Lawmakers have long used political fundraising to justify lavish trips. They spend legislative breaks at ski lodges in Utah and having fun in the Florida sun -- all on campaign donors’ dimes.
This week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is going even farther afield -- to London, Paris, and Geneva -- and billing the entire voyage to her campaign as a fundraising event.
The four-day trip is strictly business, said Gillibrand spokesman Glen Caplin. He said that only campaign staff, not family members, will accompany the senator. While federal law prohibits collecting campaign cash from foreign nationals, American citizens living abroad are free to open their wallets for candidates.
“It’s not unusual,” Caplin said. “In fact, it is quite common for American citizens abroad to participate in the democratic process back home.”
Gillibrand will hold three events across three countries, organized in part with members of Democrats Abroad, a group that bills itself as the “overseas branch of the U.S. Democratic Party.”
In Switzerland, tickets to the Geneva soiree at supporter Anne-Shelton Aaron’s home start at $250, with “hosts” ask to contribute $2,500. The invitation promises "drinks and canapés” along with access to a VIP reception.
“All contributors must have a copy of their passport,” the invite warns.
Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman at the government watchdog group Common Cause, said the trip “shows the insane lengths that candidates and members of Congress go to raise money for their reelection campaigns.”
Gillibrand is one of the Senate’s top fundraisers, having amassed more than $8 million in the first nine months of 2011. She was first appointed to the Senate in 2009 and won the election to serve out the remainder of her current term; she faces a reelection bid for a full six-year term later this year.
According to Caplin, Gillibrand’s European fundraising total haul is expected to easily exceed the costs of the transcontinental trip. He said there was no controversy in billing the journey to her past donors.
But Boyle was more skeptical. “I doubt she sent a solicitation saying, 'Help fund my European swing,' ” she said.