CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval’s campaign is offering video chats and lunch with the Republican governor in exchange for monthly donations toward his re-election, a strategy it says is intended to entice smaller donors but one that critics say is in poor taste and could raise the notion of pay for play.
An email titled “exclusive benefits” sent by the campaign’s finance director, Kate Szafran, offers various levels of membership and perks for monthly contributions ranging from $10 to $100.
Jeremy Hughes, Sandoval’s campaign manager, said the trinkets and face time associated with different levels of membership are an attempt to appeal to grass-roots voters and get them involved. He scoffed at any suggestion that the fundraising tactic amounted to pay for play.
“When you ask for money so much, you have to kind of come up with new ways to get people involved,” Hughes said.
Martin Dean Dupalo, president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics, said public perception can vary as candidates try to raise cash without giving the appearance of promising favors in return.
As campaign fundraising evolves, “the clever approaches sometimes risk resembling rejected ideas such as pay for play, where money buys access,” Dupalo said. “And while the common citizen understands this is a common quiet practice, they generally reject such open efforts where ‘exclusivity’ parses the access of the common citizen from the monied contributor.”
Hughes said the fundraising hook was no different than having an event and charging people $500 per plate or ticket.
“Most of these are just smaller dollar levels,” he said.
Politicians at the national level have offered more exotic fare in return for far larger contributions.
President Bill Clinton came under fire for inviting big donors, celebrities and friends to spend the night in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House.
Last year, “Founding Partners,” who raised $100,000 for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, were to receive an outing at a Utah retreat, as well as special access during debates and the national GOP convention, according to Politico.
Big donors in President George W. Bush’s campaign were treated to a weekend at a posh resort in Georgia, where they got to shoot skeet with then-Vice President Dick Cheney and loop around the links with professional golfers, the Washington Post reported in 2004.
Sandoval, a first-term Republican, so far has drawn no declared challenger for his 2014 re-election bid.
In his campaign’s fundraising spiel, the lowest level called “Pioneer” entitles a donor to a monthly email update and a window sticker.
“Trailblazer” memberships, at $15, get that plus one “all inclusive” Nevada Strong event a year. Nevada Strong is the theme of Sandoval’s campaign.
For $25, contributors also get four phone calls or video chats with the governor during the campaign.
Becoming a member of the “Battle Born Council” will cost $50 per month, entitling donors to all the lower-level perks plus an “exclusive lunch” with the state’s chief executive.
Acceptance into the “Governor’s Club” will cost $100 monthly. It comes with all of the above, plus a Nevada Strong lapel pin and a “round table” with Sandoval.
Dupalo said the fundraising email could reflect just a “poor word choice” on the part of the campaign.
But if it’s “indicative of determining citizen access based on donations, that would not be a misstep but unethical,” said Dupalo, noting other politicians have been taken to task for similar attempts.
In 2010, then Nevada Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, now a Nevada congressman, was vilified for a fundraising letter that sought contributions of up to $25,000 to his political action committee in exchange for access to himself and Democratic legislative leaders. Donations of $1,000 to $5,000 could get you lunch.
After public criticism Horsford canceled the program and apologized, saying it was inappropriate.