Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Inside Fernando Mateo's Westchester County home, alongside the artwork and other personal mementos, the successful entrepreneur and immigrant from the Dominican Republic keeps a photo of himself standing next to President George W. Bush, both beaming.

Bringing in the big bucks for Bush

Some seek access, some are true believers: a look at the 'Rangers' behind Bush's fund-raising

August 31, 2004

Inside Fernando Mateo's Westchester County home, alongside the artwork and other personal mementos, the successful entrepreneur and immigrant from the Dominican Republic keeps a photo of himself standing next to President George W. Bush, both beaming.

The photo is just one of many tangible results Mateo points to as a "Ranger" in the Bush campaign - one of 221 top fund-raisers who helped the president collect a record- shattering $228 million so far in this election season, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.

Unlike many contributors who do not like to talk about their donations, Mateo - who runs a successful floor covering company in New York City and heads an advocacy group called Hispanics Across America - quite candidly said he hopes his efforts will pay off with more influence in government decisions.

"I go through my Rolodex and start making phone calls, and what helps is the access that this has given me," said Mateo, who estimates he's raised $220,000 so far. "Usually, Hispanics are not counted in making donations because they are considered mostly poor and middle-class so we don't get the opportunity to be counted." He was proud of being invited to the White House Christmas party in 2002. And yesterday afternoon, he went to the podium as a rising star to speak briefly on the first day of the convention.

Access to the White House and influence on important governmental decisions is a driving force among many top fund-raisers, say independent analysts who track these donations.

Raising a bundle

Both Bush and his Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry - who's raised more than $186 million - have relied on top fund-raisers to "bundle" donations that cannot exceed $2,000 per individual under the law. Fund-raisers gathering $200,000 for Bush are called "Rangers," and "Pioneers" bundle $100,000; those who raised $100,000 or more for Kerry are dubbed "Vice Chairs" in the campaign.

Among the prominent Rangers for Bush in New York are Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson IV and Gov. George Pataki. This year, Wall Street is so prominently supporting the president that you can call Manhattan's Upper East Side "Bush Country" - with its 10021 ZIP code exceeding all other locations in the United States, including Houston, as the address of top contributors to Bush, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks political spending. Nevertheless, Manhattan's 10021 ZIP code is also the top watering hole for John Kerry's campaign. According to records, Kerry has collected even more money from this area than Bush - $2.022 million to the president's $1.298 million.

Critics say that, during the past four years, many major fund-raisers for Bush have gotten quite a return on their political investments. They've benefited from reduction on taxes for the wealthy, gotten to keep more of their Wall Street dividends, and their businesses have flourished from changes in energy and health care policies. They've also been named to four cabinet positions, 29 ambassadorships and several have spent the night in the Lincoln bedroom.

"Big business really owns this administration and they've done it within the law by the networking of corporate executives," said Joan Claybrook, president of the nonpartisan Public Citizen, another group that tracks campaign donations and their effect on public policy as part of its program called "White House For Sale." "They've gotten such payback that they are making more than they gave."

The Bush campaign adamantly denies its fund-raisers are seeking to buy access or unduly affect public policy.

Disclosure debate

While Kerry and other Democrats have been reluctant at times to name their top fund-raisers, Bush's campaign has proudly touted the names of its top fund-raisers on its Web site, encouraging a competition.

"The president believes in full disclosure and a transparency in who is building up our campaign," said campaign spokesman Kevin Madden. He noted how the public naming of top fund-raisers - not required under the current federal election law - has brought greater "energy" to the campaign. "There's always going to be an element of reflexive cynicism that drives critics. But the idea of Rangers and Pioneers and Mavericks is that they are often leaders in this campaign."

While Kerry has raised far more than any Democratic presidential nominee in history, Bush's fund-raising juggernaut is unprecedented, experts say. In addition to direct Bush fund-raising efforts by 221 Rangers and 323 Pioneers, the Republican National Committee has compiled 69 "Super Rangers" giving $300,000 or more to the party's overall efforts this campaign. Among these "Super Rangers," more than 45 are also Rangers gathering another $200,000 directly for the Bush campaign - adding up to at least $500,000 raised for the GOP by these individuals.

Enron's influence

Four years ago, then-Gov. Bush relied on many Texas-area friends and allies, particularly those from the energy field, to help fund his fledgling campaign. Among his top rainmakers was Kenneth Lay, then president of Enron Corp., who was indicted this year on fraud and conspiracy charges in the energy trading company's collapse. Back in 2000, Lay was a prominent Pioneer who raised more than $100,000 for Bush.
In total, Enron and its executives raised $413,000 for Bush during that campaign, including donations for the inaugural, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, another campaign study group.

"When you see so many donations coming from one company, you have to ask why," said Steven Weiss, of the Center for Responsive Politics. "And what they wanted was to influence legislation and get their opinion heard on federal energy policy."

Weiss points out that Lay and other Enron officials were rewarded for their support with top-level access to the White House, including an April 2001 meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney about national energy policy.

