Maybe the gobs of political cash aren't as bad as they seem
By Roger Simon
U.S. News 6/19/00
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Quoted||NEW YORKOn the crowded
nightclub floor in midtown Manhattan the lawyers jostle
the stockbrokers, the stockbrokers jostle the CEOs, the
CEOs jostle the union bosses, and the union bosses jostle
whomever they wish. It is a Democratic fundraiser and
Dick Gephardt stands in front of the buffet table,
hugging and kissing people, seemingly at random. Faces
are flushed, spirits are high, and the night is pregnant
with possibilities. If the Democrats raise enough money,
they figure, they can take back the House of
Representatives, make Gephardt the speaker and Charlie
Rangel, whose 70th birthday is being celebrated this
night, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. But
money does not come through magic. It comes through guys
like David Jones.
Jones, 34, a professional fundraiser who began his political life as a college organizer for Amnesty International, stands at Gephardt's elbow, smoothly funneling people to him. Jones sees a face in the crowd, summons up a name from his prodigious memory"You have to be good at remembering their faces, their names, their spouses, their kids, their dogs. And when they last gave money," Jones saysand then gives them a hug and a tug and says, "Go and talk to Dick." For many, merely meeting Gephardt, the House minority leader, is enough. "They want a picture taken with Gephardt or Al Gore or Rangel or the president," Jones says. "They want to be part of the effort, be part of the scene. They want to go to a fundraising event and rub elbows with CEOs, the managing partners of law firms, business people. Maybe they'll do some business." And some business will be done tonight.
Alittle surprise. Dennis Rivera, the president of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, walks up to Jones and Gephardt. They are all old friends. Rivera reaches into his suit jacket and extracts a slender white envelope. He hands it to Jonesgiving it to Gephardt would be unseemlyand says emotionally in Jones's ear, "This is from the union." Jones takes the envelope without looking inside, places it in his own jacket pocket, and embraces Rivera. A moment later, Rivera tells a U.S. News reporter, "We hope to generate the resources needed to compete with the Republicans, who always outspend us." Rivera then asks the reporter if he knows how much money will be raised this night. The reporter checks his notes and says he has been told $2.7 million. Rivera smiles. "I think you're going to be off," he says, "by a million dollars." And Rivera ought to know. Inside the envelope he just handed Jones were three checks, one for $500,000 and two for $250,000 each. Just a little surprise "from the union."
It has been illegal for unions to contribute to federal campaigns since 1943, but Rivera's contribution is perfectly legal because it is "soft money," whose very name has become a dirty word in American politics. Even those politicians who raise it, decry it. Gephardt, who rakes in oodles, would like to end it, and Rangel is downright passionate when it comes to denouncing what he flies around the country to scoop up. "There is not a fundraiser that I attend or speak at that I don't express my fear that unless we have an effective campaign reform law we may destroy the legislative system as we know it," Rangel tells U.S. News. "We need people like me to say: 'Stop us before we destroy ourselves!' "
Soft money is, at least, traceable, though some political contributions are not ("On Politics," Page 31). Thus far, Rangel's cry for self-discipline, however, has fallen on deaf ears. Soft-money totals from this year have almost doubled what was raised four years ago, and the fundraising is still going strong. Most of the money, however, is raised not in single, huge checks but in thousands of much smaller checks, which is why professional fundraisers like Jones are in such demand. "A national or statewide candidate needs a solid fundraiser two years in advance of the election," he says. "Many people planning on running for the Senate are hiring us four years out."
