'People actually thank her for taking money'

She’s one of the country’s most successful GOP fundraisers. But she’d prefer to direct your attention to the Bush family.

Published October 1, 2006

MIAMI — Two of Ann Herberger’s heroes have watched over her as she raised tens of millions of dollars for Florida Republicans over the past nine years: Austin Powers and Jeb Bush.

Walk into fundraiser Herberger’s shagadelic Miami office, and you’ll spot the life-sized cardboard cutout of Powers on your right and a disconcerting painting of Gov. Bush straight ahead.

“That’s the devil picture,” Herberger warns. “His eyes follow you wherever you go.’’

The publicity-shy Herberger is one of the most important players in Florida politics that you’ve never heard of. She is among the country’s most successful GOP money-raisers, and working for Jeb Bush she helped push Republican fundraising in Florida into the stratosphere.

But this is not your father’s Republican fundraiser.

Her path to the top tier of Republican politics started in alcohol rehab. In her raspy Carol Channingesque voice, Herberger, 44, has a tendency to belt into song at a moment’s notice — “Que sera sera”! When something displeases her, she is succinct: “That sucks rocks.”

“She is one of those people who makes a lifelong impression when you first meet her, and I knew she’d be a huge success the first time I saw her on a tarmac in Iowa,’’ said veteran Republican strategist Mary Matalin, who met Herberger almost 20 years ago on former President George Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign.

High-profile campaigns go nowhere without money, and they pay big bucks to professionals skilled at drilling into people’s checking accounts. Across the country, only a small handful of Republicans enjoy the lofty reputation of Herberger.

“She is one of a very small group and her history in this business is unsurpassed,” said Ann Dunsmore, another top GOP fundraiser in California. “Anybody who has the fortitude to stay in this business and not lose their heart should be honored, and she has one of the biggest hearts of anybody I’ve ever met.”

Sure, it sounds easy: Call up Republican honchos and CEOs, solicit checks for the likes of the Bush brothers, and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

In fact, the intensely high-pressure job requires managing a multitude of giant egos and personalities and navigating arcane and ever-changing campaign finance laws. Most people burn out and leave the business fast.

Raising big political money is like being a campaign strategist, wedding planner, drill sergeant and cheerleader rolled up into one. It means organizing big events headlined by political stars, assisting and coordinating with people who commit to raising loads of money themselves, drawing up complex finance plans, and dialing directly for dollars.

Herberger, whose fans cite her big-picture political acumen along with her enormous Rolodex, somehow remains revered among many of those she keeps hitting up for money. She manages to make every dollar solicited seem more about the candidate’s ideals — usually Jeb Bush’s — than a mere campaign account.

“We’d take a bullet for her because she’s one of the most remarkable, nicest, self-effacing people I’ve ever met,” said Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida lobbyist Mike Hightower, designated a Bush-Cheney “Ranger” for raising more than $200,000 for the campaign. “She is probably the most extraordinary fundraiser in the history of Florida, and yet when you’re around her with Jeb or the president, she always talks about what I have done or what other people have done.”

Gov. Bush said Herberger’s “infectious enthusiasm” is crucial to her success. “She has a joyous attitude about life, and it plays out in her work,” said Bush, whom Herberger accuses of frequently stealing her jokes. “She is a paid fundraising specialist, and people actually thank her for taking money out of their pockets.”

Few Florida politicos are more closely tied and loyal to the Bush family than Herberger, who finally and reluctantly agreed to talk with the St. Petersburg Times after prodding from the governor.

Even then she kept steering the conversation to Jeb Bush’s leadership and brought along a pal, Miami TV anchor Kelly Craig, to sit beside her for the dreaded interview.

Was she wary about the future with Jeb Bush leaving the Florida stage? Herberger deflected, loudly, with Sinatra: “And now, the end is near … ”

 Herberger’s loyalty to the Bushes has been well rewarded. Since Jeb Bush imported her to Florida from Washington in 1997, her firm has earned more than $1.68-million raising money for Jeb Bush’s campaigns, the state GOP, Bush-Cheney and national Republican committees.

