By John Cheves, Sunday, August 29, 2004
LOUISVILLE - Most Americans of Nate Morris' age -- 23 -- don't bother to
vote, and those who do often charge into politics as ideological vikings.
Morris, of Jefferson County, is a different breed. Avoiding the spotlight,
working his cell phone like a cash register, Morris has raised more than
$50,000 from dozens of donors for President Bush's re-election campaign.
That sum qualifies him as a "Bush Maverick," the youngest and lowest rank in
an elite group of fund-raisers who helped fill the president's record $228
million war chest for the primary season that ends this week.
Morris, just a year out of college, might be the nation's youngest Maverick.
As such, he illustrates a rising political class that stays behind the
scenes to eagerly undertake the task so many politicians say they loathe --
asking people for money.
Bundlers, they're called: independent fund-raisers who wring checks from
others on behalf of candidates. It's an unpaid job, but it wins its
practitioners access to power and perks: cuff links, golfing vacations, even
Typically, bundlers are middle-aged corporate executives or their wives, or
politicians themselves -- civic leaders whose calls are swiftly returned.
"A lot of bundlers succeed because they can apply business pressure. People
want to make them happy," said Steve Weissman, associate director of the
non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C.
"Frankly," Weissman said, "I'm not sure what kind of pressure a 23-year-old
It's not what you know ...
To succeed, Nate Morris eschews partisan stridency in favor of an
ingratiating manner, a talent for cultivating his elders and a thickening
Rolodex. Aside from his efforts for Bush, Morris has helped to elect
Kentucky Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and two McConnell
proteges, U.S. Rep. Anne Northup and Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
He hopes to run for office one day, and bundling is a fine way to raise his
profile among the players. More immediately, Morris is a passionate advocate
for what he calls "investing in your beliefs."
"You can really be effective in government even without holding office, by
helping people with great ideas to get elected," Morris said recently.
Politicians are quick to praise him.
"Everybody knows Nate," said McConnell, one of Morris' mentors and a master
fund-raiser in his own right.
"Nate is the kind of kid you remember because he seems to be so sincere and
so dedicated to the cause, he kind of stands out," McConnell said. "It's
obvious that it's an important part of his life."
Ask Morris what his cause is, though, and the answer's unclear.
He's conservative. He supports Bush because of "his strong leadership." But
he deftly avoids answering questions about specific controversies, such as
the Iraq war, tax cuts and gay marriage. He would rather not criticize
Democrats. "We have to remain positive and upbeat about working with the
other side," he said.
Morris, clean-shaven and stocky, has a dark thatch of hair and a taste for
polite discretion -- particularly where the names of his donors are
"They're folks who have a vested interest in what the president is trying to
accomplish," he said. "I have to respect their privacy. They were nice
enough to contribute, and I don't want to make them unhappy."
Typically, say those who know him, Morris avoids confrontation in favor of
camaraderie. In the divisive political arena, that's rare and invaluable,
"When you talk to him, it's like you're the only person who matters at that
moment. You're the only person in the room," said Kelly Knight, a Bush
bundler in Lexington.
Presidential candidates depend on bundlers for batches of "hard money" --
individual gifts of no more than $2,000 each. Bundlers' work became more
important after campaign-finance laws banned the use of unlimited "soft
money," which had been given to political parties by corporations, unions
and the wealthy.
Bush leans on a backbone of more than 525 people who have earned the titles
of Rangers, Pioneers and Mavericks by raising $200,000, $100,000 and
$50,000, respectively. That's twice as many Bush bundlers as four years ago.
The perks, for Morris and other bundlers, included a golfing weekend with
the president in April at an exclusive Georgia resort.
The race for recognition among fund-raisers can lead them to compete for the
same donors. Campaigns credit a bundler only if his or her tracking-code
number is written on a check.
Dennis DeWitt, an engineer in Louisville, said he fielded multiple requests
from bundlers when he wrote a $2,000 check to the Bush campaign last winter.
Ultimately, he jotted down the number of his old friend Catherine Todd
Bailey, a Bush Ranger in Louisville and a member of the Republican National
"It's a matter of who asks you, and what your relationship is with that
person, whether they're a friend or a neighbor or a client," DeWitt said.
"They have access to places, and you want to maintain a relationship with
By its very nature, critics say, bundling is formal recognition by campaigns
that certain fund-raisers are their top performers, which creates an elite
group in line for special favors.
"Bundlers get the same paybacks and perks we used to associate with the
major donors -- maybe access to presidential aides, or a visit to the White
House or a flight on Air Force One," said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the
public-interest group Common Cause.
Texans for Public Justice, another watchdog group, maintains that nearly
one-fourth of the Bush bundlers from 2000 and this year have received
presidential appointments. Of Kentucky's three Bush bundlers in 2000, Elaine
Chao was named secretary of labor and W.L. Brown became ambassador to
McConnell -- an ardent defender of private fund-raising, who is married to
Chao -- said politicians naturally turn to the people who aided their
campaigns. "People who work hard are always going to have more influence
than people who sit on the sidelines," he said.
