Last February, back when Rick Santorum shocked Republicans with a string of primary victories and the once-inevitable campaign of Mitt Romney was teetering on collapse, Woody Johnson held a private meeting in his office in Rockefeller Center.
Mr. Johnson is the heir to the Johnson & Johnson family fortune, the owner of the New York Jets and, over the past year or so, the head of Mr. Romney’s fundraising efforts in the political goldmine that is New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
The meeting was one of several he had held over the course of the campaign with those whose names had shown up on campaign finance filings for some of the other GOP hopefuls, donors who had cast their lot early on with Tim Pawlenty, or Herman Cain, or Rick Perry.
The message was always the same: Mitt Romney will be the nominee. He is only one who can keep Barack Obama from sinking the economy further. There was no political deal-making, no hard sell that said, “Come on, board now, before it is too late.”
“Woody takes the long-term approach,” said Spencer Zwick, Mr. Romney’s national fundraising director, “which is, ‘We need all of these people. Maybe they are working for another candidate today but I am very optimistic Mitt is going to be the nominee, so I can let them know that when their candidate sinks we are going to welcome them on.’”
Five months later, Mitt Romney is indeed the nominee, and his fundraising is going gang green busters: close to $300 million already, leaving President Barack Obama lamenting to supporters that he is at risk of being the first sitting president in modern American history to be outspent. And nowhere has Mr. Romney scored better than in New York City and points nearby. There was the $3 million haul in the Hamptons last weekend. A $10 million tristate swing in May. Three million dollars from a series of fundraisers in March, back when the governor was still struggling to dispatch his Republican rivals.
And at the center of this record fundraising has been Mr. Johnson, who was by Mr. Romney’s side nearly every time he swept into the area, often introducing him at the various soirees, and who has quietly emerged as perhaps the single most important Republican between here and Boston.
“He is exuberant about this role,” said Rick Lazio, a former congressman and key fundraiser and organizer for Mr. Romney in both 2008 and now. “You can see why he owns a football team. He loves the competition. He loves the rah-rah camaraderie. He is all in on this campaign. I think he is the indispensable player in New York City.”
It is nearly impossible to keep the football metaphors from pouring out when talking about Woody Johnson’s role. He bought the Jets for a seemingly absurdly high $635 million in 2000. In the 12 years since, their value has doubled, and the team has had what it is perhaps their most successful run on the field in its history.
“It’s almost this football mentality with Woody,” is how Mr. Zwick described it. “He knows that everybody in the field has a very important role and not everybody is going to score a touchdown. But there are different roles and one of the roles of the campaign is to provide the resources so that the campaign team can get the message across. He is not a lineman who wants to be a quarterback.”
“As Woody sees it, we have a world championship, Super Bowl country with very, very poor management,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge-funder friend of Mr. Johnson and a top Romney donor.
In Mr. Johnson’s sleek, modernistic Rockefeller Center office suite—think Mad Men’s Roger Sterling’s digs updated slightly for the 21st Century—the walls are decorated with photos of him with Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, autographed Jets helmets, game balls, a framed note of appreciation from former running back Curtis Martin.
And after causally mentioning that he had considered purchasing this reporter’s newspaper a few years ago, the football metaphors tumbled out of Mr. Johnson’s mouth, as well.
The reason Mr. Romney struggled at times in the primary is because “the caucus-goer, the primary-goer, is like, in football, the fan that is avid. The avidity level is higher. So the points of view are more polarized then you get in a general election,” he said.
The economy will improve under Mr. Romney because “it’s like changing coaches. [Jets head coach Rex] Ryan came in and we were 25th in the league in defense. We changed the coach and we were number two in the league in the defense. Same with presidents.”
“One of the reasons Coach Ryan was successful is that he believed in his defense. He said, ‘You are a great defense.’ And he said that day one, we’ve got the best defense in the league. We were 25th in the league and he said, ‘I’ve got the best guys here’ and you know what? It turned out that way. And I think when Mitt Romney is president it will be the same thing, because he knows how to do this.”
