A self-made political insider

Randallstown boy became millionaire and Clinton friend

January 31, 2002|By David Nitkin and Gady A. Epstein | David Nitkin and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Michael G. Bronfein makes friends in the highest places, from City Hall to the White House.

But an e-mail he sent last week seems to have done just the opposite, possibly creating a powerful enemy in Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Bronfein, the campaign finance chairman for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, told top Democratic donors that they should not give to the mayor this year, saying they should reserve their donations for Townsend's expected run for governor.

The message quickly made its way to an angry O'Malley - and was viewed by observers as a rare misstep by Bronfein, a man who has carefully cultivated a Rolodex of enviable contacts in Maryland and beyond.

The 46-year-old venture capitalist has built a reputation over the past decade as someone on the rise in the world of campaign fund raising and political activism.

A self-made millionaire who has given generously to local and national parties and candidates, he also appears to be a self-made political insider who golfs and watches movies with Bill Clinton.

"A key contact is someone who gets their calls returned within 48 hours," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "Well, Michael absolutely fits that `key contact' definition for just about every major member of the Democratic Party in the state of Maryland, as well as nationally."

In interviews yesterday, friends and family members described Bronfein as hard-working, astute, self-confident and analytical. Those qualities helped him build a single drugstore into a successful chain.

That same no-nonsense mind and self-confidence was on display in the e-mail, which - at least for the moment - has turned an important behind-the-scenes player into a more visible figure.

"Michael identifies people who are going places, and then becomes part of their community network," said a knowledgeable State House operative. "Where he is on the national stage right now is where he was in Maryland a decade ago. He's not the top tier yet, but he's somebody who in five years or 10 years may well be."

Bronfein was raised in a Randallstown neighborhood that produced several other notable business and political figures. His best childhood friend, Steven Fader, is president and chief executive officer of Atlantic Automotive Corp. Another friend and neighbor was Alan M. Rifkin, a State House lobbyist.

"He has an acute business sense," Rifkin said. "Here's a guy who grew up in a moderate, middle-class neighborhood. He basically got a job at a bank and learned finance."

Bronfein's fund-raising efforts began more than decade ago, Rifkin said, during an early meeting in Maryland with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. The two talked health care, and grew close.

As Bronfein's fortunes grew, the Clinton connection became stronger. He has played golf with the former president at Caves Valley Golf Club in Baltimore County, and he and his wife, Jessica, attended a viewing of the movie Men of Honor at the White House.

"I was in Israel last week, and I ran into our friend Bill Clinton," said Howard E. Friedman, 36, a hedge fund adviser from Mount Washington who is president of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "And the first thing he asked me was, `Howard, you're from Baltimore. How's our friend Michael Bronfein?' Clinton said he called him on New Year's Eve to wish him a happy new year."

Bronfein underwent nose and throat surgery this week and was unable to speak yesterday for this article, said Jessica Bronfein, his wife of 26 years.

The two met at Randallstown High School when they were 16. As a teen, Bronfein developed a fondness for Harley-Davidson motorcycles (he keeps one at his Owings Mills home).

He also began working at Brown's Supermarkets, owned by his uncle Herbert Beckenheimer. He put in long hours, his friends said, and demonstrated a work ethic that has continued.

In 1980, Bronfein and his brother-in-law, Stanford G. Ades, bought a pharmacy in a shopping center. They grew the business into NeighborCare, a chain of drugstores that served doctor's offices and hospitals. They sold the enterprise in 1996, and Bronfein later became a venture capitalist.

"He's been working his whole life," said Eric Becker, a co-managing partner at Sterling Venture Partners. "He's totally a self-made guy."

Bronfein's activism extends beyond politics and includes philanthropy. He is a board member of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Port Discovery.

While Townsend is relying on Bronfein to raise money for her unannounced gubernatorial bid, O'Malley, too, turned to Bronfein to help sell tickets as recently as last year.

According to O'Malley, Bronfein learned the mayor was planning an event for this April when a member of the mayor's campaign staff "erroneously" contacted him last week to say the mayor would be calling for help again this year.

"He's a good businessman," a diplomatic O'Malley said yesterday. "And he's one of many people in this state who care enough about the political process to get involved in fund raising."

Sun staff researcher Dee Lyon contributed to this article.

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