That off-again, on-again morning meeting in San Jose between President Obama and
a roundtable of Asian American business leaders represents the stark
undemocratic reality of today’s politics.
Not only is it closed to the media, but the participants’ names are part of an
exclusive list that hasn’t exactly been readily disclosed. Are they embarrassed
to be one of 20 or so to pay $40,000 for the privilege of a private audience
with the president? Unlikely.
Still, $40,000for some grub and gab with the president? If you’re on a Grand
Slam breakfast budget, you’re out of luck. (Of course, at $40k, I’m assuming
with the president you get a meal.)
I figured there’s at least one person I could ask who would know the details of
this elite “roundtable.” That would have to be Shefali Razdan Duggal, a
40-year-old, Indian-born, self-employed San Franciscan who has become a big
bucks go-to person for Obama in Northern California.
Naturally, she deferred to the official press team of the president. But
Shefali’s definitely high up in the campaign, since she’s become what is known
as a top “bundler.”
Given that the individual limit to federal campaigns is generally $2,500, people
who want to get around that low ceiling–say, give $40,000* for some Eggs
Obama–simply funnel the money directly to a person like Shefali.
She becomes the ribbon and bow around the checks that are then delivered to the
campaign as “bundled.”
Compared to a Super PAC, it may seem like a small hole in the system.
Nevertheless, it’s still a way to get around limits and funnel large amounts of
money legally. For 2012, Shefali has become one of the top Asian American
bundlers for Obama in the nation. Earlier this year, the Obama campaign
disclosed to the Federal Election Commission that she was responsible for
between $200,000-$500,000 in bundled contributions, with her own personal
lifetime contributions at $122,177. (All the numbers come from the campaign
opensecrets.org.) And that’s a
moderate amount among the 532 bundlers in 33 states who have raised about $106.4
million for Obama this election year.
Among Asian American Obama bundlers is Los Angeles-based Brian Lee, the
LegalZoom entrepreneur who gave $299,800 to the Obama campaign.
But it’s the number of Asian Indian bundlers that seems to be more impressive.
The list includes, among others, the self-help guru, Deepak Chopra ($197,000),
and New York’s Deven Parekh of Insight Venture Partners ($226,100).
Asian Indians are actually the No. 3 Asian American ethnic group after the
Chinese and Filipinos. And yet when it comes to giving money, Indian Americans
seem well represented.
I certainly didn’t see many Chinese or Filipino names on Obama’s bundlers list.
Maybe the Chinese Americans are still reeling over the donation scandals during
the Clinton years.
Being a bundler has its advantages. While everyone denies there’s a quid pro
quo, in politics, every penny matters—especially if you want something.
In the 2008 campaign, Hillsborough’s John Roos was a big bundler for Obama while
at the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. And though his own personal
contribution is on the books at a relatively modest $41,600, I’m sure it was
mere coincidence that Roos, a Lowell High alum, was ultimately tabbed by Obama
to serve as ambassador to Japan.
So my guess is the Asian American leaders at this somewhat secret “Roundtable”
meeting are likely to be made up of primarily Indian American entrepreneurs and
businessmen who see nothing wrong with giving $40,000* for a little face time
with the president, to discuss such things as the flow of highly educated
workers through immigration and special visas to work in their businesses. In
other words, they’ll talk about all their special issues.
This would ordinarily be seen as a form of “lobbying,” but since there are few
things lower in the likeability scale than “lobbyist,” why impugn these wealthy
private Asian American citizens?
Indeed, lobbyists are so disliked, Federal law requires that a campaign disclose
only the bundling activity—of lobbyists.
That’s why President Obama and the Democrats, having disclosed all 532 bundlers,
are actually much more open and go above and beyond the law on this point than
the GOP. Maybe they think bundling is not so bad, compared, say, to the current
campaign finance villain, the Super PAC.
Still, while Obama has been upfront with his bundlers, the GOP has only
disclosed that 22 registered lobbyists have bundled a measly $2.9 million.
Romney’s other bundlers? No one knows how much has been raised by how many.
Romney hasn’t disclosed them. Maybe he should. Now.
But this is how our democracy works today. There are lots of dark places where
photo-ops give way to cash-ops.
And neither you nor I can have breakfast with the president in a closed-door
Actually, I thought it would be nice if President Obama capped off Asian Pacific
American Heritage Month with a nice fitting visit into the community to eat some
veggie pork buns or something.
He could have visited Asian Health Services in Oakland and witnessed all the
language issues they work around to provide health care to those who need it
most. Or he could have visited Asian Americans for Community Involvement in San
But when the president is in campaign mode, there’s little time in democracy for
NOTE: According to news reports, individuals were asked to donate $35,800 to attend the San Jose roundtable event.