And when Mr. Romney went looking for a local finance chairman, Mr. Johnson was, according to Mr. Lazio, “the number one draft pick—a franchise player.”
The two began courting one another soon after the 2008 campaign ended. Mr. Johnson had been the tristate chairman of John McCain’s campaign, his most high-profile role after having a more limited fundraising function in GOP campaigns dating back to George H.W. Bush.
By temperament, friends say, Mr. Johnson has never been one of the hot-blooded, pitchfork-rebellion Republican types, couching his fondness for Republicans instead as a need to keep Democrats and their taxing and regulatory ways out of the Oval Office. When he gets involved in primaries, it is always by lining up behind the early front-runner.
Messrs. Johnson and Romney started meeting regularly in New York or Boston or at Mr. Romney’s summer home in New Hampshire, where Mr. Johnson would shock the former Massachusetts governor by clamoring up the rocks overlooking the lake and plunging into the water off of a reserved-for-teenagers-only rope swing. The two also traveled to Israel and met with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
“I think they both wanted to make sure that they had a deep personal relationship,” said one Johnson associate.
A lot of the big New York donors were slow to commit to Mr. Romney, hoping that someone else would emerge. People like Home Depot founder Ken Langone, hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer and industrialist David Koch, were actively wooing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But despite the Jets and the Johnson family’s ties to the state, Mr. Johnson stayed committed to Mr. Romney.
“He is a New Jersey guy, but he never wavered,” said one member of the Romney campaign. “There was never any fear with the Romney camp that Woody was going to somehow split his allegiances. He has been all-in on this campaign.”
Mr. Johnson is not typical of someone a campaign would want in such a prominent role. Although he made money in cable and cell phone licensing early in his career, he is less an example of the great American spirit of entrepreneurialism than he is a living reminder of the advantages of inherited privilege. His daughter, Casey, was a hard-partying and drug-addicted tabloid favorite whose tangled love life included publicly accusing Mr. Johnson’s sister of stealing her boyfriend and later a lesbian engagement to the Penthouse cover girl Tila Tequila. She died in 2010 due to complications of diabetes. (A photo of Ms. Johnson was on a shelf in Mr. Johnson’s suite, and friends say Mr. Johnson was devastated by her death, but rarely talks about her. “It’s that old-world, WASPY, don’t-reveal-our-feelings thing,” one said, noting that Mr. Johnson also had a brother die when he was young and that his other daughter suffers from lupus. “Families like that are used to so much tragedy.”)
But in other respects, Mr. Johnson was perfect for the role. Someone from finance would have had to deal with a host of entanglements and the public’s distaste with Wall Street. Ditto someone from a traditional GOP sector, like energy. Someone who worked at a publicly traded company would have to answer to annoyed board members and shareholders. Plus, with only the Jets in his portfolio, Mr. Johnson has the most valuable resource any campaign could ask for: time
“I don’t think we have ever seen this combination of a guy who has his kind of stature in the region but also by a quirk of his life is able to devote 80 percent of his day to this and still maintain his day job,” said one Romney backer.
When asked to estimate how many people he has contacted on behalf of the Romney campaign, Mr. Johnson said, “Oh, brother. Every Republican in New York,” then added, “several thousand.” He spends, he says, 25 hours a week just making phone calls, plus whatever time he spends heading to lunches on behalf of the candidate. He organizes major call-athons, too, getting a hundred or so Republicans prominent in business to make phone calls on behalf of the candidate.
“A lot of people get a title and a name, and they want a big name they can put on top of the letterhead,” said Mr. Zwick. “Woody is a big name, but he really works. He doesn’t just oversee who makes the calls. By the time the event rolls around, he has really worked every single host committee member.”
