WASHINGTON -- Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, missed the University of California at Merced's momentous 2009 graduation two weeks ago in part because he was busy raising money.
As about 12,000 students, parents and others welcomed first lady Michelle Obama and listened to her graduation address May 16, Cardoza cited "personal and professional" reasons for remaining on the East Coast.
On Friday, responding to a reporter's questions, Cardoza acknowledged he had been at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland holding a previously scheduled $5,000-a-head fund-raiser. The money raised during the Preakness Stakes event went toward Cardoza's Moderate Victory Fund, a political action committee that helps other candidates.
"That event had been scheduled for several months," Cardoza said Friday. "It was a long-standing event which raised money for moderate Democrats."
The UC Merced graduation was the first one for students who attended the new university for four years.
The graduation date was set at the start of the school year late last summer, said university spokeswoman Patti Waid Istas, although Obama's participation was confirmed in late March.
Often billed as the first new research university of the 21st century, UC Merced is in Cardoza's congressional district.
He and other lawmakers have made a point of seeking state and federal support, including earmarked funding, and the House this year passed a symbolic resolution praising the university.
Nonetheless, the only House member to attend the graduation was Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, whose congressional district dips into San Joaquin County. Neither of California's two senators attended, although the state's lieutenant governor, attorney general and Assembly speaker did.
"Barbara Boxer was not there," Cardoza said. "Dianne Feinstein was not there."
Cardoza noted that he helped host a celebratory dinner to honor the UC Merced seniors a week before the graduation, adding that "it was unfortunate" that the timing did not work out for him to attend the ceremony.
"I have hundreds of requests in a year," Cardoza said, noting that he must also make time for his family. "I like to go to graduations, but I don't make every one."
Cardoza ran unopposed for re-election last year, and through March he reported having about $264,000 in surplus campaign cash. The money raised at Pimlico, though, will go into a separate fund.
The Moderate Victory Fund is a leadership political action committee, which enables Cardoza to raise money separately from his campaign account and distribute it to like-minded candidates, including Capitol Hill allies and some challengers who align themselves with generally centrist views.
Traditionally, politicians use leadership PACs to build alliances and gain influence.
Cardoza said he didn't know how much money his Pimlico event raised.
Last year, the Moderate Victory Fund raised about $102,000, including donations from Wal-Mart, Comcast and the National Association of Realtors.
"I try to get moderate Democrats elected to office," Cardoza said, "and this is one of the ways to do that."
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at email@example.com or 202-383-0006.