Cities of 80,000 people aren’t usually on the short list for presidential campaign fundraisers.
But Santa Fe isn’t a normal city.
First came Jill Biden, Joe Biden’s wife, last month. Then, Pete Buttigieg last week. Cory Booker is next.
Even at this early stage in the Democratic primary campaigns, Santa Fe is attracting a slate of 2020 candidates whose frenetic zigzagging across the country usually brings them to larger cities that are surer bets to yield big bucks. But so far, the city’s network of Democratic donors has proven to at least one busy candidate that it’s a place worth carving out time for.
On Aug. 4, scores of vehicles lined the street outside a home near Museum Hill. Inside, around 175 well-dressed Santa Feans gathered under large, white patio umbrellas as Buttigieg stood and addressed them under several tall aspen trees.
It was one of two Santa Fe brunch fundraisers held in the span of several hours for the South Bend, Ind., mayor, who swooped in after attending a forum in Las Vegas, Nev. Though the events were only pulled together about a week beforehand, they raised a total of more than $100,000.
“It went beyond our expectations,” said attorney Will Halm, who hosted the event and has held other political fundraisers in the city. “For Santa Fe on short notice during the summer, it was quite a feat, and we were very ecstatic.”
So, why has the City Different become a fundraising destination for national candidates?
Well, money, of course. Though relatively small, Santa Fe has a network of wealthy and politically active Democrats who are willing to contribute and rally other locals to do so as well.
“We’re not L.A. or New York, but people contribute generously,” said JoAnn Balzer, a Santa Fe resident who has been active in multiple fundraising campaigns.
“Santa Fe is a Democratic stronghold,” said Deborah Potter, who was a co-chairwoman for Bill Clinton’s finance committee in New Mexico. “It’s also full of very generous and philanthropic people. That’s an excellent combination for a candidate who wants to share their ideas and look for help with their campaign.”
It’s more than that. Many Santa Fe donors have moved from large metropolitan areas and have had careers that make them connected in other parts of the country — so they can often drum up support among well-heeled supporters elsewhere, too.
In other words, the connections that spring from Santa Fe are almost as important as the money.
“Even though it’s a small group here, most of the people have a wide circle of influential people,” said Catherine Allen, a fundraiser who is also CEO of consulting firm The Santa Fe Group.
Many are quite accomplished, some with deep political ties.
Letitia Chambers, who will be hosting a fundraiser for Booker at her Santa Fe home Aug. 26, founded a Washington, D.C., public policy and consulting firm and also was the first woman to head the staff of a major U.S. Senate committee.
Her husband, Peter Smith, who is hosting the event with her, was a congressman from Vermont and lieutenant governor of that state.
“There are people from all walks of life in Santa Fe who are thought leaders, people who have been in key positions around the country,” Chambers said. “It’s a place with people who have been active over their careers.”
Earl Potter, a Santa Fe businessman who is Deborah’s husband, said it wasn’t always common for the city to get so many visits from national candidates.
“That is unusual,” said Potter, a lawyer and former Democratic state chairman. “It has often in the past been difficult to get candidates to New Mexico. It’s exciting we’re getting more candidates.”
Santa Fe’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination and as a place to retire, is offering more ties to headliners in business and politics, Potter said.
As an example, he noted that the Biden event was held in late July at the home of Henry Muñoz III, former finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee. Both Potter and his wife attended the event.
“There’s somebody who is nationally recognized,” Potter said of Muñoz. “We’re getting people like that.”
Many prominent donors in the city are in the 50-to-70 age range, but many at the Buttigieg and Biden events were younger than that, attendees said. Some are retired and many involved in nonprofits. They come from many different professions, including law, science, business and tech.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Santa Fe is a nice place to visit.
“People actually like to come here because there’s a mystique about New Mexico and Santa Fe,” Allen said. “It’s not like asking them to go to Detroit or St. Louis.”
Sometimes, it’s a connection to New Mexico that helps bring candidates. Buttigieg’s mother, for instance, spent time in Santa Fe growing up and also previously taught at New Mexico State University.
Many Santa Fe residents recognized Buttigieg as he walked from the Roundhouse to 35° North Coffee before his fundraisers Aug. 4, said Jeremy Farris, who was Buttigieg’s roommate at Oxford and accompanied him that day.
“People were constantly coming up and asking him for a photo,” said Farris, who is general counsel for the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration.
But star power isn’t limited to the Indiana mayor. Booker’s girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson, has been filming a new television series in New Mexico. That was one impetus for Booker’s upcoming event in Santa Fe, Chambers said. Dawson will attend the Santa Fe reception as well.
Beto O’Rourke’s wife, Amy, has roots in Santa Fe. The candidate, who held a fundraiser in the city for his 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate in Texas, has expressed interest in holding a fundraiser here this fall for his presidential campaign, said Allen, who has offered to host the event.
For many city residents, fundraisers are too expensive to attend.
Some have expressed dismay that candidates haven’t held public events or required less money to attend their fundraisers. The Buttigieg brunches required a minimum donation of $250, while the Booker event, also private, requires a minimum donation of $500.
“Not exactly reaching out to the average voter in a big way,” wrote one commenter on Facebook when a link to the Buttigieg event was posted.
Heather Nordquist, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who has done campaigning of her own, agreed.
“I get really annoyed with any candidate that does nothing but fundraisers,” said Nordquist, who was a write-in candidate for a state House race last year. “Of course you have to fundraise, but you always try to make it accessible to people.”
But donors said candidates are heavily focused on raising money at this early stage of the primary campaigns. Some said they wouldn’t be surprised if Santa Fe didn’t see a public event until much later in the race, if at all.
There’s also a possibility donors will become tired, given they’re being asked to contribute to upcoming U.S. House and Senate races in New Mexico as well.
“The pool of donors is pretty small, and sometimes we face donor fatigue,” Halm said. “We’re always surprised by many of the same people who keep coming up with donations and support.”