WASHINGTON - Though bankers backing Al Gore are a rare breed, at least one has trudged through snow to help his presidential campaign.
Laurence Fish, who rakes in nearly $2 million a year as chairman and chief executive officer of Citizens Financial Group Inc. of Providence, R.I., spent a snowy weekend knocking on doors in Manchester, N.H., to help the Vice President win that state's primary.
Mr. Fish said he continues to stump and raise funds for the Democratic candidate because he will keep the economy flourishing.
"I am convinced Gore is the candidate who knows best how to keep the prosperity going," Mr. Fish said in an interview from St. Louis, where the Gore campaign had invited him to watch the candidates' final debate Tuesday. "If we keep this economy moving, it will be good for banking.
"I am opposed to a large tax cut," he added. "It is not good for business. It will lead to higher interest rates, which will affect everyone." Also, he said, "I believe Gore is most committed to using our national prosperity to reduce the national debt, which is good for business and for all people, rich and poor."
Mr. Fish was one of the first regional bank chiefs to back Mr. Gore - the first presidential candidate he has actively supported. Mr. Fish started raising money for the Vice President in the summer of 1999, but declined to say how much. He has personally contributed about $8,500 to Democrats during this election cycle.
Reflecting the industry's tilt toward Republicans, most bankers are supporting Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Mr. Fish said he is the only commercial banker he knows on the Gore campaign's National Business Council, a nationwide group of businesspeople who are campaigning and raising money for the Vice President. "My industry has never been one well stocked with Democrats, but I am doing what I can to represent our industry," he said.
The first banker the Vice President ever met was probably Walter "Wally" Birdwell, chairman and CEO of Citizens Bank in Carthage, Tenn., who has handled the Gore family's personal banking for a long time.
"I'm just an old white-headed guy," Mr. Birdwell said. "He doesn't ask me for advice."
But community bankers across the country know that they can take their concerns to Mr. Birdwell, who will in turn pass them on to the powers that be in the Gore campaign. "He knows all the players," said a banker who asked not to be identified. "He knows Frank Hunger, the central figure in the campaign."
Mr. Hunger, the Vice President's brother-in-law and closest friend, is considered a gatekeeper to the candidate.
Charles W. Bone, a community banking lawyer and partner at the Nashville law firm of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, calls himself a "permanent Gore volunteer." He stuffed envelopes and walked precincts for Mr. Gore's first congressional race in 1976, and has been an active volunteer and friend of the candidate since.
Mr. Bone, the son of a community banker, is now part of the "Gore Core" of Tennesseans who travel around the country "to tell the story of what a great President Al Gore would be," he said.
"When you look at his record of the last eight years so we could have the greatest economy we've ever had, it's pretty evident that he's a real friend of banking," Mr. Bone said.
Perhaps the industry's most important Democratic fundraiser is Orin Kramer, general partner in the Boston Provident Partners investment firm in Fort Lee, N.J. According to campaign sources, he raised more than $1 million for Mr. Gore and the Democratic National Committee during this election cycle.
His most lucrative fundraiser was a $20,000-a-plate buffet dinner he hosted this summer at his Englewood, N.J., home. The dinner brought in $600,000 for the Gore campaign.
Mr. Kramer acknowledges that bankers who gather money for Democrats are few and far between.
"Of the, say, 30 people who have done the most for Gore on the fundraising side over the last three years, you don't tend to have a large number of people associated with financial services," he said. "In fact, the list of [fundraisers] who have been helpful in the financial services world is pretty thin."
Mr. Kramer and banking lawyer H. Rodgin Cohen hosted a debate-watching party Tuesday night that Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers attended.
Mr. Kramer is hosting a campaign fundraiser in his home tonight with Gore running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, as the guest of honor.
"We can kibitz about policy, but the only thing that [financial services executives] can really usually do is help on the fundraising side," said Mr. Kramer, who was the associate director of domestic policy in the Carter administration.
