Sunday, March 7, 2004

In the universe of President Bush's campaign contributors, there's no place like home. Mr. Bush is relying on an elite group of mega-donors – dubbed Rangers and Pioneers – who have committed to collect as much as $200,000 each for his re-election.

The tailors of Bush's fund-raising cushion

President has new kind of cash collector - and Texas claims the most

By WAYNE SLATER / Dallas Morning News
March 7, 2004

AUSTIN – In the universe of President Bush's campaign contributors, there's no place like home. Mr. Bush is relying on an elite group of mega-donors – dubbed Rangers and Pioneers – who have committed to collect as much as $200,000 each for his re-election.

And nowhere are they more plentiful than the Lone Star State – home to 49 of 416 big-dollar backers, more than any other state.

Thanks to these well-connected loyalists, and their colleagues in other states, money was no problem when the Bush team opened its multimillion-dollar TV ad blitz last week, touting his performance in office and preparing the way for the matchup against Democrat John Kerry.

As a group, this nationwide network (Rangers commit to raise $200,000, Pioneers $100,000) accounts for nearly a third of the record-breaking $145 million reported to date by the Bush camp.

"These are folks who support the president because they believe in his record of achievement," said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign. "We're appreciative and humbled by the amount of support."

Critics say such contributors are buying access, influence and special treatment from those in power.

"It's bad for democracy because an elite few get access," said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group that tracks such contributions. "These Pioneers want something in return, and it's generally in the form of some policy or special access that cuts the rest of us out."

Mr. McDonald pointed to benefits – from ambassadorships to government contracts – that have gone to some of the president's most generous backers.

"These elite individuals are incredibly important to the campaign," he said. "That's why they're nurtured, and that's why they'll get something in return."

A computer-assisted review by The Dallas Morning News of Bush campaign reports found:

• Texas leads the nation in the number of Pioneers and Rangers with 49, followed by Florida with 47, California at 37 and New York at 31.

• Among Rangers from Texas are former state Sen. Teel Bivins, whom Mr. Bush named ambassador to Sweden; lobbyist Tom Loeffler, who represents a wide range of corporate interests in Washington; and Houston executive Raul Romero, whose engineering firm has received several million dollars in government contracts.

• Although few in number, Pioneers and Rangers from Texas account for the bulk of the donations to the Bush campaign from the Lone Star State. They provided half the $12.6 million total so far in the president's home state. Monday, on the eve of the Texas primary, Mr. Bush headlines fund-raisers in Dallas and Houston.

Kerry: Not so much

On the Democratic side, Mr. Kerry has raised relatively little from the state, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The Massachusetts senator has reported collecting about $290,000 from Texas, but he raised money in Houston over the weekend.

Federal law limits individual contributions to national candidates to $2,000. And new restrictions have effectively ended unlimited "soft money" donations. As a result, "bundling" networks such as the Pioneer and Ranger programs have become ever more important to national campaigns.

Under the program, fund-raisers solicit individual donations and then send them to the campaign in bundles – $200,000 for Rangers, $100,000 for Pioneers, $50,000 for Mavericks.

The Pioneer program, which Mr. Bush initiated in 2000, resembled a fund-raising effort called Team 100 that his father used. Wealthy donors who contributed at least $100,000 to Republican Party committees were designated Team 100 members and provided perks that included visits to the White House and meetings with GOP officeholders.

Under current law with its $2,000 limit, Pioneers and Rangers solicit sufficient individual contributions to meet their fund-raising goal. Each check is inscribed with the identification number that the Bush camp uses to keep tabs on how much each super-donor has raised.

Follow the money

Pioneers, Rangers and Mavericks span the corporate and financial world. They include lawyers, lobbyists, corporate executives, real estate developers and high-tech investors. Increasingly, both in Texas and other states, they represent financial and accounting firms in the spotlight after high-profile scandals and failures.

"We're seeing a lot more Pioneer activity coming out of Wall Street. It's the biggest growth area," said Mr. McDonald of Texans for Public Justice.

Mr. McDonald said securities and financial firms are concerned about federal legislation that has followed the collapse of Enron and generally support efforts in Congress to pre-empt state enforcement actions.

Richard Kilgust, a Dallas partner with the accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Cooper, is among Mr. Bush's 16 Rangers for the 2004 race. Pricewaterhouse executives have contributed at least $337,000 to the president's re-election. Mr. Kilgust could not be reached for comment.

Executives from the investment firm Goldman Sachs also are among Mr. Bush's top contributors of bundled cash – more than $272,000.

Peter Coneway, a limited partner with Goldman Sachs from Houston and a longtime Bush supporter, was a Pioneer in the 2000 race and is a Ranger this time. He did not return a telephone call.

Mr. Bush's top single source of campaign cash has come from outside Texas – Merrill Lynch executives, who have donated at least $457,704, said the Center for Responsive Politics. By comparison, Mr. Kerry's largest source of corporate bundling is the New York law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom ($106,000).

Full disclosure

The Kerry campaign last October named 32 fund-raisers who had collected $100,000, and 87 who had raised at least $50,000. In doing so, Mr. Kerry said, he was trying to "improve transparency" in his campaign. Mr. Bush also has posted online the names of his Pioneers and Rangers.

More than two dozen Bush Pioneers have received ambassadorships, including Nancy Brinker of Dallas (Hungary), Robert Jordan of Dallas (Saudi Arabia), Jeffrey Marcus of Dallas (Belgium) and Mr. Bivins of Amarillo (Sweden).

Three Pioneers are members of the Cabinet: Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, a longtime Bush friend from Midland; Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge; and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

Laredo bank president Dennis Nixon, who has risen from Pioneer in 2000 to Ranger this year, said elections are expensive and need vigorous fund raising. But he and other donors said they do not expect anything in return.

"The American system has always relied on a certain level of funding," Mr. Nixon said. "It takes a lot more organization and a lot more effort to be able to afford the campaigns themselves."

Ranger Michael Boone, a Dallas lawyer, said he pledged to raise $200,000 – much of it from partners with his law firm – because "I like him personally as a leader; I like his values."

Mr. Boone was among a group of school-finance experts who briefed Mr. Bush before his 1994 race for governor. He said he found Mr. Bush honest and direct.

"I am not doing this for any personal gain at all in the sense that I want something as a quid pro quo," he said. "Yeah, I'll get to go to a little Christmas party or something like that at the White House. But am I thinking of getting something? No, that's not part of my motivation. I like him and think he's a great leader.