That’s actually not as big a payout as some fundraisers, who typically earn 10 percent to 15 percent of a campaign’s total haul. Herberger mostly works for a flat fee, though she’s making 5 percent — more than $102,000 so far — of what Jeb Bush’s recently created Foundation for Florida’s Future takes in.

Not bad for a self-described “goober from Iowa.” But to hear Herberger tell it, her real calling was to become an international celebrity.

“At 7, I was doing Johnny Carson interviewing my mother on the couch. 'So mother, you look fabulous in that robe … ’”

Instead, she wound up in an alcohol treatment center at 20 — “The minute I came out of treatment, I just knew it was never going to be an option again” — where she met the son of another prominent Republican activist and heard about the political world. She started volunteering for former Rep. Tom Tauke.

Politics — even when it involved stamping envelopes, sweeping floors and phoning volunteers — hooked her.

“It’s about believing in something, it’s about believing in a guy, it’s about believing in principles that matter,” she explained.

Tauke was an early Iowa backer of Bush senior’s, and Herberger one day found herself at a Bush event chatting up an amusing stranger named Rich Bond, who later became Republican National Committee chairman.

“What impressed me then is what has impressed so many people since then. It’s her incredible energy level and her humor and her willingness to do almost anything. There was no envelope that was too low for her to lick, no favor she wouldn’t do for a friend,” said Bond, who quickly pulled her into the Bush campaign.

Appendicitis sidelined Herberger in Wisconsin, and Bond sent her to Washington to recover. She wound up at the RNC, raising money alongside fundraising legend Margaret Alexander. Nearly a decade later, a friend in the White House political office called.

Sally Bradshaw wanted her to come work on Jeb Bush’s second campaign for governor. Herberger said she was happy in Washington.

Then Jeb Bush called — “I hear you don’t want to come to Florida to work for me” — and they spoke at length about Florida’s then-tough-to-navigate system that required raising millions of dollars in $500 increments, but avoiding spending caps that, under Florida public financing system, would kick big money to your opponent. That system had helped Lawton Chiles narrowly beat Bush in 1994.

Herberger agreed to help interview potential finance directors, and soon enough signed on to the job herself: “I had that old feeling of being scared out of my mind, and that’s when I decided I should go. And, for God’s sake, it’s Jeb Bush!”

Five election cycles and millions and millions in campaign checks later, Herberger still remains largely unknown outside the political intelligentsia. She’s a beloved figure in Bush’s inner circle, though.

“Ann is always the biggest cheerleader for the campaign, publicly and privately. She is always the person who says to all of us negative naysayers, “We can do this, we can get this done,” said Bradshaw, Jeb Bush’s version of Karl Rove. “She is the most decent, loyal, committed person with whom I have ever worked. I can’t ever imagine going into battle without her.”

Herberger is a national leader in one of the most maligned elements of democracy today — campaign fundraising — but said she has the greatest job in the world and passionately defends her business. It’s about the First Amendment guaranteeing people the right to participate in the political process, she insisted, and all the talk of buying access and favors is way overblown.

She does worry about the increasing use of independent “527” political committees turning political campaigns into “a big fat free-for-all,” but then those committees are often competing for some of the big money she’s after.

Herberger said she rejects big donors with suspect motives, though she has been burned. Jeb Bush wound up in an unwelcome St. Petersburg Times article in 2000 after an essay under Bush’s byline ran in an alternative health magazine run by a convicted felon who promoted dubious pills and potions and had given $150,000 to the Florida GOP. Herberger said she knew nothing about the man’s past at the time.

Herberger — who is single and dotes on donors, five Pomeranians, two cats and four finches — stayed neutral in the latest gubernatorial primary and instead focused on raising money for the state party.

Assorted 2008 presidential contenders are courting Herberger as the post-Jeb political world approaches, but she is first and foremost a Bush family loyalist. She professes to know nothing about Jeb Bush’s future political plans.
“I hope he comes back to Miami, gets some well-deserved time off,” she said. “But at some point in his life do I hope he runs for president? Heck, yeah. I’m the first one on that bandwagon. Thumbs up. Sign me up!”

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com. For much more breaking political news check out blogs.tampabay.com/buzz.