President Obama's appointee to a plum South American ambassadorship is at the center of a dispute over whether he bought the post fair and square — a battle that is dividing powerful Los Angeles financial supporters and which lifts a curtain on the forces of money and influence that help drive presidential politics.
Noah Mamet, a 44-year-old political consultant and longtime fundraiser, was appointed as U.S. ambassador to Argentina at the end of July. When word got around as early as April that Mamet would receive the nomination, the news was met with surprise, and in some cases anger, by his peers in the donor class.
Democratic Party donors complain privately that Mamet unfairly leveraged his clients' work for his own political gain and benefited from a close personal relationship with President Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina.
Mamet had also consulted at least one client specifically on how best to pursue an ambassadorship before ending up with one himself, according to three sources who have dealt with both Mamet and the donors he represents.
Ambassadorships are typically awarded to the president's largest donors. Of the 72 ambassadors Obama has named during his second term, more than half are classified as political appointees, rather than career foreign service officers.
Those posts also go to people who have given less money themselves but have raised — or "bundled" — enormous sums. Rufus Gifford, Obama's former national finance director, is now in his fourth month as ambassador to Denmark, and the former Obama for America finance chair, Matthew Barzun, is now the ambassador to the United Kingdom. But few of Obama's ambassador selections have precipitated as much talk this year as the decision to send Mamet to Buenos Aires.
Interviews with about a dozen Democratic donors and fundraisers cast Mamet as a politically savvy operative who worked harder than most for the president's reelection effort, but who knows just as well how to advance his own interests. One fundraiser who has worked with Mamet described his ability to "bob and weave" through the political landscape as "masterful."
The California native founded his consulting firm, Noah Mamet & Associates, in 2004 after an eight-year run as an aide to former Rep. Richard Gephardt. Mamet helped Gephardt raise millions for congressional candidates and, in the process, developed an extensive network of donors. In 2008, he fundraised for Hillary Clinton and four years later became one of Obama's top bundlers.
Mamet raised slightly more than $2 million from donors for the reelection, according to a source with access to campaign financial documents. The figure puts Mamet among the top tier of last year's Democratic bundlers.
But over the last eight months, donors have complained that Mamet received outsize credit for the money his clients contributed, bolstering his $2 million total. A list of clients on Mamet's website, a link to which was removed recently from the homepage, includes names of major donors like businessman Stephen Cloobeck, philanthropist Jay Snyder, and City National Bank head Russell Goldsmith. (Should Mamet be confirmed, he will no longer be able to work as a consultant.)
In his capacity as a paid donor adviser, Mamet consulted clients on giving their own money and on fundraising as bundlers.
"There was a feeling of, 'Wait a minute. It's my money he's getting that with,'" said one California-based fundraiser of Mamet's ambassador role.
At least one client also asked Mamet about the possibility of obtaining political appointments for himself. Three sources said Snyder, a principal at an investment firm and a longtime donor, was receiving advice from Mamet about pursuing an overseas post — only to find out later that Mamet had been slated for one instead.
Mamet comes to the position without major diplomatic experience. The biography on his website was recently expanded — nearly doubled in length — to include reference to his work on the Pacific Council on International Policy and a trip to Sierra Leone with a delegation from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's group, the National Democratic Institute.
One factor in Mamet's favor may be his friendship with Messina, Obama's longtime adviser. When the Hollywood Reporter first wrote about the news of Mamet's appointment in May, the magazine reported that Mamet had been "championed" by Messina for the role. The two were described as "incredibly close" by one fundraiser, who recalled Mamet driving Messina around Los Angeles on a visit during the campaign.
There is no immediate evidence that Messina, who now runs his own private consulting firm, played a larger-than-normal role in advocating for Mamet's appointment. Messina declined to comment on the matter.
But Mamet's close ties to the current administration are part of what has made him successful in consulting. He has visited the White House for meetings, receptions, and parties nearly 30 times since 2009, visitor logs show. On at least four of those occasions, Mamet's clients — including Cloobeck, Snyder, and philanthropist Lynda Thomas — accompanied him to meetings with officials.
The Mamet & Associates website, according to a New York Times report, once emphasized that he and his partners "are not lobbyists."
"Noah straddles that line very carefully," said the prominent Democratic donor.
The hard look from donors and fundraisers at Mamet may also have more to do with competition and jealousy among peers than any question of qualifications. Many who were critical of Mamet also acknowledged the commitment he showed to Obama's reelection — a cause he worked at nonstop last year.
"He's a wonderful guy, and he works incredibly hard," the donor added. "He works in an environment where he's able to navigate the world of politics and business. But I also know that he sometimes tries to juggle a lot of balls in the air."
Mamet, who did not respond to requests for comment, is waiting to be confirmed. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not yet scheduled his hearing.