Politics

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand reached out to top Democratic donor about running for president weeks before she announced her candidacy

Key Points
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., reached out to top Democratic donor Bernard Schwartz to discuss the 2020 presidential campaign during the weeks before she announced that she would make a run at challenging Donald Trump.
  • Schwartz, who was a key player in Democrats' 2018 fund-raising efforts, encouraged her to enter the race, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation.
  • This development comes as Gillibrand is trying to distance herself from being associated with big money in an attempt to show that she's going to build a campaign off of small grassroots donors.
  • A spokeswoman for Gillibrand's team did not deny the exchange in a statement to CNBC. 
Surrounded by her family, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announces that she will run for president in 2020 outside the Country View Diner, January 16, 2019 in Troy, New York.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., reached out to top Democratic donor Bernard Schwartz to discuss the 2020 presidential campaign during the weeks before she announced that she would make a run at challenging President Donald Trump, CNBC has learned.

Schwartz, the CEO of BLS Investments, spoke to Gillibrand over the phone in recent weeks about the idea of her running for president, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. Gillibrand signaled to him that she was likely to enter the race, and Schwartz, who was a key player in Democrats' 2018 fund-raising efforts, encouraged her to make the move, this person said.

This development comes as Gillibrand, like other prospective Democratic candidates, is trying to distance herself from being associated with big money in an attempt to show that she's going to build a campaign off of small grassroots donors.

Gillibrand has touted her voting record against financial industry interests since CNBC first reported two weeks ago that she had been in touch with Wall Street and New York business leaders about gaining their support for a presidential run. Later, CNBC reported that Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and a group of governors considering running for president have also held talks with Wall Street executives about potential 2020 campaigns.

Gillibrand announced that she would run for president during Tuesday night's episode of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."

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A spokeswoman for Gillibrand's team did not deny the exchange in a statement to CNBC.

"Kirsten has made clear that she is running for President, and as one does, she is reaching out to individuals from across the spectrum - whether they are civil rights advocates, prominent and diverse women leaders, LGBTQ rights advocates, entrepreneurs and job-creators, and many others - to seek their advocacy and support. Certainly, all other Democrats running for President will do the same," Meredith Kelly, Gillibrand's communication director told CNBC in an email.

Schwartz declined to comment.

At a Wednesday press gaggle in Troy, N.Y., Gillibrand was asked about the criticism she has received from the left over getting the backing of leaders on Wall Street since she first ran for Congress in 2007.

"I think its important for people to know my values are never for sale and that's why I banned corporate PAC checks, its why I'm not taking money from federal lobbyists and its why I don't think individuals should have super PACs," Gillibrand said.

She later listed all the legislation she has supported to regulate the financial industry, which includes voting in support of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in the wake of the financial crisis. Last year, she voted against a measure that rolled back some Dodd-Frank regulations.

Past support from Schwartz

While Schwartz did not commit to financially supporting Gillibrand's campaign for president during their discussion, he has been a major donor of hers since she ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. During her 2018 re-election campaign for Senate, Schwartz contributed $2,700 to her campaign, the most an individual can give to a candidate, during the primary and then the same amount during the general, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Throughout the 2018 midterms, Schwartz was one of the top five Democratic Party donors out of the state of New York, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. He contributed $2.2 million to various party causes last year. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who put up $110 million, and hedge fund billionaire Donald Sussman, were among the donors who ranked higher than Schwartz. His donations also went to the likes of likely presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the House Majority PAC, the Senate Majority PAC, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Schwartz also has ties to Democratic leadership. In a December interview with CNBC, Schwartz explained that he's been meeting with leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, to unify them under a consistent platform in the 2020 presidential election.

Throughout these gatherings, Schwartz has called on leaders to encourage 2020 candidates to focus on key economic initiatives such as improving the nation's infrastructure, improving retirement pensions, education reform and economic equality for all.

In the 2018 election, Gillibrand's prolific fundraising efforts led to her campaign bringing in $17 million. At the time, she raised raised just over $1 million from the securities and investment industry and raked in $2.2 million from lawyers and law firms. On the other hand, Gillibrand raised over 30 percent of her contributions in 2018 through small donors, totaling just over $6 million in checks worth under $200.

The rest of the field

It's not clear whether other Democratic candidates have spoken with Schwartz.

Warren, who recently announced she was opening an organization to look at a run for president, has not spoken with him, according to her spokeswoman, Kristen Orthman. Warren publicly swore off getting the support of billionaires and went as far as to closing down her joint fundraising committee.

A representative for former Obama HUD secretary Julian Castro, who announced his candidacy over the weekend, declined to comment for this story.

Some political strategists believe Gillibrand and many other 2020 contenders could be in a bind about their past affiliation with big business, especially if they need put together a formidable campaign.

"It's tough – it's a daunting process. You've got to be able to build organizations in early states. You need the resources to compete on Super Tuesday. You need to compete in the states that come after that," said a senior Democratic operative on the condition of anonymity who worked on multiple presidential campaigns, including Bill Clinton's. "Many of these candidates have raised millions before. But they haven't raised hundreds of millions," this person added.

Others, such as Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist out of N.Y., says Gillibrand may be able to overcome her ties to Wall Street with her record of defending women and becoming a progressive since being a conservative Democrat in the House.

"She may be able to function as a grassroots protector of women and one of the founders of #MeToo movement," Sheinkopf said. "For voters it may be hard to believe that she's been getting money from Wall Street and corporate executives while being a leader on such progressive issues."

Gillibrand was the first Democratic senator to publicly call for former Sen. Al Franken's resignation after he was accused of sexual harassment.

"While Senator Franken is entitled to have the Ethics Committee conclude its review, I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn't acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve," she said at the time through a Facebook post.

Gillibrand's comments led to several other members of the Senate demanding Franken to step down, including at least one other prospective 2020 presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California.