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Why one of California’s most influential donors stepped off the sidelines for Kamala Harris

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San Francisco philanthropist and prominent Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell announced Friday that she was throwing her support behind Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign.
(David Butow / For the Times)

It did not take a lot of coaxing and lobbying and pleading to bring San Francisco philanthropist Susie Tompkins Buell, one of the most influential Democratic fundraisers in California, off the sidelines of the party’s presidential primary.

It happened much the way it did when the 76-year-old co-founder of clothing makers Esprit and North Face jumped into presidential politics for the first time 28 years ago. Back then, a chance meeting with Bill Clinton inspired her. She wrote a $100,000 check on the spot.

On Sunday, Buell attended the rally Sen. Kamala Harris held in Oakland, and once again she was inspired, Buell said. Her gut was her guide: Harris would be getting her backing.

On Friday, Buell, who had been avoiding choosing among presidential hopefuls in a race in which she has ties with several of the candidates, announced to her associates and friends that she was throwing her formidable support behind Harris.

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Buell’s decision set off considerable comment in political circles, in part because it powerfully refutes persistent speculation that Hillary Clinton, despite all evidence to the contrary, was harboring ambitions of jumping into the race.

Buell is one of Clinton’s closest friends. If there were any chance she were going to run, Buell wouldn’t be enlisting with someone else.

“I have not spoken to Hillary about it, but there is no doubt in my mind that she is not going to run,” said Buell. “She is not. I would know about it if she was.”

If Buell’s enthusiasm for Harris develops into anything close to what she devoted to the Clintons, this could be a significant moment for the senator. Buell donated $15 million to the Clintons over the more than two decades that she’s been associated with them.

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More significant for this campaign — at a time when voter distaste for big checks has candidates swearing them off — are the millions more Buell has helped raise by holding events and drawing on her extensive network of activists and influencers.

Going into this campaign season, “I had wanted to pace myself,” Buell said in an interview Friday afternoon. “I went to her roll out Sunday assuming it was going to be informative, and I was just going to hold steady about waiting this out. But I was just taken with her. I thought, ‘This is exactly what we need.’”

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Buell has long known Harris, and had supported her Senate campaign, but she said that the personal relationship is not what swayed her.

“She is a local person, and I know her, but that is not why I am doing this,” Buell said.

Despite her enthusiasm for Harris, Buell said jumping back into presidential politics is bittersweet. “It has been hard for me because of my relationship with Hillary,” she said. “I don’t think they get any better than her. But I am extremely enthusiastic.”

Buell’s backing is certain to bolster a fundraising operation by Harris that has already emerged as a powerhouse. The senator reported raising $1.5 million from 38,000 donors in her first 24 hours as a candidate, a one-day small-donor haul that matched the record set by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Other candidates this cycle have avoided sharing their fundraising figures, which they are not required by law to report until March.

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But a disclosure on Friday by the fundraising platform ActBlue did have a tally of the money raised by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Dec. 31, the day she launched. Her online donations totaled just under $300,000 by midnight, suggesting the Harris launch considerably outpaced hers in dollars raised.

More stories from Evan Halper »


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