Bush donors wear big hat, give big money

In free-for-all world of Texas fund-raising, his backers came from

People who have given money to Gov. George W. Bush come from all walks of life, from multimillionaire business-men to the auto mechanic who can barely scrape together a $100 contribution.

Collectively, though, political donations from people who helped elect the Texas governor reveal a certain reliance on the state's biggest businesses - energy, agriculture, banking, and, of course, lawyers and lobbyists.

While many analysts are poring over contributions to Governor Bush's presidential campaign, a close look at fund-raising during his 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial races also provides a revealing glimpse at the interests that helped to put Bush in office.

Take Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim, whose Pilgrim's Pride Inc., has drawn some $500,000 in pollution fines over the past decade. He gave Bush's gubernatorial campaign $125,000. Currently, his firm seeks a permit to inject 500 gallons a minute of chicken wastewater into underground wells around Pittsburg, Texas.

Or Kenneth Lay, chief executive officer of the Enron Corp., who helped make the once-sleepy Houston-based energy company into a world power. He gave $122,000 to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns, $1,000 to Bush's presidential campaign, and is now encouraging dozens of friends, family members, and employees to give Bush the $1,000 federal limit themselves.

More typical is the check from Weldon Willig, a high school football coach from The Woodlands, Texas. He gave $100.

With friends like these - and 170,000 other donors - Bush has become the top fund-raising candidate in American history. As "master of the universe" of Texas's - and now America's - fund-raising system, Bush's campaigns raised a combined $108 million for his gubernatorial and presidential bids since 1994.

His backers and some independent political analysts say such broad-based fund-raising inoculates him from charges that big donors get something more for their money than the sought-after "access."

"He's not at the mercy of a single group of contributors because his universe of contributors is so vast," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, a state political newsletter. "I know too many people who gave $100,000 contributions to Bush but couldn't get something from him when he became governor."

The quid-pro-quo perception

But there is also a large contingent of people who argue that big donors expect - and sometimes get - special consideration from politicians they have supported financially. And the Bush campaign, because of its mammoth reach and its heavy reliance on big business, epitomizes what's wrong with the campaign-finance system, some say.

"These contributors do have a special economic interest in seeing George W. Bush become president," says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group in Austin that has analyzed donors to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns. "They'll say ... they don't have an interest in policy [such as tax breaks or eased regulations]. But the truth is they do."

According to the Texans for Public Justice analysis, donations from 1,000 corporate executives accounted for nearly half of all Bush's gubernatorial campaign funds. (See chart, above.) That concentration of donor power is worrisome to many.

In states that allow large individual contributions or that have no contribution limits at all, as in Texas, "the lack of limits ... gives those top contributors an immense amount of power," says Samantha Sanchez, co-director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Helena, Mont. In Illinois, which allows large individual contributions, 9 percent of the contributors supplied 63 percent of the money to campaigns in 1998.

Of course, all the major presidential candidates get money from America's top corporations. The Bush camp, though, has become unusually adept at working within the constraints of the federal campaign-finance system. While federal law forbids an individual from giving more than $1,000 to any single candidate, there are perfectly legal ways for donors to help put more money in a campaign's coffers.

Consider Dallas software magnate Charles Wyly. In 1994 and 1998, Mr. Wyly and his brother, Sam, contributed a total of $210,273 to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns. For the governor's presidential bid, Wyly gave the maximum contribution of $1,000 - and then became something of an unofficial fund-raiser for Bush. He got 100 or more other supporters to give donations and "bundled" his check with theirs. The result: On one day, he delivered $100,000 to the Bush campaign. This earned him the honorary title of "Bush Pioneer," and, in fact, the governor's supporters note that it shows how broad Bush's support is.

Critics believe "bundling" - which most candidates encourage - contributes to a corrupting of the system, in perception even if not in actuality. They note that the University of Texas Regents, appointed by Bush, selected the Wyly brothers' Maverick Capital Fund to manage UT's huge investment portfolio in 1998 - though the action drew no major protests here.

Bush presidential campaign spokesman Scott McClellan says political contributions don't influence his boss's decisions. "Governor Bush has a strong record in the state of Texas of doing what is right," he says.

Colorful characters

In the records of any campaign treasury, there's the donor with a checkered past - and the Bush camp is no exception.

Take Roy Huffington, whose Houston-area oil firm was fined by the US government in 1986 for illegally shipping handcuffs, billy clubs, and shock batons to Indonesia during the Suharto regime. He gave Bush's gubernatorial campaign $18,000.

A. Glenn Braswell, president of Gero Vita Industries in Miami, was charged in the 1970s and '80s with false representation in his mail-order businesses, including faking before-and-after photos for bust-enhancement and baldness remedies. Mr. Braswell, who was sentenced to five years' probation, gave $25,000 to Bush's gubernatorial bid.

Behind the biggest money machine in US political history is a combination of skill and serendipity. It mixes the old-boy network and name recognition with a sophisticated direct-mail database by Karl Rove, now Bush's chief political strategist.

"They have the ability to insert a sentence into a standard fund-raising letter that says, 'By the way, give my regards to your wife, Betsy,' " says Sam Kinch, a political consultant from Austin.

Still, name recognition and family connections aren't always unbeatable. "There have been Roosevelts and Kennedys who ran for office and got blown out of the water," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas here. "Remember Teddy Kennedy in '84?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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