds' Sept. 29, 2003, federal financial disclosure form

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