|As governor's fund-raiser, Renee Croce is at center of Arnold's donor empire|
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has paid her more than Rob Stutzman, Marty Wilson, Bob White and Steve Schmidt--combined. She has earned more than George Gorton, Mike Murphy, Jeff Randle or Don Sipple.
Her name, unknown to all but the upper echelon of Republican consultants, donors and candidates in California, is Renee Croce and she is at the epicenter of the governor's elaborate and record-breaking fund-raising apparatus.
All told, Croce has earned $1.163 million from six different Schwarzenegger-controlled campaign accounts dating back to 2002, plus more than $29,000 for travel and meals and $76,000 for reimbursed expenses. Only one other Schwarzenegger consultant has earned within a quarter million dollars of that figure.
"She was the queen of Orange County fund raising and she has elevated herself to empress of California fund raising," said GOP consultant Kevin Spillane, who worked with Croce on Richard Riordan's 2002 bid for governor. "She is the gold standard."
Her official title with the Schwarzenegger campaign is finance director, a post she uses to corral millions in donations for the governor's varied initiative and reelection campaigns.
"Renee is the fundraiser who calls, makes the ask, and collects the check," says Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's former communications director.
It's a job that puts the governor and Croce in near constant communication. "I am with him a couple times a week," Croce told Capitol Weekly in her first interview since joining Team Schwarzenegger in 2002.
Croce has outlasted almost every other Schwarzenegger political confidant. Since his first campaign, the governor has cycled through three campaign managers, two chiefs of staff and an endless parade of spokespeople. Schwarzenegger has kept only one other consultant, Jeff Randle, on his campaign payroll as long as Croce, who began fund raising with the then-actor during his 2002 after-school initiative campaign.
Asked why she has lasted so long, Croce laughed. "I don't question that." But George Gorton, who was Schwarzenegger's first political adviser and architect of the after-school campaign, says Croce's longevity is a simple matter of dollars and cents.
"While you and I can have an opinion about my or Mike Murphy's strategy, you can't argue about Renee's results," says Gorton, who is the only other consultant to have earned $1 million from Schwarzenegger, though 80 percent of his fees came from the Proposition 49 campaign in 2002. "The money is either in the bank or it isn't."
And, with Croce, the money has been in the bank.
For Schwarzenegger's political-career-launching after-school measure, she helped the movie star raise nearly $10 million. She did it by inviting potential donors like Paul Folino, a high-tech company executive, to private dinners with Schwarzenegger in the fall of 2001.
"Renee actually introduced me to the governor," Folino fondly recalls. "She invited my wife and I up to his home for dinner."
Folino was so impressed by Schwarzenegger that he immediately joined the campaign. He has since become one of Schwarzenegger's most generous individual donors, contributing more than $1.3 million to the governor's network of fund-raising committees.
"Renee is really the one that made it happen," says Folino.
There are countless other major contributors that Croce has mined for donations, though Croce declined to name them. "That's not my style," she said.
Her style, which colleagues describe as part gentle, part aggressive, has been successful. Schwarzenegger-controlled campaign committees have amassed more than $120 million since he launched the after-school initiative. He is expected to raise another $60-to-$75 million for his re-election this year, after his handlers publicly floated, and then backed away from, an original $120 million goal.
Croce's work for Schwarzenegger isn't her only job, though in an election year she says it takes up "150 percent of my time." She is also the membership director for the Los Angeles chapter of the New Majority, centrist Republican club that supports moderate Republican candidates. Croce has earned $54,000 from New Majority this election cycle.
The second job blends well with the first: The New Majority has long supported Schwarzenegger, calling his re-election "the strongest focus" of the organization in 2006. And New Majority backers, including Folino, have donated an estimated $10 million to Schwarzenegger. New Majority members dot the list of gubernatorial appointments, including A.G. Kawamura, the state's secretary of Food and Agriculture.
Tom Tucker, a founder and first chairman of New Majority, says Croce and her connections to Southern California's elite were critical to the launch of his organization.
"At the time, we were political neophytes and she was really helpful to us to understanding politics and the system," said Tucker. As New Majority plans to launch two more chapters in the Inland Empire and San Diego later this year, the membership directors, which are de facto fund-raisers, are both close Croce associates.
As the finance director for an incumbent governor and membership director of one of the state's best-heeled interest groups, Croce is perched at the pinnacle of the California fund-raising world.
"She is the hot fund-raiser of the moment," says Doug Boyd, who spent the last six years as treasurer of the California Republican Party.
She got there quickly. Her first real fund-raising job was for former Assemblyman Bill Filante's bid for Congress in 1992. By 1998, she caught her first big break: then-Gov. Pete Wilson offered her the post of finance director in his final year in office, after many of his leading donation-getters had jumped ship for the gubernatorial campaign of Dan Lungren. In 1999, when New Majority was launched, she served as membership director. By 2002, she was a sought after commodity, working for Schwarzenegger, Republican governor hopeful Richard Riordan, and eventual GOP nominee Bill Simon, who paid her more than $100,000.
Now, Croce has what is known as "the list." It contains the names and numbers of all the potential Republican donors she has identified. Croce's "list" is considered the best in California.
Croce says her relationships are even more important than the list. "It is like a relational database, knowing who is connected where and to what ... who lives where, who is friends with what, where do these people travel. … That is the most important thing."
Croce's fund-raising successes have created a political storm of sorts. No other aspect of Schwarzenegger's governorship has come under as much scrutiny. In his memorable campaign announcement on Jay Leno's Tonight Show, Schwarzenegger vowed that he didn't need to take special-interest money.
But critics have denounced his record-breaking fund raising, headed by Croce, as disingenuous. It was the first in a pattern of broken promises that labor groups tattooed to the governor in last year's special election.
"He promised to be different and he promised not to raise special-interest money," says Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for a Better California, the union coalition that led the battle against last year's special election. "He said it over and over in the campaign. He has broken that promise a thousand times over."
But Croce says those critics--and the public--misunderstand the nature of political donations.
"People are so nice they don't ask for anything or want anything," says Croce of donors. "What they want is just to be part of a process."
The above first appeared in Capitol Weekly today