Will big bucks buy the White House?

Charles W. Jones, International President Emeritus

Candidates are raising more money than ever before. Who is donating that money, and what will they get for their donations?

The George Bush for President Committee made an amazing announcement on June 30 of this year. They reported having raised a record $28.3 million in contributions during the second quarter of 1999, making his total for the year well over $36 million.

And election day is still nearly a year-and-a-half away!

This is a staggering amount of money. By comparison, Bob Dole raised $13.58 million in the first six months of 1995 - barely over one-third of what Bush has raised. And when Bob Dole raised that amount, he set a record.

Needless to say, Bush was pleased with his success. His campaign managers say he intends to spend $70-75 million on his bid for the presidency, and he's now halfway to raising that amount. The war chests of other candidates are not all that far behind. Gore has nearly $20 million. Whoever wins in 2000 will spend a lot of money to get into the White House.

Where is all that money coming from? Campaign finance reformers often talk about limiting political action committees (PACs), but Bush didn't need PAC money to set his record. He got over 99 percent of this money from 75,000 individuals who donated an average of $480 each. According to the Center for Responsive politics, Al Gore gets about 85 percent of his money from individuals donating over $200.

Federal campaign finance law requires candidates to file information on individuals who give over $200, so we can track what industries these donors come from. The industry most represented in the individual contributions to both of these candidates is the legal profession, followed by those who describe themselves as retired, working in real estate, and working in securities and investment.

According to news reports, major individual donors to Bush's campaign are mainly old friends. These old-guard Republicans also recruit donations from people in their companies, people like Edward O Gaylord of EOTT Energy Partners, Edgar Bronfman of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, and Carl Lindner of American Financial Group. You may remember Lindner. He was one of the masterminds and financiers of last year's ballot attempts to keep unions from being involved in politics.

Many Bush supporters have longstanding family ties, such as Thomas Marinis, a partner at the Houston-based law firm of Vinson & Elkins which accounted for more than $172,000. Others are folks who claim to be making their first go-round in big-time politics - people like Robert Herbold, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Microsoft Corp., which is being sued by the current administration for monopolistic restraint of trade.

How much did he bring in for Bush? "From the standpoint of what's been reported [$36 million] . . . the answer is a fair amount," Herbold told reporters

A fair question to ask is why these people do it? What do they expect for their efforts and their money? The Clinton administration has been accused of letting big money donors spend a night in the White House. That seems pretty harmless compared to what Ken Silverstein reported in a story to The Nation ("My Life as an Undercover PAC", May 5, 1997).

Posing as someone from the (fictitious) United Broadcasting Corporation, he visited numerous fund-raising events of both major parties. The offers he got were surprisingly candid. At one, Anne Ekern of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (N.R.S.C.) told him that for $5,000 in PAC money, United Broadcasting could join the Republican Senate Council and send a representative to a monthly luncheon where a Republican Senator would brief participants on "legislation or anything else that might be going through" Congress. If United Broadcasting preferred to give $25,000 in soft money, it could join the Chairman's Foundation, an outfit "catered to the C.E.O," allowing him to attend "four or five small dinners annually . . . featuring Senators and senior committee staff from key committees."

The Democratic Party was no different. For money, you get access, they explained. The more you give, the better the access. One Democratic Party official once summed up the situation to him this way: "It's like flying," she said. "Some sit in first class and some sit in coach."

Promise of direct access like this is how candidates are able to raise millions at a single fund-raising dinner, like the $25,000-a-plate swordfish dinner for the Democratic National Committee. This February, Republican Party donors of $100,000 and up played golf and relaxed with party leaders during a weekend at a Palm Beach resort.

Candidates are raising more money than ever before. It is no secret what they'll do with all that money. They'll bombard us with television ads, direct mail campaigns, and sophisticated public relations tactics to try to get the public debate on topics they feel will get them elected. They'll use that money to distract us from the issues that matter most - jobs, health care, schools, Social Security - and get us arguing among ourselves about issues that are far less important.

The questions we need to ask are who is donating that money and what will they get for their donations?

And we have to ask where that leaves the rest of us. The ones who can't afford $25,000 dinners. The ones who don't have twenty friends we can talk into donating $5,000 each to someone's political action committee.

Will we get a voice in the next administration? Will the next president listen to our views?

Or will the people with Big Bucks buy their way into the Oval Office and shut the rest of us out?

Workers had better learn all we can about the issues - the real issues, not the false ones candidates will use to distract us. We'd better vote wisely and we'd better vote in solidarity.

Because we don't have the cash to buy our way into the White House. All we have are our votes.