HONOLULU – The oceanfront vacation home Barack Obama is renting this week is owned by a campaign contributor who, along with her husband, has given more than $62,000 to the Democratic Party and its presidential candidates since 2000.
There’s nothing improper about that. Indeed, by renting the house, rather than borrowing one from wealthy friends, Obama is taking a more scrupulous approach than former President Bill Clinton, who was criticized for making a habit of vacationing for free throughout his presidency.
But here’s the twist: According to the campaign, it is a mere coincidence that Obama, his family and friends from Chicago are staying on a sprawling Kailua beach estate owned by Jill Tate Higgins, a California businesswoman who Federal Election Commission reports show has contributed $2,300 to his campaign over the past year. Higgins is the general partner of Lakeside Enterprises, a Burbank, Calif., private family investment company listed in property tax records as the owner.
“He has no prior relationship with her, did not speak with her during this process and had no knowledge that this was the rental home of a Democratic donor,” an Obama campaign aide said Monday.
The campaign would not speak on the record, the aide said, "while discussing the personal plans of the senator, his family and friends."
Obama and his friends rented the 11-bedroom house through an island realty company for “standard market value,” said the aide, who would not identify the company or provide the market rate.
Higgins and her husband, James P. Higgins, gave $20,000 each to the Democratic National Committee in 2000. They have also donated to the presidential campaigns of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Howard Dean and Sen. John F. Kerry, records show.
Jill Tate Higgins serves as a trustee for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group with strong ties to Hollywood and Washington.
Like Clinton — and unlike the past two Democratic nominees — Obama came from modest means and vaulted onto the national political stage with only one home, thus limiting his options for vacation locales now that he is the presumptive Democratic nominee. (Republican John McCain doesn’t face this predicament, as he and his wife own multiple homes.)
But by paying rent on the beachfront house, Obama appears to be taking a more high-minded approach than Clinton, who borrowed vacation homes in locations ranging from Hilton Head to Vail to Martha’s Vineyard, sometimes from campaign contributors and often arranged through a network of wealthy friends.
Jill Tate Higgins could not be reached for comment. A message passed through an NRDC spokeswoman went unanswered Monday.
The NRDC is a New York-based environmental organization that has worked with the League of Conservation Voters and Greenpeace on issues of global warming, alternative energy production, polar bear protection and clean water. The council has spent almost $400,000 lobbying Congress this year, according to lobbying disclosure forms.
Higgins sits on a board studded with boldfaced names: actors Leonard DiCaprio and Robert Redford, activist and producer Laurie David, singer James Taylor, and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.
As a member of Environmental Entrepreneurs, which describes itself as a business group that advocates “good environmental policy while building economic prosperity,” Higgins signed an April letter addressed to senators urging support for the Climate Security Act sponsored by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.). The bill, which would have required steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, stalled in the Senate in June. Obama missed the vote but indicated that he would have supported it.
Obama has not lined up with the Natural Resources Defense Council on other issues in recent weeks. His decision to support limited offshore oil drilling puts him at odds with the council, which opposes such efforts.
Higgins’ house on Kailua beach, an hour’s drive from Honolulu on the northern edge of Oahu, sits behind thick palm trees at the end of a private road.
The traveling press pool has been kept at a distance. Campaign aides have rejected efforts to observe Obama from the public beach in front of the house.
Property records offer the only glimpse: The $8 million house occupies 12,000-square feet and has 10.5 bathrooms, a pool and a Jacuzzi.
“The owner has a long history as a Democratic donor to candidates and the national party, and it is not surprising that in a state where Sen. Obama won 76 percent of the primary vote she would have contributed to his campaign,” the Obama aide said.