It is hard to ignore, however, Mr. Johnson’s proximity to the Jets as draw for donors. His position with the team gives him what one donor called, “some regional celebrity,” and another said that dreams of being invited to the owner’s box dance in the heads Mr. Romney’s big donors.
“He has the power of his name, and gravitas, and talent,” said Georgette Mosbacher, who along with her husband helped introduce Mr. Johnson to the world of Republican fundraising back in the 1980s. “And he owns a football team. Men are still the primary money people in politics and he is almost like a celebrity with them.”
As for Mr. Romney, according to Mr. Zwick, “Mitt loves being with Woody. He is extremely grateful for all Woody has done, and Woody has never asked for anything. I mean, what does Woody Johnson actually need?”
Plus, he said, Mr. Romney delights in a fact that several of Mr. Johnson’s friends listed as his most recognizable trait: his mode of transportation. “Mitt loves the fact that Woody Johnson gets around town on a Razor scooter. He finds that hysterical. This is a guy that takes a helicopter from Teterboro to 34th Street and gets on his Razor scooter. I mean, the irony!”
Friends of both say too that is a way in which Mr. Johnson fits into Romneyworld in a way most brash New York donors do not. Mr. Johnson is not the kind of money man who thinks his proximity to the campaign allows him to advise them on what kind of ads they should be running in swing states, or who believes he has special insight into what independent voters want to hear.
“Romney has that Midwestern honesty thing about him,” said one person close to the campaign. “They don’t like people that are hard-charging, intense, screaming types that go on all the Sunday shows. Woody is low-maintenance.”
And self-deprecating, too. Mr. Johnson has been known to say on fundraising calls that, “Mitt has the smartest people in America around him—and me.”
For Mr. Johnson, he explains his devotion to Mr. Romney by cycling through his accomplishments—his turnaround of the Olympics, his working with a Democratic legislature in Massachusetts to balance budgets—but what really animates him is talking about what a disaster Mr. Obama has been.
“If you agree with the premise that free markets and free enterprise and the success of small business and medium-size business are important in delivering jobs to the people,” he explained, “then the CEO that is against small business, doesn’t like business, doesn’t like small business, doesn’t like medium business, doesn’t like business business, doesn’t trust business, wants to regulate business, wants more business to be done by the government.”
If Mr. Obama is reelected, Mr. Johnson said, it will mean more taxes, new regulations, a shrunken military. The election, he said, will be a referendum on the president, so “the president is trying to take the public’s mind off his record and off his promises of change and onto things like Bain Capital and Mrs. Romney being a housewife.”
He likes Mr. Romney, he said, because “he is open to suggestions. He is not a possessive guy. I think if he finds a better way he will switch. That is a positive. That comes from a humble, nonegotistical background. I don’t think you find that in a lot of candidates.”
The Romney campaign declined to speculate on how much Mr. Johnson has actually raised, but it is estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
One secret of Mr. Johnson’s, a friend said, is that he has been known to ask donors to give more than they are capable of, flattering them that he thinks they have bigger wallets then they actually do. His relationship with Mr. Romney helps too, with several donors suggesting that they believed that if they have Mr. Johnson’s ear, they probably have the candidate’s, too.
“There is a certain acquired skill I guess in making these calls,” he said. “They have to know that it is not about me, but that all of this goes to the candidate. They have to know that perhaps through me the candidate will know a little something about them. I am there in some ways as an ombudsman for them.”
If Mr. Romney wins, there is no telling what it could mean for Mr. Johnson. Typically, people in his position go on to high-level cabinet posts at the Department of Commerce or somewhere similar, or take prestigious ambassadorships. Friends say that if a President Romney asks him to take one of these jobs on, it would be hard for him to turn down.
Mr. Johnson is unequivocal.
“I am not doing anything,” he said. “I’ve got young boys. I’ve got a team that I love running.”
But, he added, “I do like being a part of the process.”
Follow David Freedlander via RSS.