Buying the Election

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George W. Bush has complained that John McCain’s campaign-finance reform proposal “will unilaterally disarm our conservative principles and the Republican Party.” Bush’s principles are well-armed. With almost $70 million in hand for the primaries, Bush has raised as much as John McCain, Al Gore, and Bill Bradley combined. And if Bush wins the Republican nomination, he will no longer be limited to raising “hard money,” within federal campaign-finance guidelines established in response to Watergate.

When the general election campaign begins, both parties will begin raising soft money–in the form of unlimited donations from individuals and corporations. How much will Bush raise? “Take a look at what he has raised in the hard money and just imagine,” Texans for Public Justice executive director Craig McDonald told The New York Times. “Two hundred fifty million is probably a conservative guess.”

If those estimates are correct, the Times predicts that the Democratic candidate will be outspent by a three-to-one margin.

McDonald’s predictions are informed by a report Texans for Public Justice released in early January. “The Governor’s Gusher” is a labor-intensive study of the sources that provided the $41 million that Bush raised in two campaigns for governor. The money was raised in Texas, the Wild West of campaign finance, where no limits are imposed on how much a donor can contribute. McDonald suggests that Bush’s staggering success at raising money in Texas is a predictor of how he will fare raising soft money.

The Texans for Public Justice report, based on filings at the Ethics Commission, found what might be described as a consolidation of ownership of the Governor’s office. Ten of the $41 million came from 207 donors who gave Bush at least $25,000 each. Twenty-three individuals, who contributed more than $100,000 each, provided Bush’s two gubernatorial campaigns with $2.7 million.

Big contributors include the usual suspects investing in legislative and regulatory matters, which Bush, as Governor, was in a unique position to influence. Among the Top 23, for example, are:

Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim, of Pilgrim’s Pride Chicken in East Texas, who has been fined $500,000 for pollution violations over the past ten years. He is currently applying for a permit to inject 500 gallons per minute of liquefied chicken waste into underground wells near Mount Pleasant. ($125,000)Richard Rainwater of Fort Worth, an investor and longtime Bush funder and business associate. Rainwater’s Crescent Real Estate purchased two buildings from the state, at fire-sale prices, in 1996. ($100,000)William McMinn of Brenham, who has an interest in Sterling Chemical and the Sterling Group. Sterling Chemical, which releases 11 million pounds of toxic chemicals yearly, is regulated by the Texas Natural Resources Commission, to which Bush appointed commissioners who are utterly subservient to the industries they are charged to regulate. ($100,000)Kenneth Lay, C.E.O. of Enron, the Houston-based energy giant which had an interest in the energy deregulation bill passed during the last legislative session, and which is now moving into fiber optics. Lay is not only a G.W. Bush supporter. He hired two members of President Bush’s cabinet (James Baker and Robert Mosbacher) and Baker got on a plane with President Bush shortly after he left office and set out to sell Enron projects in Saudi Arabia. ($100,000)

No real surprises for anyone who has paid attention to how money influences public policy in Texas. (The $4,155,543 from tort-reform PACs helps explain Bush’s enthusiasm for tort reform. It also helps explain the ease with which tort-reform legislation made it through the Legislature, awash in tort reform contributions.)

“This is going to be a year of unprecedented amounts of corrupting influence money flowing into Washington,” said Fred Wertheimer, of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance advocacy group based in Washington. “It’s going to be an unmitigated disaster for the health and integrity of democracy.”

And now the Texas system, through loopholes and evasion of federal election laws, is being imposed on the federal system. Under those rules, there is no logical reason for W. to “disarm.”

Texans for Public Justice’s Report,”The Governor’s Gusher” is available at www.tpj.org or (512) 472-9770.