Thursday, October 06, 2005

Meet Peter Buttenweiser of Philadelphia.(Democratic Contributor)

Democratic Contributor Shuns Political Spotlight: "Democratic Contributor Shuns Political Spotlight
Christopher Ruddy
July 12, 1998

He's rarely mentioned in the press, and few Americans even know his name. Yet this is a man who repeatedly gets invited to meet the president - and has repeatedly turned him down. He's one of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party nationally, and the single biggest political donor in Pennsylvania.
Meet Peter Buttenweiser of Philadelphia.

Just last month, Buttenweiser's name made a rare appearance in the press. Jon Delano, writing in the Pittsburgh Business Times, noted that "Pennsylvania's biggest political fat cats" are not to be found in the western part of the state. Delano said if you want to find the biggest donors, go east to Philadelphia.

He noted that Federal Election Commission filings show Buttenweiser, together with his wife, Terry Marek, donated $565,500 to the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates during the current election cycle.

Money is power. It can buy influence, prestige and even attention. Yet Buttenweiser has received only fleeting references in the press. Even Philadelphia's two dailies, the Inquirer and the News, have paid scant attention to him.

A 1997 news story in the Philadelphia News reported that Buttenweiser had turned down an invitation to the Clinton-Gore inauguration festivities. Instead, Buttenweiser traveled to Washington that January to attend the U.S. Senate swearing-in of Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Cleland of Georgia and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

"They're really the people I'm closest to," Buttenweiser explained to the News.

That same year, as fund-raising scandals involving the Democratic National Committee and the White House grew, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Buttenweiser had tersely rebuffed an invitation to a fund-raising luncheon with Clinton. He sent this note back to Terry McAuliffe, the president's chief fund-raiser: "Luncheon, yes. Luncheon for a contribution price, no."

Buttenweiser followed up with a letter to McAuliffe decrying the "sale" of luncheons with the president. McAuliffe later responded by calling Buttenweiser a "kook."

Save for these brief news items, and a few references to his donations and his job description as an "education consultant," not much information about Buttenweiser is readily available. Several active Philadelphia Republicans were asked to comment on Buttenweiser and his activities. They couldn't, because none knew who he was.

Much of the mystery about the man was quickly evaporated by a telephone call to his home. (His number is listed.)


He resides in an upscale enclave of Philadelphia known as Chestnut Hill. Old Philadelphia society still inhabits the neighborhood of stone and stucco homes built in the decades after the Civil War. Local landmarks like St. Martin's in the Fields Presbyterian Church and the ultra-exclusive Philadelphia Cricket Club add a distinct character to the community.

Buttenweiser is not a player in Philadelphia high society, nor does he want to be. He doesn't belong to any clubs, not the Cricket Club, not even the Union League or Locust Club downtown.

"I don't like them," he says.

At 62 years of age, Buttenweiser is a refugee from New York City who, by happenstance, found his way to the City of Brotherly Love more than three decades ago. Buttenweiser says all he knew back in the '60s was that he didn't want to live in New York City, a place he said "imposed a lifestyle I didn't want to live."

"I decided I didn't want to be a lawyer and I didn't want to be a banker and I didn't want to live in New York," he adds.

Buttenweiser hails from one of New York City's illustrious Jewish families. His grandfather, Joseph Buttenweiser, was a real estate mogul. Peter's father, Benjamin, was a philanthropist and investment banker. Benjamin married one of the Lehman girls, whose family owned the powerful Wall Street financial house Lehman Brothers.

Peter Buttenweiser's mother was also the niece of Herbert Lehman, the man who succeeded Franklin Roosevelt as governor of New York. Lehman was cut from the same New Deal mold as Roosevelt, and was later appointed to head the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. Later, Lehman returned to New York to serve as its U.S. senator.

Buttenweiser says Roosevelt is still one of his heroes, and his family upbringing imbued him with a desire to keep alive a legacy of helping others. Unusual for someone of his background, Buttenweiser became a teacher after getting a bachelor's degree at Columbia University.

He earned his stripes by joining a program called Teachers for East Africa, which was run by the Agency for International Development and was modeled after the Peace Corps. Buttenweiser worked for two years in Northern Uganda, shortly before Idi Amin decimated the country. The experience had an enormous impact on him, he says.

Returning to the United States, Buttenweiser continued teaching, first in North Carolina and, beginning in 1967, in Philadelphia.

Along the way, he earned a master's degree at Harvard and a doctorate at Columbia's Teacher's College. Eventually he became principal of a Philadelphia school for children with special needs. He spent 10 years in the city school system before leaving to become an education consultant.

Philadelphia became his adopted home, Buttenweiser said, because he could be "fairly anonymous" and "be myself" as opposed to staying in New York City and being "stultified" by the "various interlocking families."

Since leaving the Philadelphia school system, Buttenweiser has continued his work, largely advising private foundations on the programs they fund and evaluating those programs' effectiveness.


