Welcome to the first of what we hope will be a regular feature at Texas Weekly — Q&A sessions with the personalities who make the machinery of Texas politics run.
The first interview features GOP fundraiser Susan Lilly.
Lilly got her start as a staffer for Railroad Commissioner Barry Williamson. In 1997, she started Lilly & Company, now the chief fundraiser for a number of high-profile campaigns and officeholders, including Speaker Joe Straus, Dan Branch for Attorney General, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, Justices Phil Johnson and Jeff Boyd and a dozen Texas congressmen.
At the national level, she has handled fundraising for Speaker of the House John Boehner, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressman Paul Ryan Victory Committee in Texas. She has performed similar duties for two GOP state conventions and the Texas Victory effort on multiple occasions.
Texas Weekly: What do you make of this perceived split between “movement” conservatives and “establishment” conservatives. Do you find yourself having to modify your message to raise funds in the current environment?
Susan Lilly: No. We’re not having to modify our message. I think our message is the same. But I think there is a distinction between movement conservatives and — what did you call them? — establishment. I think, by and large, everybody wants the same thing. They just have two distinct ways of going about it to accomplish their goals.
TW: With the passing of several prominent big dollar GOP contributors from the scene in the past year, are you seeing a new generation of contributors establishing themselves or is the fundraising apparatus in the GOP decentralizing?
Lilly: No, there’s definitely a new generation of contributors coming. They may not be giving to the amount that Bob Perry and Harold Simmons were giving, but they are giving considerable amounts and there’s a lot more people. So really, in your fundraising, you just have to make sure that you’re reaching everyone instead of just targeting select few individuals.
TW: And that’s how you’ve kind of adjusted…
Lilly: Right, which is good for the candidates I work with, because you need to be … this is a game of addition, not subtraction.
TW: The Texas Tribune recently ran a story of another instance where a campaign tracker infiltrated a fundraiser to record the proceedings in order to get a recording that could be disparaging to the candidate. When you read about this, is this something that you’re having to take into consideration when you’re involved with staging fundraisers?
Lilly: Like who’s coming?
Lilly: Definitely. We’ve had people come to fundraisers and shout obscenities and be disrespectful on a few occasions. And I mean, that is why we try to, you know, have RSVPs and know who’s coming and also know who’s on the mailing list. And so I think any campaign would be wise to kind of track, you know, who’s attending.
TW: Are you at the point now where you’re going to have to start checking to see if people are bringing recording devices?
Lilly: I pretty much figure you’re being recorded at all times.
TW: Is that something you have to explain to people who are speaking at fundraisers? That you never know?
Lilly: Usually, we do kind of give them a heads up. And, I mean, they know because they live public lives. I think it’s something very different, you know, when you see on a smaller scale like for a state rep race or something versus, you know, speaker of the U.S. House or a U.S. senator or something. Because they know they’re getting taped the minute they walk out of the Capitol Hill Club or something in Washington.
TW: Let me ask you kind of a very open-ended question here. Why do people give to a campaign?
Lilly: I think because they feel passionate about getting that person elected or, you know, they just feel very excited once they get to know that person and want to see that person succeed.
TW: Do you find in your experience that it’s more about the person rather than the ideology? Or is it vice versa?
Lilly: I think it’s a lot to do with the person. Because you can pick Donor X and they might give a little bit to one person and give a very large sum to another person. So I think it has to do with the relationship.
TW: The totals reported on these [campaign finance] reports are seen often as a shorthand for the strength of a campaign. Do you consider that a fair metric?
Lilly: I think it’s a pretty fair metric. There’s always those that, I know, in two races I’m dealing with right now where our opponents are being funded by some special-interest groups that all of that money always comes in late. We won’t see it till the eight-day report. But there’s been a history there so we’re aware of it. But, by and large, I mean, at this point in time, 30 days out you should see if people are willing to invest in candidates’ campaigns and help them get their message out. And if the funds aren’t there, and you know that candidate is not personally able to write a check, it does kind of start separating, you know, into who’s going to make the runoff and who is not.
TW: In your opinion, what is the best kind of endorsement? A fellow officeholder? Maybe a celebrity endorsement? Maybe a prominent trade association? Which to you has the most currency?
Lilly: That’s a hard question. I would say a trade association because that trade association has to vote on it with their board and it comes with, for example, when Farm Bureau endorses, it not only comes with a contribution, it comes with, they’re going to do an endorsement in their magazine that goes out to all of their members. They also do the 4x8 signs, and put those out for you. So they come with, you know, money, marbles and chalk. I think it’s great to have another elected official’s endorsement, but often that elected official may not be able to even vote in that particular district. And the one thing you get is, you might get that person’s friends, but you definitely get all of their enemies.
TW: To you, what are the elements of a successful fundraising campaign?
Lilly: I think being organized. I mean, details … being detailed and being organized. And the follow up. I always tell people when they’re looking to hire us that I’m not a party planner, I don’t care about the color of the napkins. Or whether or not we’re serving beanie weenies. I care about raising the most amount of money for the least amount of cost possible. Because every dollar that we raise goes directly into the campaign. And they’re able to get on TV or in mailboxes or whatever.
TW: Final question here. If you had to change one thing about the way we select our leaders, what would it be?
Lilly: All leaders, or one in particular?
TW: Just in general … you’ve worked in the system for a long time so you’ve had the chance to really observe how this whole democracy thing works. Granting you the power to change one aspect of it, what would it be?
Lilly: I don’t know that I would change anything except maybe when it comes to judges. I think it needs to, and I know that they’re doing an interim study on the election vs. selection of judges. And I have always been pro electing every office. And after having many conversations with Chief Justice [Wallace] Jefferson and Chief Justice [Tom] Phillips, I’m more interested in maybe a a selection of judges. But otherwise, I wouldn’t change. I think people who want to serve in office need to kind of take their wares to the voters and voters need to decide. And I may not always agree with the voters. But it is what it is.
TW: Is there anything here that you’d like to bring up to finish this?
Lilly: I think it’s important that people really … candidates really need to strongly consider who they’re hiring. And know their backgrounds and also take responsibility for their campaigns. And then I think people contributing, you know, need to look at the candidate thoroughly.