Bradley gets assists from friends

Candidate built network as star athlete, senator

February 06, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On the day more than a year ago that Bill Bradley officially entered the presidential race, a longtime aide worked her way down a phone list. It was time -- finally -- to mobilize the vast network of friends and acquaintances the former basketball great and Democratic senator had worked so hard to build.

It was an Olympic-size list.

"They were all people like me," says Roger Wilkins, a George Mason University professor and longtime Bradley friend who got a call that day. "People who, at one time or another, said: `I think you'd be terrific. If you ever decide to run, just let me know.' "

Bradley started networking before networking was a verb. Though he calls for a new kind of politics, the 56-year-old former New Jersey senator has spent his life practicing the oldest kind of politics in the book, systematically building a network that has provided the foundation of his campaign in everything from policy development to fund raising.

Wherever he has gone throughout his career, Bradley has accumulated names, methodically seeking out politicians, scholars, artists, scientists, hockey moms, cabdrivers -- anyone from whom he might learn something and who, in turn, might help advance the grand political goal that friends always assumed to be in his future.

"He's kind of a people collector," says Jeffrey Bell, a conservative Republican and friend who was Bradley's opponent in his first Senate race.

This Friends of Bill group is so diverse, so vast and so devoted that it rivals the FOB circle of the Clinton era. And it points to Bradley's quiet yet energetic effort over the course of his life to prepare for a presidential run. It is part of the reason he is not about to quickly abandon his campaign, even after losses in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Bradley's connections run from Princeton University to professional basketball, the Senate to Silicon Valley, Hollywood to the halls of academia, Wall Street to a Washington prep school. Some acknowledge that they were drawn to the Bradley basketball legend. Others say they admire the candidate's thoughtfulness or authenticity.

"I've been involved in politics for 30 years, and I've never seen anyone with the reach of support he has," says Carl Wagner, a longtime Bradley friend and former Democratic operative who is a technology consultant in Washington.

Senator turned scholar

On Friday, Bradley made a campaign appearance at the University of Maryland, College Park, one of the bases from which he operated -- and cultivated a coterie of friends-turned-supporters -- after he left the Senate.

As a scholar at the university's James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership from 1997 to 1998, Bradley held a national leadership conference and round-table discussions on such issues as health care, race, education and technology, ideal policy preparation for a presidential candidate.

"Was it a smart thing to do? Yeah," says Georgia J. Sorenson, founding director of the Burns Academy, who recruited Bradley to the College Park center.

Sorenson, who has raised money and campaigned in New Hampshire for Bradley, befriended him at field hockey games at Sidwell Friends, a private school in Washington that both of their daughters attended.

`A loose army'

From Sidwell parents to sports executives such as Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards, the FOBs have been successful in raising money for Bradley, bringing in nearly as much as the Democratic front-runner, Vice President Al Gore, has accumulated.

"The group of friends really did it for him," says John D. Diekman, a Princeton classmate who is a San Francisco venture capitalist. "It's a totally unconnected group of people, a loose army with a good leader."

As he did when he was a senator, Bradley has built his campaign staff with longtime friends and associates rather than with hired political guns. His finance director is Richard Wright, a Princeton basketball teammate, and his campaign chairman, Douglas Berman, has been with him since his first Senate bid in 1977.

On the trail for him are fellow NBA stars such as Phil Jackson, Dave DeBusschere and John Havlicek (the campaign's Massachusetts co-chairman), and academics such as Cornel West of Harvard University.

Advising him on policy are friends such as Roger Wilkins, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Bradley's college roommate, Daniel Okimoto, a Stanford University professor who has taken a leave of absence to work on the campaign.

Princeton alumni, many of whom believed that the scholar-athlete of the Class of 1965 had the makings of a president and referred to him as "Mr. President" even then, have been critical to the Bradley network. Okimoto, one of Bradley's closest friends, helped him land a post-Senate appointment at Stanford and helped him make friends among the pioneering business executives of Silicon Valley.

Curiosity about people

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