The bank executives supporting Gore may be few, but they are prominent.
Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO at Bank One Corp. and a former Citigroup Inc. executive, and his wife, Judith, have contributed $84,000 to the Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee. They have also lightly covered the other base by donating $1,000 each to Gov. Bush.
Last month Mr. Dimon hosted a fundraiser for Sen. Lieberman, at the Harvard Club in New York.
In politics, those with proximity to power hold more prestige and often wield more influence than those with money. No banker is closer to Mr. Gore than Citigroup executive Robert E. Rubin, President Clinton's former Treasury Secretary.
When asked in the first presidential debate how he would handle a national financial crisis or the failure of a major institution, Mr. Gore pointed to Mr. Rubin, who was sitting in the audience, as someone he would turn to for help in such a situation. "My friend Bob Rubin, former Secretary of Treasury, is here," the candidate said. "He's a very close adviser to me and a great friend in all respects."
Mr. Rubin was front-and-center in June when Mr. Gore used a New York press event to kick off a campaign swing focusing on sustaining economic growth. In an article about the event, The Wall Street Journal said Mr. Rubin's presence "was intended to lend credibility to Mr. Gore's claims of superior fiscal discipline."
But a Citigroup colleague of Mr. Rubin's, chief executive Sanford I. Weill, has been curiously absent from Gore campaign and fundraising efforts. A strong and vocal supporter of President Clinton, Mr. Weill has not personally given money to the Gore campaign and is not among the Democratic National Committee's large contributors in the financial services industry.
Though Mr. Weill's office would not discuss his lack of involvement in the Gore campaign, his donations may offer a clue.
In April, when Mr. Gore was battling former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey for the party's nomination, Mr. Weill donated $1,000 to Mr. Bradley's effort.
Mr. Weill also has given $1,000 each to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, and to the reelection campaigns of Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm of Texas and the ranking Democrat on the House Banking Committee, John LaFalce of New York.
Another prominent banker missing from the Gore campaign is Bank of America Corp. president Hugh McColl, who helped President Clinton launch his plan for community development banks in 1993 and sat by his side during the NCAA men's basketball championship game in 1994.
Mr. McColl plans to vote for Gov. Bush, according to a spokesman, who did not explain why.
Mr. Kramer and Mr. Cohen, along with former Comptroller and former Bankers Trust Corp. executive Eugene Ludwig, have identified the industry's staunchest Gore supporters to serve as a kitchen cabinet of sorts should the Vice President win next month.
While the three men are reluctant to name the members of the group or even say much about their activities, sources said the group is composed of about a dozen financial services executives, including representatives from Bank One and Citigroup.
If Mr. Gore is elected, the team would be expanded and would help the new administration sketch out its financial services agenda. The advisers have met once in New York and are not scheduled to meet again formally until after the election.
Many bankers who are supporting Gore want to stay out of the limelight.
"It's really a problem if you are strongly supportive of Democrats," said a West Coast bank executive who advises the campaign on financial policy and does some fundraising. He asked not to be named, for fear that Republicans would hold it against him should they control the White House and Congress next year.
With that in mind, the executive said he is "scrupulously bipartisan" with the contributions his bank's political action committee makes.
While Securities Industry Association president Marc Lackritz has close ties to President Clinton, he maintains that he and most other lobbyists treat Mr. Gore and Gov. Bush equally.
"The reality is that you need to work with whoever is elected, so you try to work constructively with both campaigns on the issues that are important to the industry," he said.
Democratic National Committee money man Peter Knight said Fannie Mae chairman and CEO Franklin D. Raines is "one of our biggest guys" when it comes to fundraising support. However, Mr. Raines' spokesman insists that the government-sponsored enterprise executive keeps his politics bipartisan.
Not so for Thomas R. Nides, senior vice president of Fannie, who is on a leave of absence to manage Sen. Lieberman's role in the campaign.