Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Last year, Texas Republicans used political muscle, great big buckets of it, to create the state's new GOP-friendly congressional districts. Now, several Texas Republican candidates are using personal money, great big buckets of it, to try to win those seats.

For GOP hopefuls, pockets run deep

Congressional candidates are financing their own campaigns

By Ken Herman, Austin American-Statesman
Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Last year, Texas Republicans used political muscle, great big buckets of it, to create the state's new GOP-friendly congressional districts.

Now, several Texas Republican candidates are using personal money, great big buckets of it, to try to win those seats.

The personal cash in the races is so huge (approaching $4 million in a local race) that candidates who have put in $425,000 or less are in the second tier of self-funders and are complaining about the candidates in the top tier.

Atop the list of self-funded Texas congressional candidates, and perhaps atop the national list, is Houston businessman Ben Streusand. He has poured more than $2.3 million into his effort to win the GOP nomination for the 10th Congressional District.

The winner of the eight-candidate race, with a March 9 primary leading to a probable April 13 runoff, faces no Democrats in November for the Austin-to-Houston district.

Streusand, who says in a TV ad, "I've never seen a budget that couldn't be cut," has a campaign budget aimed at making sure his name -- previously unknown outside of GOP inner circles -- becomes well-known.

"I decided a long time ago that if I were ever going to run for public office, there was only one way I wanted to do it, and that was to run where I financed it myself," he said. "I did not want to owe anybody anything if I got elected. So I waited until I was financially able to be self-sufficient, and I have been very blessed and I have been a success in business, and I have a desire to give back to my country."

Streusand said that to date, he has collected $100,000 to $150,000 from donors.

In the battle of the big wallets, Streusand, founder of a mortgage banking company, is ahead of self-funding runner-up Michael McCaul of Austin. The former federal prosecutor has ponied up $647,000 of his own money.

Streusand and McCaul have set such a torrid personal spending pace that opponent Dave Phillips, a Houston-area lawyer who has put in $422,000 of his own money, mildly bristles when put in the big-spender category.

"You're talking about Ben and Mike, and they've blown right through the million-dollar mark," Phillips said, expecting that McCaul will top that milestone. "I'm in the few hundreds thousand dollar range. We just run a grass-roots campaign. I hope I don't get classed up with them."

The other big personal spenders in the race are Houston-area candidates John Devine, a former state district judge, and Brad Tashenberg, a public relations executive in a firm founded by his father.

Each has put in about $200,000 of personal money.

Devine declined to discuss the matter. Campaign spokesman Rob Hurlburt said his candidate's money, relatively speaking, is pocket change in this race.

The personal spending by Streusand, McCaul and Phillips, Hurlburt said, is noteworthy.

"It clearly indicates that in our modern political scene that people believe they can buy elections," he said.

It is inconceivable, Hurlburt said, that anyone could say that someone spending, say, $200,000 of his own money is engaged in that kind of effort.

"Heavens no," Hurlburt said. "That just indicates a personal commitment."

Big races, big money

The local congressional race (which also includes Austin banker Teresa Doggett Taylor, retired Brenham pilot Pat Elliott and former Houston City Council Member John Kelley) is among several in Texas in which candidates are showing high-dollar personal commitment.

In North Texas, state Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, has poured $300,000 of personal money into his four-candidate primary race in open District 24.

"It's a brand-new district with 650,000 people, only 250,000 of whom had ever heard of me," said Marchant, a land developer.

In Houston, George Fastuca, a former Enron senior vice president in a six-way fight for the GOP nomination for a House seat in District 2, had put $290,000 into his campaign through mid-February. He said this week that he has put in additional money, but would not say how much.

Opponent Mark Henry, owner of a Houston-area private airplane terminal and charter air service, is into his own pocket for $425,000 so far.

The GOP nominee in that district will face U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, who faces an uphill battle in the new, GOP-dominant district.

The most curious self-funded effort came from businessman Steve Clark of Rockwall, who put in $256,000 of his own money before deciding not to run in District 4. Clark, a Republican, pulled out when Rep. Ralph Hall, D-Rockwall -- facing the reality of a GOP-dominated district -- became Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall.

Clark spent very little before dropping out, meaning he can probably get most of his money back.

The self-funding numbers in Texas are impressive by national standards. Reports filed through Feb. 18 showed that the nation's 765 U.S. House candidates had raised, from all sources, an average of $305,000 apiece, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Across the state, congressional candidates spending their own money say the prolonged 2003 redistricting battle and the ensuing court fight left a challenging combination of new districts and a short campaign season.

"Raising (money) during that month in limboland was rough," Marchant said of the period between legislative approval of the new map and OKs from the courts and U.S. Department of Justice.

In the 10th District, the cost of candidacy is elevated because candidates advertise in Austin and Houston. Very few congressional districts in the nation include more than one major media market.

Phillips talks of his personal money as "seed money."

"To see that a candidate is willing to seed the campaign and put some of his own money up front where his mouth is, that's how you launch a grass-roots campaign," he said. McCaul notes he has raised more money from other people ($182,000 through the most recent reporting period) than any of the other candidates.

"I think if you're the tops in terms of self-funded campaigns in the nation, that draws some scrutiny in terms of appearance," McCaul said in a reference to Streusand. "The reason I've chosen the fund-raising route is I don't want to give the appearance that I'm trying to buy the election."

McCaul, acknowledging the significant personal money he has put in the race, said, "Unfortunately in politics, you need money to get your message out."

Fortunately for McCaul, he has some money he can count on.

"We have some personal wealth," said McCaul, son-in-law of Lowry Mays, CEO of media giant Clear Channel Communications.

Candidates who use personal wealth invite the buying-the-election charge. Those who use other people's money invite the beholden-to-special-interests allegation.

Pick your poison, says Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, a campaign watchdog group.

"Reformers are not happy with either horn of that dilemma," said McDonald, who favors a combination of contributions and public financing.

He has some sympathy for the beholden-to-nobody argument proffered by self-funders. But he has antipathy for what that concept could produce.

"The danger is we get a ruling class of lawmakers who don't share the same values or experiences of the average voter," he said.

The real bottom line is that self-funding is a gamble. Losers probably never will see their money again. Winners, however, can tap into the special-interest money that tends to flow to incumbents.