Norman Hsu was desperate for invitations to glitzy Democratic Party galas in California and private political dinners in New York. But once he got in, Hsu, a 56-year-old apparel executive, seemed awkward and out of place, almost astonished to be posing for pictures with former President Bill Clinton at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at a rally in San Francisco. He gave generously, showering big money on a wide array of national, state and local politicians. But he was a rarity in the symbiotic world of campaign finance, because he sought nothing tangible in return. As Hsu ran from an arrest warrant for fraud and a hidden past of bankruptcy, his political donations seemed less motivated by a bid for influence than a desire to simply win a few friends in circles of power, according to Democratic fundraisers in New York and California who knew him. He was a compulsive name-dropper who took the time to get to know low-level staffers working on political campaigns, even pulling strings to get them reservations at tough-table restaurants like Nobu in Manhattan. His political activities came to occupy such a central role in his life that when he composed a suicide note last week while running from the authorities, he specified that his funeral arrangements should be handled by a young former Democratic Party staffer who once coordinated fundraising in New York, but had not been in touch with him in more than a year. The elevated status Hsu bought through political donations helped him raise money for his investment schemes, even as he raised political donations from some of those same investors – many of whom now fear their money is gone. A California woman who invested with Hsu said a member of her family talked him up as “this big businessman who was a big friend of Hillary Clinton.” Hsu would encourage investors to make campaign contributions because it “was good for business,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. Several prominent Clinton donors who spent time with Hsu recall him as an indefatigable networker, willing to take on any fundraising need, even from low-level Clinton staffers. “I think he was motivated by a desire to rebuild his identity, his image, and to launder his fraudulent past through Democrats and the Clinton campaign,” said one prominent Clinton donor who attended meetings and socialized with Hsu and grew to know him personally. “He went from a nobody to a player. And if Hillary was elected, he would go from a player to a well-connected star in Democratic business circles.” Indeed, one senior adviser in the Clinton campaign said that Hsu aspired to and was on track to becoming “one of the break-out superstars of 2008 presidential fundraising in both parties.” Despite his lofty goal, the Clinton campaign’s chairman, Terry McAuliffe, denied last week that he had pressed Hsu to raise ever larger sums for Clinton. However much Hsu used his image as a friend of politicians to impress his business contacts, he seemed to have had little difficulty finding people willing to give him money long before he burst onto the political scene. For example, a New York investor who directed $40 million to Hsu first did business with him in 2002, a full year before Hsu began making campaign contributions and well before he became a fixture at Democratic fundraising events. But once Hsu entered the political world, he did it in a big way. He lobbied to get invited to marquee fundraising events, such as one for Clinton at the Beverly Hilton co-hosted by filmmaker Steven Spielberg in February, according to one California-based Democratic fundraiser. Sometimes, he would crash private parties without an invitation. “He wanted to get on the party’s A-list, and he knew it would take a lot of money,” said a prominent California Democratic fundraiser who saw Hsu at party events in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “I remember him wanting to know about the next party, the next dinner. He never wanted to be left out.” Among Clinton aides and advisers, Hsu garnered a reputation for responsiveness and success. Whether a request came from the campaign’s finance director, Jonathan Mantz, or a junior aide on the Clinton finance team, Hsu was quick to say yes. He quickly became known as a go-to man with apparently terrific access to ready money in New York and Asian circles, Clinton campaign officials say. His devotion to Hillary Clinton was sometimes eye-popping. He threw a dinner party in Clinton’s honor this year at the Modern restaurant, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for about 100 people, costing roughly $200 a head, according to three people who attended. It was not a fundraiser; there was no special purpose, except to celebrate Clinton. Yet some Clinton donors say they were sometimes uncomfortable with Hsu and wish that, in hindsight, they had regarded this ambivalence as a red flag. One donor recalled receiving a rather garish invitation to an after-party that Hsu threw himself this year following a political fundraiser. The invitation was ornate and oversized, the donor said, as if Hsu was trying too hard. A California-based Democratic fundraiser who supports Clinton said he ran into Hsu at several events in California. “He seemed so desperate to be included in every big-ticket event in California,” the fundraiser said. “It was a little sad.” Clinton campaign officials and donors, who have looked into Hsu’s past, described his trajectory this way: He was introduced to political giving by Stanley Toy, a Los Angeles doctor, who at some point introduced him to Mark Gorenberg, a San Francisco-based venture capitalist who was the California finance director for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Hsu began contributing large checks to numerous Senate candidates in 2005 and 2006. Officials with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee say Hsu was never given names of candidates