How Trump & Biden Get Funds From Desi Bundlers’ ‘Elite’ Parties
Desi ‘bundlers’ have been fundraising for US presidential campaigns through ‘chai-nashta’ parties for a long time.
‘They See Blue’ had a ‘chai-nashta’ obstacle when pandemic restrictions came along to move their fund raising efforts online. They had developed a reputation for serving the best ‘khana and chai’ at their fundraisers.
‘They See Blue,’ also called DesiBlue, is a non-profit organisation, formed by a team of Indian Americans in California to mobilise South Asian Americans to help elect Biden and flip the US Senate, which currently has a Republican majority.
What makes a political fundraiser exciting enough for people to part with their money, is the prospect of a personal interaction with their candidate, hobnobbing with prominent guests, and refreshments.
Co-Founder of ‘They See Blue’, Rajiv Bhateja, remembers, “We were quaking about how to get people to attend and pay up, because they want to pump their hand in flesh with the candidate. Historically, people are willing to pay for that in-person interaction. But we adapted. Our term for high dollar donors is ‘whales’. There is one guy on our team whom we call a whale whisperer. Money just materialises.”
Their team was able to channelise the commitment and angst US citizens have in the 2020 elections to create attractive online events with prominent panelists.
Desi Food Brings Donors and Candidates Together
It is not only prospective donors who look forward to desi food at fundraisers. Bill Clinton broke all protocol at the Silicon Valley party hosted by entrepreneur Talat Hasan and her venture capitalist husband Kamil Hasan, where Clinton was representing his wife Hillary, during the last election cycle.
At a high profile fundraiser, guests are separated in tiers, and norm is that guests who pay upwards of USD 10,000 get to meet the candidate more closely. After meeting the big dollar donors inside, it was time for Bill Clinton to move to the backyard to take pictures with other donors, where he literally jumped a rope, stepped onto the other side of a demarcated area to mingle freely.
As his team was whisking him away, when it was time to leave, Talat Hasan recalls, “Bill Clinton announced that he could the smell Indian food! He shook hands with all the catering staff, pulled a chair and enjoyed the buffet. The food was laid out for the guests to enjoy after he had left, as he was not scheduled to have lunch at this event. As he got up, he spotted the dessert table. By this time all his security team had their faces buried in their hands.”
He made sure that there was some masala tea for him too, in the boxes of tea and food that the Hasans had packed for the Clinton entourage’s drive back. They raised USD 100,000 that day.
For another fundraiser party, they hosted Barack Obama at a San Francisco hotel. When Talat and Kamil introduced Obama to all the desi guests, Obama mentioned that he could cook Indian food, make daal and qeema, which made him a desi too. Talat remembers fondly,” President Obama immediately ingratiated himself with the guests by identifying himself with our community.”
Chai in COVID Times Not Possible, Funds Dip
Due to the pandemic, the Hasans have not been able to host large events the past few months, because of which their fund raising is not even a fraction of the past. “Ideally we would have liked to invite both candidates, Harris and Biden. With social distancing it is hard to raise funds. Our community likes to meet the candidate, get their pictures, and speak with the candidate. In the past it worked because we had the candidate, that is lacking this time” adds Talat.
All campaigns need large amounts of funds to get their message out to enthuse voters. Politically active desis understand ‘vote aur note’ being equally important in an election. The US Federal Campaign Finance Law limits the sources and amounts used to finance federal elections. An individual can contribute up to USD 2800 per election per candidate.
Even though donations to party committees and political action committees, called PACS, can go up to USD 106,500 per account in a year, the limitation upon personal contributions from an individual has created ‘bundlers’.
Who Are Bundlers and How Do they Raise Funds for Political Campaigns?
Bundlers are influential supporters in cities across US, who have the net worth to write large checks, hold house parties which the candidate attends, and raise vast amounts from their network of friends, who in turn get an opportunity to rub elbows. The funds get bundled up to the campaign.
Bundler hosts work closely with the campaign in choosing guests and planning the event. Bundling has been around for years, but has become more prominent in the last 20 years.
