Rise of the showboat donor

Anthony Scaramucci is pictured with George W. Bush (left), Kevin Spacey (center) and Mitt Romney. | Courtesy

His back-slapping braggadocio and shrewd marketing have made him a Wall Street star. | Courtesy

LAS VEGAS — Anthony Scaramucci was in his element.

The fast-talking hedge fund manager, who stands about 5 feet 8 inches on a good day, was recounting for a small clutch of well-wishers the conversation he’d just had with Magic Johnson (6 feet 9) at the hedge fund conference Scaramucci was hosting at the Bellagio hotel and casino here this month. The height disparity couldn’t be overcome even by “standing on my wallet,” Scaramucci quipped.

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His back-slapping braggadocio and shrewd marketing — he’s a regular CNBC contributor who is starting his own weekly TV show — have made him a star on Wall Street. He also paid more than $100,000 to place his firm’s logo in Oliver Stone’s 2010 sequel in the “Wall Street” movie franchise. And his big giving and ability to get his pals on the street to do the same have made him a big deal in Republican finance circles.

The Mooch — a play on his last name used by everyone from Tony Blair to Kevin Spacey — is now seen as a validator who can steer major Wall Street money to hedge funds and super PACs alike. He’s courted by fund managers and ambitious Republican politicians and big-money operatives like Paul Ryan, Scott Brown and Karl Rove.

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His SALT Conference — named for his SkyBridge Capital fund (the full name is SkyBridge Alternatives Conference) — is a major to-do: a self-styled Davos meets Wolf of Wall Street that attracts top names from Hollywood, sports and politics. A-listers who spoke this year included Magic, Blair, Brown, Rove, Ryan, Spacey, Valerie Jarrett, David Petraeus, David Plouffe and Larry Summers.

But the Mooch’s conference is only partly about the speeches and panels. Most of the 1,800 or so finance types who attended treated it as networking opportunity wrapped in a party-time Vegas atmosphere — a tone set by Scaramucci, the conference’s frenetic chairman, who seemed to be everywhere at once.

After bragging about his chat with Magic, Scaramucci shifted his attention to a group of four attractive young ladies seeking an audience. “Look, you have beautiful women at the SALT Conference,” he said, putting his arms around the waists of two of his new conversation partners, to whom he boasted of his dance moves before being rushed off by a handler for a live appearance on a nearby CNBC set.

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Scaramucci’s meteoric rise has tested traditional clenched-jawed mores in finance and especially in politics, where discretion and the ability to avoid attention are prized. The Mooch who favors custom-made Loro Piana pinstriped suits and participated in a 2009 CNBC program called “ Untold Wealth: The Rise of the Super Rich” that showed him walking by a golden harp in his living room — is not one to shun the spotlight.

In 2012, he boasted that he was “one of the top raisers” for Mitt Romney’s campaign, and about the time he spent at Romney’s New Hampshire lake house, while filling his Twitter feed with a mix of sensitive campaign finance information and a stream of backstage photos and glimpses of the Romneys and other top Republicans.

Any minor headaches he may have caused the Romney folks paled in comparison to the PR disaster he caused for Rove around the 2012 Republican convention, when Scaramucci told a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter the time and location of a closed-door fundraiser for Rove’s Crossroads outfit. The reporter recorded the event and wrote a story that quoted Rove urging Republicans to “sink Todd Akin,” the Missouri Senate candidate whose cringe-inducing comments about “ legitimate rape” were tanking his candidacy and dogging other Republicans. “If he’s found mysteriously murdered, don’t look for my whereabouts!”

The story prompted apologies from Rove and from Scaramucci to Rove, whose Crossroads groups backed out of a Manhattan fundraiser the Mooch had been planning.

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Yet, Crossroads did accept $100,000 from SkyBridge a few months after Election Day. And Rove was back at SALT for the second year in a row (though the speaking fee SkyBridge paid probably had something to do with that), while Romney’s finance director, Spencer Zwick, was a registered guest and Scaramucci next month is planning to attend a Romney investor summit organized by Zwick next month in Park City, Utah, as well as the Koch brothers’ donor seminar in Aspen, Colo.

Rove’s office referred questions about his presentation, which was off the record, to his speaking agency, which did not respond. Zwick also did not respond to an email asking whether he attended SALT.

The increasing willingness of the political class to turn a blind eye to megadonor antics reflects an evolution in political money: the biggest donors have become so powerful that operatives and politicians are loath to cut off anyone who can cut six- and seven-figure checks — no matter what kinds of problems they might cause.

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Whether it’s Michael Bloomberg’s headline-grabbing threats against Democratic senators or Ken Langone’s comparison of populist appeals in his own Republican Party to the rise of the Third Reich, politicians and operatives still return to controversial billionaires who can help provide the huge sums of cash increasingly need to win. And the donors have little incentive to tone it down.

Langone, the billionaire Home Depot co-founder, was at it again at SALT, telling attendees that they should be proud to be in the 1 percent because, while “money doesn’t buy happiness, try poverty. That doesn’t do very well either.” He added a nasty swipe at his erstwhile nemesis Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former New York governor who tormented Wall Street. “I don’t like him now, but if I projected how I feel when he dies, I think I’ll feel better than I do right now,” Langone said.

“There have always been emerging bundlers and political money raisers who believe so passionately in their political philosophy, who have a personality that is out there,” said Georgette Mosbacher, a GOP finance doyenne who spoke at SALT. “And thank God there are, because Anthony is one of those who does embody those Republican principles, as a job creator, as an entrepreneur and as a businessman who believes in the free market.”

But a top GOP operative who has worked with Scaramucci said donors like him are approached warily.

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“If you’re doing the cost-benefit analysis of whether you want to host an event with them or accept money from them, then the first question you ask is how much they’re going to give,” said the operative. “If they’re going to give a million, we’ll find a way to deal with them.”

A conservative Wall Street executive who has raised money for Republican candidates and committees said that calculation barely points in favor of Scaramucci.

“He has the profile of Sheldon Adelson, but not the bank account,” said the executive. “Do people take him seriously? I think they do because of his image and his brand, more so than because of his political giving. The only thing similar between his politics and his business, including SALT, is that it’s all about him.”

Scaramucci and SkyBridge have combined to donate $333,000 to Republican candidates and causes since 2011. And the company hired Amanda Ober, a well-regarded fundraiser who raised money for Romney’s 2008 campaign and other Republicans, to help coordinate Scaramucci’s political activities, as well as the SALT conference.

He also has given undisclosed contributions to groups in the political network helmed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and has scored coveted invitations to their last few donor seminars. The Kochs, Scaramucci told POLITICO, “are the most misunderstood people in the United States. If you met them, you’d find them to be the most generous, charitable and honorable people in the country. I love those guys. They’re my boys.”