When Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara became embroiled in a deluge of questions and criticism this year for breaking a campaign promise not to accept industry donations, he promised Californians he’d make it up to them.
To start, he fired his longtime fundraiser, Dan Weitzman.
“I believe effective public service demands constant adherence to the highest ethical standards,” Lara wrote in an open letter to Californians on Sept. 3, in which he apologized for accepting more than $50,000 in April from insurance executives and their wives.
“Upon learning of these issues, I ordered an immediate return of insurance industry-connected contributions and an internal review of our vetting procedures,” he said. “I also terminated my longtime contractual relationship with the fundraising personnel involved.”
Lara said he’d institute “rigorous vetting protocols” built by experts familiar with “best practices,” seemingly a deviation from the fundraising camp he’d set up with Weitzman at the helm.
But Weitzman, 49, is no rookie.
Top Democrats have for two decades invested their fundraising trust in the Palos Verdes native and California State University, Sacramento graduate, whose ability to inspire cash flow has launched political careers and his own prominence in the capital since the 1990s.
Weitzman’s résumé boasts household Democratic names like former Assembly Speakers Fabian Núñez, Karen Bass, John Pérez and former Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León. Senate Majority Leader and former Speaker Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, was among his first clients while Weitzman worked as an assistant to top political fundraiser Toni Roberts back in the ‘90s.
Weitzman helped Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg secure his new post in 2016 after working for years as his fundraiser while leading the Senate and when he served in the Assembly. He’s been listed on Capitol Weekly’s ranking of “Top 100” influential figures, and was elected as the California Democratic Party’s controller in 2017.
Lara’s quasi-scandal has since shed a spotlight on the CEO of Daniel C. Weitzman LLC, a controversial figure known for his brazen personality and tendency to ruffle feathers.
“I’m an aggressive person,” Weitzman said. “It’s who you click with. Some people, I’m not a good click with.”
He didn’t click with Gene Erbin, a retired lobbyist who worked in politics for around 40 years. Erbin said Democrats’ reliance on Weitzman can be a risky gamble.
“I have no f-----g idea why the Democrats reflexively hire him,” Erbin said. “I guess he was successful. I guess he raised a lot of money. He was the most vocal and most visible fundraiser.”
Erbin, whose lobbying firm would routinely set up fundraising events for Capitol lawmakers, said Weitzman was known as someone who “straddled” a politically inappropriate line.
“You can’t talk about policy,” Erbin said. “You can talk about politics. Who would win the presidential election. But you can’t talk about ‘AB xx’ or ‘SB xx’ or what the hell happened in Health Committee. It’s awkward. He was too unrestrained. (I’d say) I don’t want to talk about that tonight, Dan. Let’s talk about the Giants.”
Weitzman rejects any idea that he mixes politics and policy, calling himself a “straight frickin’ arrow.”
“I might have just kind of talked, but I don’t have any policy experience,” he said. “That’s not my area. I couldn’t tell you the process on how a bill becomes a law.”
He instead credits a relationships-first approach and a passion for politics for his thick Rolodex of donors that helped finance his clients’ paths to the top, where they remain his closest friends.
“I’m loyal. I’m friendly. I work harder. I just hustle, and I’m committed,” he said. “My heart is in it.”
A handful of his clients attended his son’s bar mitzvah in April. Steinberg and Hertzberg were in his wedding. During his son’s first day of school this year, he estimated a flood of “45 texts asking how he was doing.” He attends Congregation B’nai Israel with Steinberg. He shared a Los Angeles apartment with Nuñez a decade ago when Weitzman’s workload increased in Southern California.
He customizes his office for his clients to increase their near-zero affection for calling donors. For Hertzberg, who declined to comment for this story, Weitzman has traditionally had a Mr. Pibb, candy and the pen and paper he likes best waiting for when he walks into a donor-calling appointment.
“I do everything I can to make them want to spend time with me,” Weitzman said. “It’s like a date. I warm them up, talk to them a little bit and then say, ‘Hey, let’s make a few calls.’”
The strategy translates to dollars, for both Weitzman and his clients.
Weitzman said he typically takes home an industry-standard 10 to 15 percent commission. His company raked in nearly $80,000 from Steinberg’s 2016 mayoral race, according to financial reports, and another $116,000 from both of Lara’s commissioner campaigns.
The money is good enough, Weitzman acknowledged, but the job itself allows him a hand in advancing the liberal agenda by funneling dollars toward Democrats running for office.
His advocates admit the fundraiser can be “aggressive,” but applaud his success in the most detested aspect of campaigning. They add it’s unremarkable to lack popularity in a town teeming with what they described as unpopular people.
“(Weitzman) is a creature of Sacramento. He understands it well,” said de León, who is now running for Los Angeles City Council and does not currently work with Weitzman. “He has a very colorful personality, to say the least. But I’m fond of Dan. Folks have, at times, accused him of being overly assertive. But he works hard for his clients. I don’t think he’s ever crossed the line.”
‘Where does the buck stop?’
Who’s tasked with reviewing the campaign finance books varies by politician and consultant, said Thomas Hiltachk, an attorney who has practiced political and election law for decades.
If the campaign operates on a larger budget, staff can pay the fundraiser to scrutinize each check. Smaller campaigns with tighter budgets are more likely to rely on staff to assume accountability.
Hiltachk said that fundraisers are responsible for monitoring whether contributions come from any explicitly blacklisted industries or people. However, the candidate is ultimately responsible for any financial fumbles because it’s “their name on the dotted line.”
“Where does the buck stop?” he asked. “It should stop with the officeholder or the candidate.”
In email and calendar records obtained by The Sacramento Bee this summer, Weitzman coordinated lunches with industry executives who had pending interests before Lara’s department. One of the companies represented at the table was connected to more than $45,000 donated to Lara’s 2022 reelection campaign.
Executives “will be joining you for a relationship-building lunch in support of your Ricardo Lara for Insurance Commissioner 2022 campaign,” Weitzman wrote in a memo sent to Lara through government staff.
The Fair Political Practices Commission said it’s since received inquiries into the commissioner, though it confirmed with The Bee that there’s been no enforcement for violations. Rusty Hicks, the state party’s chair, confirmed he’s spoken to both Lara and Weitzman, and said “in their own ways, they have taken corrective action.”
Weitzman knows he had a hand in botching Lara’s pledge not to accept industry cash, a promise the commissioner made while running for the post in 2018.
He declined to comment extensively on the record about the meeting or the memo, but said there was “no issue talked about” during the March 12 lunch he coordinated.
Weitzman acknowledged that the optics of the meeting have damaged a longstanding friendship and professional relationship that dates back to Lara’s time in the Legislature from 2010 to 2018.
He remains acutely aware that despite his success, what he’s largely recognized for these days is his connection to a splash of headlines alerting Californians to Lara’s campaign snafu.
“It hurts,” he said. “It’s the saddest I’ve been in my business since I started. I made a mistake, I f----d up and I hurt him. I didn’t mean to.”
“I wish I had paid more attention,” he continued. “I wish it hadn’t have happened.”