Presidential campaigns have given fancy titles to major donors depending on tiers. Bundlers who raised more than USD 100,000 for George W. Bush earned the title of ‘Pioneers’. Hillary’s donors got merited as ‘HillBlazers’ and ‘HillRaisers’. One of the titles used by the Trump Campaign is ‘Ramblers’.
Home to the most affluent companies and desis, Silicon Valley is recognized as an important stop on the road to the White House. The East coast also has its share of wealthy Indian American bundlers.
Prominent Desi Bundlers in the US
Ramesh Kapur—a medical gas entrepreneur in Massachusetts and a longtime democrat—raised USD 3.3m for Joe Biden at a virtual fundraiser in August. Kapur believes that the amount is a record for a single-night fund raise by Indian Americans. Member of the Biden-Harris National Finance Committee, Kapur said, “VP Biden has always struggled with fundraising, even as a senator. His reaction to our amount raised was, that it was all because of Kamala Harris. I support Kamala Harris as she is my DNA”, referring to Harris’s desi identity.
Vivek Murthy, former US Surgeon General introduced Biden at the virtual fundraiser attended by 200 people, many of whom were successful Wall Street desis.
Indian American physician and super fundraiser, Sampat Shivangi is working in the Trump campaign as a member of Coalition Advisory Board. He raised USD 2 million for Trump in 2015-16, but his efforts have been limited this year due to restrictions on large gatherings. In March he visited Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, for a bundler party.
Shivangi recalls a USD 100,000 fundraiser for Senior H W Bush, when ten of his friends added USD 10,000 each,” It was an eye opener in 1989-90. No one in the Indian community had given so much till then. Suddenly people started taking about the wealth in our community.” Shivangi says that he could have raised at least USD 2 million for Trump this year, “Trump did not come to Mississippi. He never came. If you can’t meet the candidate, then fund raising efforts get hampered.”
How Powerful Are Desi Bundlers in Steering India-US Relations?
Along with gaining prominence as successful fundraisers, bundler parties are about networking. Guests get an opportunity to speak with the candidate about issues of significance to them and the Indian American community, with the hope to have these addressed in the campaign, and later in the administration. Bilateral Indo-US trade and defense deals, immigration issues and policies impacting desis, have been priorities for the community.
The Indo-US civil nuclear agreement is celebrated as an achievement of Indian American lobbying, to get the deal through US Congress. It was a culmination of efforts by prominent Indian Americans, including Ramesh Kapur and Talat & Kamil Hasan, who had access to decision makers.
Apart from being able to amplify the voice of the desi community in corridors of power, being an Indian American bundler brings many plum rewards like getting prominent designations in US government, ambassadorships, advisory positions, and access to the White House, when their candidate wins.
There is no specific data on fund raising totals based on ethnicity. Estimates based on desi sounding names, from lists of bundlers released by previous US Presidential campaigns, indicate that the amount of funds raised by Indian Americans for Hillary Clinton in 2016, was at least USD 10 million. Earlier this year, the ‘Biden Victory Fund’ requested its bundlers to start raising upwards of USD 2.5 million each. The Trump campaign lags behind in being able to raise large amounts of money from Indian Americans.
Hefty Price Tag of 2020 Presidential Election
The 2016 US Presidential election had a price tag of USD 6.5 billion. 2020 is supposed to go beyond that. At a recent New Jersey golf course event, dinner with Donald Trump came at a price of half a million dollars.
In Dallas, the price to have a meal with him was a quarter million dollars.
In September Biden raised a record USD 383 million with Trump trailing significantly.
The pandemic related restrictions on gatherings have made the fund raising process a bit more democratic in the 2020 US elections. USD 100 million of Biden’s collection came as small donations through the online platform ‘ActBlue’, in the last few weeks. The physical distancing rules resulted in large numbers of voters being reached through social media and an increased participation in small dollar online fundraisers.
Shekhar Narasimhan, Chairman and Founder of AAPI Victory fund, a voter outreach group for Biden-Harris and democratic candidates, observed, “The fundraising process has become less elitist. There are a vast number of donors contributing less than USD 100 each. The bundlers’ influence has waned dramatically and that is good in my view. Small dollar is an involvement. Give me your heart, mind and money, ‘tan-man-dhan’, and you have the voter engaged.”
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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