Politicos hustle for ambassadorships
Would-be ambassadors include a former Senator, a co-chair of the Bush inaugural committee that raised a record $35 million, and an ex-chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The Bush administration has a bevy of contenders to choose from: big donors, fund-raisers, well-connected politicos, and friends of President Bush and his associates. Behind the scenes, several wanna-be ambassadors are maneuvering to let the Administration know that they're ready to go if the right offer comes along.
"You've got a ton of people out seeking ambassadorships, lobbying for them, and doing the normal self-promotional things that you do to get them," said Charles Black, a well-known GOP operative and name partner at Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey.
Historically, when it comes to picking coveted foreign assignments, Presidents treat big donors and fund-raisers well. Both President Clinton and Bush's father tapped about 10 of their top donors and money harvesters for overseas posts.
So far, the current Bush administration has nominated only Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci. He was selected to become ambassador to Canada.
A White House spokeswoman says that the administration expects to make about 50 political ambassadorial appointments. "We're looking for people with high ethical standards," she said, "who are good communicators and who don't think about an appointment as if it was a reward, but as an opportunity to serve enthusiastically."
According to sources, several potential candidates have had preliminary discussions with the Bush administration about specific countries. Most of the candidates, as well as the people involved in the selection process, are reluctant to talk and are concerned that press leaks would displease the Bush White House.
Nonetheless, there's plenty of buzz among GOP operatives, fund-raisers, and lobbyists about who is likely to be tapped.
Mercer Reynolds, a wealthy Cincinnati businessman who was a co-chairman of the Bush inaugural committee and co-chairman of Bush's Ohio fund-raising drive, was mentioned by sources as a prime candidate to be ambassador to Switzerland.
Reynolds, a founder of the investment firm Reynolds, DeWitt & Co., got to know Bush in the early 1980s through the oil business: A Reynolds, DeWitt property merged with Bush's firm. Later, Reynolds teamed up with Bush as an investor in the Texas Rangers baseball team.
One prominent GOP insider on the candidate list is former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., a lobbyist with Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand. Coats is in the running to be ambassador to Germany. He was almost picked to be Defense Secretary; he is considered a strong candidate for the ambassadorship, in part, sources said, because the White House may want to soothe his feelings (and those of several conservative allies) about the way he was dropped from consideration at the Pentagon.
Another big-name GOP prospect is Jim Nicholson, the recently retired chairman of the Republican National Committee. He oversaw the RNC's record-breaking haul of campaign cash in the past election cycle, when the committee's "soft-money" receipts increased to more than $160 million, a jump of almost 50 percent over the previous cycle. A devout Catholic, Nicholson is under serious consideration to be ambassador to the Vatican, according to sources. If the Vatican post goes to another person, the sources said, Nicholson could be tapped for Australia.
London has always been a choice ambassadorial assignment, and this year it seems that the Bush Administration is leaning toward Will Farish, a fund-raiser from Kentucky. Farish, a well-known horse breeder, has hosted the queen of England at his farm, and she reciprocated by inviting Farish and his wife to Windsor Castle. Farish has also escorted both George W. and his dad to the Kentucky Derby.
Another top posting is Italy, which this year has several contenders vying to enjoy Mediterranean vistas. Sources named three top candidates: Charles Gargano, a former ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago and a prominent New York fund-raiser with ties to Gov. George E. Pataki; Lou Noto, the former chairman of Mobil Corp.; and Washington fund-raiser and lobbyist Peter Terpeluk.
Of course, not everyone can have first choice. Consider Mel Sembler, a GOP money harvester from Florida who was finance chair at the RNC during the past election. Sembler, a former ambassador to Australia, is the leading candidate to run the Export-Import Bank in Washington. Sources said that Sembler might have had his heart set on foreign turf again.
Other big donors and fund-raisers whose names are being bandied about include Nancy Brinker of Dallas, who is a friend of President Bush and was an early top fund-raiser for him; Julie Finley, a prominent Washington soft-money donor and fund-raiser for the RNC; and Howard Leach of San Francisco, who is also a major soft-money donor to the RNC.
Campaign finance reformers blast the selection process as unfair. "One of the results of the soft-money system is the rewarding of huge donors with ambassadorships," says Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21. Wertheimer said that since Bush ran on "restoring honor and integrity" to the White House, it will be interesting to see how the President handles ambassadorial appointments.