Nate Morris fell into politics because he had to sit on the sidelines, after
a disastrous sports career.
Raised in Louisville by his mother, a divorced housewife, Morris played
varsity football at Eastern High School. But in his sophomore season, he
took simultaneous hits to his neck and back that broke bones and put him in
bed for weeks.
This was the fall of 1996. Stuck at home and forced to choose between soap
operas and news channels focused on that year's presidential race, Morris
chose the latter.
He quickly was hooked.
"I'd never really thought much about politics," he said. "But this was the
early days of several all-news networks going all the time. It gave me
something to watch while I was recuperating."
Rather than return to the gridiron and give opposing linebackers another
shot at his spine, Morris dove with characteristic enthusiasm into school
He joined the debate team. He ran for senior class president and won. He
crafted a patriotic presentation that persuaded the American Legion to send
him to Washington as one of two Kentuckians to participate in its Boys
Nation, during which he met President Clinton, a Boys Nation alumnus.
Pete Gramig, past commander of the American Legion post that sponsored
Morris, said he remains touched, six years later, by what happened next.
"He showed up at the post on a meeting night, unannounced, and took the
podium to thank us for sending him," Gramig said. "It was days before people
stopped talking about what a polite and eloquent young man he was."
In 1999, Morris won an academic scholarship to study politics at George
Washington University in the nation's capital.
He arrived early to run for dormitory president, a position not widely known
to exist until he hit the stump. Within a few days, he knew the names and
hometowns of his neighbors.
"Nate was clearly the guy who was going to win. He went door-to-door to
explain to people how he would make the dorm better, and frankly, none of
the other candidates put that sort of effort into it," said classmate Lia
Testa, who works for a non-profit organization in Washington.
Morris organized a dance as his first executive action. Conversations
stopped as he descended the dorm's staircase to the hip-hop song Back That
Azz Up, rapping, "Call me Big Daddy ..." and shaking his rear.
Above all, Morris wants to be liked, Testa said.
"We didn't agree much on politics -- I mean, I'm a Democrat from
Massachusetts -- but once he senses that, he doesn't push you on it. He
walks the line very well so that he doesn't turn anybody off who might be
his friend later on," she said.
Morris studied the nuts and bolts of politics during the next four years --
in class as well as the halls of power.
He answered phones and ran errands as an intern for Northup, the
congresswoman from Louisville; McConnell, the Senate majority whip; Chao,
the energy secretary; and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. In the
summers, he drove back to Kentucky to work on Northup and McConnell's
He built an enviable network of contacts and learned how to use it from one
of the best.
Jack Oliver, a friend of the Bush family, ran the president's fund-raising
in 2000 and this year, raking in a record $100 million and $228 million,
As soon as Morris heard that Oliver taught a graduate-level class in
fund-raising at GWU, he asked for special permission to attend.
Again, Morris stood out.
Oliver teaches the importance of relationships -- don't just ask donors for
money in election years, he says, but stay in touch with them, ask about
their families, make them feel like important members of the campaign teams.
Above all, say "Thank you." You can't show too much gratitude.
Morris is a natural, Oliver said.
"He's been pointed in the right direction by people," Oliver said. "But
Nate's a self-starter, somebody who can get going on his own."
Building the Rolodex
The Bush re-election campaign collected $2.1 million in Kentucky, half of
which came from a $2,000-a-plate lunch at Louisville's Galt House in
February. The lunch featured oven-roasted salmon in rosemary honey and a
presidential pep talk.
It also helped Morris raise most of the $50,000 that made him a Maverick.
"That was a terrific event," said Morris, who didn't pay the cover charge
and is pretty sure he didn't eat anything.
"The president reassured us, and the American people, that the country is on
the right track, and we're really helping him to get out the message," he
Catherine Todd Bailey, who organized the lunch as the Bush campaign's
Kentucky finance chairwoman, said she was delighted to get a phone call in
January from recent college graduate Morris who offered to do "whatever he
could" for Bush.
Morris "was very, very focused on wanting to help the president," Bailey
Aside from targeting young professionals, she said, Morris frequently called
her for the names of potential donors he could add to his list.
"He networks really well," Bailey said. "He's been able to build a Rolodex,
and that's what it's all about. You spend the majority of your time on the
phone, you make lots and lots of calls, and a lot of the time, you're turned
Morris will watch on television this week as Bush, in New York, accepts
nomination for a second term. Morris wanted to attend the Republican
National Convention, but a family illness kept him in Louisville.
One day, it could be him on the screen.
Morris, who pays his bills at present as a freelance campaign consultant, is
weighing law school against a career in real estate development. Or perhaps
he'll do both. His long-term plan involves a decade or more of earning money
and putting down community roots, at the end of which he'd like to run for
The more he learns about politics, the more he likes it.
"It would be a terrific way to give back," he said.