ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democrats fighting to protect Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s seat want to replicate the last presidential campaign playbook by casting a well-funded GOP challenger as a corporate raider who put profit over people.
But there may be a hitch. Franken himself has a small stake in the parent company of the same brokerage firm, through a mutual fund comprised of stock in businesses with a “socially responsive” reputation.
At issue is Mike McFadden’s investment banking career at Lazard Middle Market, a Minneapolis brokerage firm he led that was involved in the purchase and sale of companies. It’s an offshoot of global merger-and-acquisition powerhouse Lazard Ltd.
An examination of Franken’s personal investments shows one of his mutual fund includes investments in Lazard, too.
The twist adds a potential complication to efforts to use McFadden’s business background against him. Top Democrats said it’s a leap to equate a casual investor to someone once in the corporate board room, and they don’t plan to abandon their strategy if he emerges from a crowded field with the Republican nomination to face the first-term Franken in November.
“People have no clue who this Mike McFadden is,” said Minnesota Democratic Party Chairman Ken Martin. “As part of explaining him, our job is to let people know exactly who he is — and part of it is his professional background.”
McFadden campaign manager Brad Herold said his side is ready to swing back.
“We fully expect them to attack Lazard,” Herold said. “But I think the first question that Al Franken is going to have to answer if the Democrats attack Mike’s record at Lazard is why he is invested in this company and considers it a socially responsible workplace?”
The Minnesota seat is one of several held by Democrats that Republicans think they have a shot at in the hunt for a six-seat gain to flip control. Franken won by the barest of margins over a GOP incumbent in a 2008 race decided after a recount and court case. Compared with more-competitive races elsewhere already awash in negative ads, however, the Minnesota contest has gotten off to a quiet start.
That may change soon as McFadden begins airing television ads within weeks, advisers say. The first-time candidate’s introductory spots will touch on McFadden’s business career.
The Democratic-aligned Alliance for a Better Minnesota already branded McFadden “Minnesota’s Mitt Romney” in a bid to lump him with the 2012 Republican presidential nominee who was pounded by President Barack Obama’s team over private equity deals that led to job losses.
McFadden distinguishes his activities at Lazard from what Romney did at Bain Capital. McFadden describes his role as a middle-man, helping companies looking to sell find a buyer or vice versa. He maintains his firm had no operational control over employment decisions made before or after the transactions. Democrats argue some companies McFadden assisted subsequently engaged in layoffs.
So far, Franken hasn’t personally mentioned McFadden or Lazard in public settings. If he does, Herold said the Republican’s campaign will highlight the senator’s investment.
In 2006, Franken added the Neuberger Berman Socially Responsive Fund to a vast personal portfolio. A Senate disclosure form lists the value of his holding in the fund between $100,001 and $250,000, a small fraction of his total investments.
Fund managers first put Lazard in the mix in 2012 and as of this February that component amounted to about 2.3 percent of the overall value.
“If Mike McFadden survives the Republican primary battle, he’s not going to be able to use one-tenth of one percent of Sen. Franken’s assets to prevent voters from hearing about 100 percent of his own record as an investment banker,” said Franken campaign spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff.
Herold said the extent of Franken’s Lazard connection doesn’t change things.
According to published guidelines, Neuberger Berman’s decides on companies for its portfolio based those deemed to be “good corporate citizens” responsive to human rights, environmental concerns and workplace policies that promote gender and ethnic diversity. Companies that derive more than a small amount of revenue from gambling, tobacco or alcohol sales, weapons production or nuclear power are avoided.
Alexander Samuelson, a spokesman for Neuberger Berman, said the firm won’t comment “on any single individual or client.”
Timothy Smith, who specializes in socially responsible investing at industry giant Walden Asset Management, said companies that make it into such portfolios don’t always have a sterling record but are generally seen to have a net positive reputation.
“It’s simplistic to say it’s a Good Housekeeping stamp of approval,” Smith said. “It doesn’t mean the company has no issues, no flaws, no problems. It does mean that they weren’t perceived as a scoundrel.”
McFadden reported last year that he earned $2.4 million in salary and bonuses at Lazard since Jan. 2012, according to a public disclosure form filed in connection with his candidacy. He went on leave in May 2013 when he entered the race and isn’t receiving a paycheck from the company. The disclosure report put McFadden’s net worth between $15 million and $57 million, much of it tied up in stock and real estate.
Franken’s most recent financial disclosure report estimated his personal wealth at between $4 million and $12 million in assets and residuals connected to his past career as an entertainer.
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