He takes his work seriously. Buttenweiser can't meet this reporter because he is crushed for time, writing an annual report for a Boston foundation. The wealthy man finds pleasure in things ordinary. He prefers to work but enjoys his leisure time. "I play a lot of tennis and I'm active in stuff," he says.

Buttenweiser keeps busy with his family, which includes two grown daughters from his first marriage, a stepdaughter and two grandsons. Happily married to his second wife, Terry, he calls her "an important part of my life."

Terry is a social worker who also operates a Chestnut Hill business called Intermission, a specialty shop that sells masks and puppets as well as Broadway and theatrical paraphernalia.

Buttenweiser laughs at the notion that he could be on Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest people. "I'm not even close," he responds, adding that his wealth is "rather modest."

About half of his donations go to political candidates and the Democratic Party, and the other half to philanthropy. He doesn't have his own foundation, but has created his own fund within The Tides Foundation, based in San Francisco. Using his fund there he donates to AIDS hospices and groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

His heightened interest in politics began about two years ago, and his political giving since then has been largely targeted to help Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate. Buttenweiser recently started giving large "soft" money donations to the Democratic National Committee. In the first quarter of 1998, he donated $125,000.

His and his wife's personal giving in the past two years totals more than $500,000. In addition, he's helped a number of candidates by holding about five fund-raisers each year in the city, with each event raising about $35,000. Recent attendees at Buttenweiser's parties have included Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, as well as candidates Evan Bayh and Dottie Lamb, both challenging incumbents in their respective home states of Indiana and Colorado.

Buttenweiser says he doesn't pick candidates based on "litmus test" issues. For instance, he doesn't think a hypothetical candidate's position against abortion would preclude Buttenweiser support, though he happens to strongly advocate abortion rights. He points to his relationship with the Democratic Leadership Council and his strong support for moderates including Landrieu and Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman.

Like many Democrats, Buttenweiser suggests he may have shifted away from doctrinaire liberalism.

"I have become slightly more of a centrist Democrat maybe than I'd like to admit," he mused. Buttenweiser even supported the Republican-proposed welfare reform legislation that President Clinton signed into law in 1996.

"It was good for the party do that. ... I felt that the welfare system had not worked over a long period of time," he explained. "I believe in the basic principles of the Democratic Party, the Roosevelt Party. I am a moderate progressive, not an ultraliberal."

He cited one other hero in addition to FDR: Republican Colin Powell.

Though advocating pragmatism, he has strong feelings on certain matters including education. He believes Senate campaigns are the best and most strategic place for him because his donations can have impact. His help would get lost in the "massive" House of Representatives, he says.

Personality also plays a role. Buttenweiser talks of his esteem for Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "I believe in him," Buttenweiser says, referring to Daschle as his "anchor."

OK, but what is the quid pro quo? What does Buttenweiser get in return for all of his efforts?

Apparently, very little personally.


Thomas Leonard, a Philadelphia litigator who is considered Bill Clinton's main fund-raiser and point man in Philadelphia, describes Buttenweiser as a "major, major contributor" who simply wants to "focus on issues, wants to advance an agenda broadening people's access. He's a person of integrity."

Another Democratic strategist from Philadelphia, who asked not to be identified, says the party faithful view Buttenweiser as "the purest of the pure. It's all about causes. He doesn't want a thing, he just cares about issues."

Philadelphia is an old Democratic machine town, and earlier it was a Republican machine town. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Do the ward leader a favor, he does you one.

In this environment, Buttenweiser has caused heads to spin. He's Santa Claus.

Buttenweiser bristles at such suggestions. "I wouldn't call it Santa Claus. I would call it taking some responsibility."

And responsibility, as he defines it, is helping a party he strongly believes in, one he feels is more compassionate to people, particularly minorities and the economically disadvantaged.

His language is mellow and restrained, probably the result of a long career working with children. Even so, it is obvious he has not been happy with the fund-raising scandals that have haunted the Clinton White House and the DNC.

"The campaign finance stuff," he mentions. "I think the Democratic Party, under pressure from the president, just made some terrible mistakes." He calls the mess a "tragedy," and says disclosures about the transfer of military technology to the Chinese have also been a concern.

"It bothers me considerably," he says. "I worry about it. I'm very uncomfortable about it."

He has never accepted a White House invitation, even for an overnighter in the Lincoln bedroom, though they were within easy reach for him.

While supporting the president's policies, Buttenweiser says going to the White House wouldn't make him feel comfortable, so he hasn't gone.

Buttenweiser shuns flamboyance and the Hollywood jet set that have come to dominate the Democratic Party's image. He is busy now preparing the ground for what he hopes will be a Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2000. And he's already set his sights on Harrisburg, revealing that he is planning to help refill the state party's coffers.

This year Buttenweiser has given $10,000 to Democratic gubernatorial underdog Ivan Itkin. Buttenweiser knows Itkin's shot is a long one, but that's OK.

"He deserves some support," Buttenweiser says. "It's a David vs. Goliath thing." "


Blogger Rader said...

Buttenweiser has huge contributions according to philadelphia litigator. Its a great honor to have a man like buttenweiser.

11:11 PM  

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