The largest single check from an individual for the Rangel birthday fundraiser was $150,000 from Richard Medley, president of a risk-analysis firm. Medley, a former Yale professor and Democratic Hill staffer, does not expect to have a dam named after him or to influence laws, even though he has given hundreds of thousands in soft money to the Democratic party over the years. Sitting in his lovingly restored TriBeCa office and wearing a golf shirt, slacks, and deck shoes without socks, he says, "We don't run a business where we care about what laws are passed. I don't think I've ever made a phone call to a politician." (Although they call him 10 to 20 times a week asking for money. He ducks almost all fundraising calls, except those from Jones, whom he respects.) "The reward is feeling involved, in having conversations at the highest level about policy, and, yes, about getting your ego stroked," Medley says. Like a lot of big donors, Medley is also a fundraiser, assembling groups of businesspeople to sit down and talk to big-name pols. Why would people pay good money to do that? Some might have a hidden agenda, such as trying to influence a particular piece of legislation, Medley admits, and some may have purely altruistic motives, but most, he says, give for one simple reason: They won't miss the money. When Medley assembled a group of businessmen at his home to meet Gore, the price of admission was $50,000. "A big George Bush guy wanted to confront Gore and he didn't mind giving $50,000 to do it," Medley says. "He gave Gore a hard time within the limits of civility. But he came away impressed with Gore."
The Big Ask. In Medley's world, a non-tax-deductible $50,000 is chump changeand it's a bigger world than many might think. There are 5 million millionaires in America, with 40,000 new ones being created each month. And you don't have to be that wealthy to give without pain. Before Bill Bradley ran for president, he commissioned a study that revealed a staggering 30 million Americans could afford to give $1,000 to a political campaign "without denting their lifestyle." But few people go around looking for ways to give away money. Most usually have to be separated from it, and that's where the fundraiser comes in, a fundraiser who will do what is called the Big Ask. The Big Ask is not difficultyou just ask the person to write you a checkbut many lawmakers will not do it. "Rangel does not like to do the Big Ask," Jones says. "I'll set up the meeting [with prospective donors] and Rangel will give a broad brush stroke on what it will mean to the country for Gephardt to be speaker and him to be chairman of Ways and Means and then the person who does the Big Ask is me."
Later, in his pink-walled Washington office"It used to be a dentist's office," Jones says, "but now we extract money instead of teeth"Jones checks his 40,000-name database and grabs the phone. "I'm smilin' and I'm dialin'," he says, punching the number of Patrick Mitchell, whom he describes as a longtime Democratic activist. "Patrick! David Jones! How you doin'? You were? Good. OK. You got that letter from me, right? OK. What we need you to do is raise $20,000 in hard, federal dollars if you can for Gephardt. That's the priority. If you can commit to 20 and give it your best shot, that would be good. I hear you, I hear you. That would be great." Jones erupts into laughter. Patrick, he explains later, had just said to him, "What do I get for that? A glass of wine and 10 calls from you?"
Because politics never stops, fundraising never stops. Which is not, some argue, really as bad as the public has been led to believe. Presidential scholar Gil Troy argues that the impact of money on politics is often exaggerated and that it was the growth of democracy and reforms to the system that really caused the increase in the need for money. And "currying the people's favor," he writes, has always been costly. The amount of money George Washington spent on his two elections to the Virginia House of Burgesses was several times the going price for a house or plot of land. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was well aware of the money that was being spread around the wards of Manhattan to ensure his re-election victory. In modern times, reformers wanted candidates picked by primaries and not party bosses, which was fair enough, but this meant the candidates now had to reach the people directly and this required money for television. In 1996, Bill Clinton spent $169 million to be re-elected president. In that same year, the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. spent $247 million advertising chewing gum. The huge amounts spent by campaigns are actually "modest," Troy argues, "considering how much it costs to attract attention in a nation of 265 million couch potatoes. . . . "
So David Jones dials for dollars every day. "Vince! David Jones! Let me ask you about your check. You writing 20? Beautiful! Wonderful! That's great! Great!"
Jim Capel, Rangel's chief of staff, attributes Jones's success to just one thing. "He loves it," Capel says. "Some day we're going to build a museum and have a statue of a guy with a hand in your pocketthat's David!"
Web Design-B. K. Goodman-2000-03