to support, though they say that, from time to time, he would be given notice by staff members about fundraisers coming up or possible campaigns to become involved with. Officials say that no one person in the campaign committee was a point person for Hsu. At some point, Hsu came to the attention of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate re-election campaign. A low-level staff person on Clinton’s campaign, whom the campaign declined to identify, noticed that Hsu had been a generous contributor, and he was targeted for future contributions. Hsu was then cultivated by fundraising leaders such as Alan Patricof, Clinton’s finance director for that campaign in New York. Patricof declined to comment, but associates of his insist that Patricof did not bring Hsu into the campaign and did not get to know him well. By early 2007, when Clinton began her presidential bid, Hsu had become valuable enough to join her New York fundraising leadership team, attending meetings with about 15 to 20 other donors and Mantz, usually held at Patricof’s Manhattan offices. He emerged in recent months as a HillRaiser, the designation given by Clinton’s campaign to anyone who raises at least $100,000 a year. There are more than 200 so-called “bundlers” identified by Clinton’s campaign, but Hsu sought out to become a super-bundler. The importance of bundlers has grown in importance as campaigns have an insatiable need for cash but can only raise a maximum of $4,600 from each individual. So the more friends and associates that bundlers can raise money from, the more valued they become to campaigns. Even as Hsu worked to raise his profile with the Clinton campaign, he also spread his money broadly from municipal races in California, to governors’ races throughout the country, from liberal political action committees to state Democratic Party committees. And for many, he was something of a secret benefactor. He gave $3,500 to Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports women’s candidates, as well as the maximum allowable donations to three Democratic women senators, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and, most recently, to Mary Landrieu of Louisiana whom the political action committee was promoting. Ellen R. Malcolm, president of Emily’s List, barely recalls him. “She remembers seeing him at some big Democratic events, but he never came to any of our major events,” said Ramona Oliver, a spokeswoman for the group. Robert Tuke, a Nashville lawyer, was chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party in 2006 when Hsu donated $20,000 to the party and gave another $12,000 to the campaign of former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who was in a tight race for the U.S. Senate. “The check literally came in the mail,” said Tuke, who noted that it is unusual for someone to give so much money without making some contact with the campaign or seeking some acknowledgment. “No one got a call from him, no one has a clue about him,” added Tuke. “Usually people who give that much want some recognition – they were always asking me to get them to meet Harold Ford or, if Bill Clinton were in town, to get some time with him. There was none of that.” Another prominent fundraiser based in New York also recently had lunch with Hsu, in which she recalled that he arrived “incredibly” late and had so many nervous mannerisms that it became hard to follow what he was saying. The fundraiser said she had assumed that Hsu would not have wanted anything from Clinton if she were elected president. “All he would want is just to be at the White House. He just would want to be treated to the White House.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Like the deep-pocketed gamblers who are the targets of Las Vegas casinos, Hsu was quickly recognized by dozens of Democratic campaigns as a soft-touch cash machine, even if the source of his money was unknown to nearly everyone. Hsu was so eager to please that he tried to become the first bundler of donations for the Hillary Clinton campaign to raise more than $1 million, according to three Clinton supporters who said they were told by Hsu of his goal. And he nearly accomplished it, raising an astonishing $850,000 from 260 people in just six months. Last week, the Clinton campaign severed all ties to Hsu when it announced it would refund the $850,000, the largest sum to be refunded by a presidential campaign. “There came a point in the campaign when he could walk on water,” said John A. Catsimatidis, a New York businessman and top Clinton fundraiser. “He spent money, he never said no. Very young fundraising staffers would say, `Norman, we need $50,000,’ and he’d say, `I’ll do it.”‘ Interviews last week with more than three dozen fundraisers, donors, strategists and businesspeople who know Hsu sketch a portrait of a man who was simultaneously sought after and held at arms length, someone whose aggressive generosity was rivaled only by the opacity of his motivations. Campaigns and charities were only too willing to take his money, while at the same time harboring doubts about his background and behavior. Hsu emerged in the national spotlight in late August when it was revealed that he faced a 15-year-old outstanding warrant in California for a 1991 fraud conviction for bilking investors out of $1 million. He had faced a maximum of three years in prison, but he skipped out on the sentencing hearing. After returning to Hong Kong in the 1990s, Hsu arrived back in the United States 10 years ago and began raising money for new investment schemes. But it was not until 2003 that he became active politically. When his name emerged in press reports in late August, Hsu surrendered in California and posted a $2 million bond, but he skipped out on a court hearing, and, while riding a train bound for Colorado, he became ill and was arrested. He is back in custody and a Colorado judge this past week set bail at $5 million.