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Susie Tompkins Buell just wants to help

By A. James Memmott

February 13, 2008 at 4:50pm

Millionaire Susie Tompkins Buell is a candidate’s dream, the sort of contributor who’s willing to give again and again and again.

“I get worked up and ask, ‘What can I do?’ and the first answer is always to give money,” Buell told The New York Times in 2004.

Buell is worked up again - this time over the prospect that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton might not get the Democratic presidential nomination.

Consequently, she may step away from Clinton’s official campaign and independently finance ads on the senator’s behalf in key primary states, including Ohio and Texas, The Wall Street Journal reported today.

“We’re just trying to figure out things to do to help,” Buell told the Journal. “We all feel very passionate about it, so the question is, what is the best thing we can do to get her across the finish line?”

For years, Buell has been a major donor and fundraiser for both Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

And while some of her money has gone directly to the candidates and to the Democratic National Party and its sub-groups, she has also poured money into so-called “527″ groups.

These independent groups, which have can have no official connections to candidates, can raise unlimited amounts to be spent on advocacy and voter-turnout efforts that work to help a candidate.

Buell contributed at least $1 million to the Joint Victory Campaign 2004, a 527 group also supported by financier George Soros. It spent $72.3 million during the presidential campaign in an effort to help Sen. John Kerry in his bid to defeat President Bush.

In 2005, Buell was one of the initial funders of Democracy Alliance, a group formed to fund liberal advocacy groups. According to The Washington Post, at least 80 people including Buell pledged to give $1 million to the group.

Buell’s millions come from her involvement with Esprit de Corps, the clothing company that began in San Francisco and grew out of the Plain Jane Dress Company.

Buell and Jane Tise started Plain Jane in the 1960s. Eventually, the company became Esprit de Corps. In 1976, Buell and her then husband, Douglas Tompkins, became the sole owners of the company. Earlier, Douglas Tompkins had started and then sold North Face.

During the 1980s, Esprit de Corps became a fashion powerhouse, its sales growing to $750 million in 1985. The company also became known for social awareness, as it called attention to the growing AIDS epidemic and other issues.

By the late 1980s, however, the company’s fortunes took a downturn, and the Tompkins marriage began to fall apart. For a while, she stepped away from the operation, and he remained in charge.

She then came back to lead a group that took control of the company in 1990 by buying out her then-former husband. In the process, both he and she made millions.

Buell stayed with Esprit de Corps, which had mostly new management, until she retired in 1996. That year she also married Mark Buell, a San Francisco developer. Buell took the Esprit Foundation with her when she left Esprit de Corps. The foundation subsequently became the Susie Tompkins Buell Foundation. It focuses on efforts to help girls and women.

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