Wall Street's choice

This year, New York is among the top five states for major Bush fund-raisers, including 19 Rangers and 26 Pioneers. Although several corporate executives are giving to Kerry as well, records show the clear favorite of America's financial industry is Bush. Morgan Stanley chief Philip J. Purcell, Merrill Lynch's E. Stanley O'Neal, and John Mack, then with Credit Suisse First Boston Corp., are all Rangers. Six of the top 10 businesses whose employees donate the most to Bush are Wall Street companies.

Typical of Bush's Wall Street supporters is Stephen M. Lessing of Cold Spring Harbor, a Ranger. Lessing, an executive of the Lehman Brothers investment firm, is also vice chair of the Securities Industry Association, representing some 600 investment banks, broker-dealers and mutual fund companies. Lessing ran the group's political action committee until last November. In its 2003 annual report, the association said it pushed hard to reduce taxes on capital gains and dividends - which the Bush administration strongly supported. The old rate of 38.6 percent wound up being cut to 15 percent. Wall Street also was pleased by tax breaks for the wealthy. A report earlier this month by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the richest 1 percent of Americans are paying a smaller portion of the country's tax burden thanks to three years of Bush administration tax cuts. Crunching the report's numbers, Democrats said the richest 1 percent of Americans - who average $1.2 million a year - will get to hold on to 10.1 percent more of their money while middle-income families keep just 2.3 percent more of theirs.

Lessing declined to be interviewed, but Securities Industry Association spokesman Dan Michealis said its members' support for Bush should be no surprise. "The administration's policies have been good for investors and good for the industry," he said.

Wall Street, in the wake of Enron and other corporate scandals, is more generous to Bush this year than in 2000, when Democratic rival and then-Vice President Al Gore received substantial Wall Street support.

This year, more than a dozen of Bush's Rangers and Pioneers belong to top Wall Street firms accused of conflict-of-interest violations in the past few years. One case brought by the government involving Lehman Brothers and several other firms resulted in a $875-million settlement. Critics said these actions left many executives worried about future actions by state regulators, such as New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, and favoring a proposal to leave future investigations in the hands of federal regulators considered to be more friendly to Wall Street.

A corporate message

"Bush sent the message - none too subtly - that he was a corporate guy and would do what the financial industry wanted," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based research group. He said the contributions pouring in from Wall Street are to ensure that the Bush administration will "muzzle the aggressiveness of attorney generals like Spitzer."

Another New York-based Bush Ranger this year is Hank McKinnell, chief of Pfizer Inc., the Manhattan pharmaceutical giant and one of the world's most profitable firms with 122,000 employees and $45 billion in revenue last year. In 2001 and 2002, McKinnell also served as chairman of the board of the drug industry's trade association, the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, which heavily lobbied the Bush administration for the industry's political agenda.

Pfizer and other drug companies strongly supported last year's successful Medicare bill that included a controversial prescription drug benefit for seniors that widens availability, particularly for low-income elderly, but limits the government's ability to negotiate prices with private pharmaceutical companies. The pharmaceutical industry also opposed efforts to allow cheaper prescription drugs to be imported illegally from Canada. Both measures have been embraced by the Bush administration.

Craig Aaron of Public Citizen, which tracked the effect of donations and lobbying money on the Medicare Bill, said Pfizer will "make a lot of money from the [Medicare] drug bill and it will prevent the government from negotiating lower prices."

McKinnell declined to be interviewed. But Pfizer spokesman Jack Cox pointed out that McKinnell's individual efforts as a Bush Ranger are different from the company's political action committee, which Cox said divides its donations "in a bipartisan way with 55 percent going to Republicans and 45 percent going to Democrats."

"The American public is incredibly cynical on campaign donations and the impact on public policy," said Public Citizen's Claybrook. "I don't think people realize how extensive these givebacks are in the Bush administration as a payback for their contributions."

Money not only motivation

Some top Bush fund-raisers in New York say they're driven by more than just financial interests, often motivated by the fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Sander Gerber, a 37-year-old Manhattan financier who raised about $25,000 for Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, estimates he'll help raise more than $500,000 for Bush and the GOP this year.

Why the about-face? "9/11 had a big impact on me - I know people who were lost," explained Gerber, who said he knows other former Democratic supporters behind Bush this year. "I am not alone - there are other people like me. This is a defining moment for the American electorate and America's safety for the next generation."

Michael Moskowitz, president of Equity Now, a mortgage lender in Manhattan, is a "Pioneer" who immigrated here as a teenager from the Ukraine and is now a strong Bush backer. His loyalty, he said, is based on political beliefs, not financial interest.

"I'm not sure who would be best for my business," admits Moskowitz. "I send some e-mails to friends and business acquaintances who I felt would see eye-to-eye. I look at the world around me and I think the other side is clueless about America's safety in the world."

Unfazed by this debate, Mateo said he's going to keep raising as much as he can for Bush and the Republicans, even after they leave this week's convention in New York. "You call 20 of your best friends and get them to raise $5,000 each and promise they'll get photos or a mention for their effort," he said of his approach.

As a convention delegate for New York, Mateo said he will be talking to the press about Republican appeals to Hispanics. He also plans to attend parties at various Manhattan locales, including the Copacabana. Earlier this year, Mateo talked to Bush at a political event on Long Island and said it's "more than likely" he'll see the president again at the convention.