Thursday, October 26, 2006

Three mega-donors have been financially carrying the state's political parties in recent months, providing the vast majority of the money raised in state bank accounts by the Republicans and Democrats, campaign disclosure reports show. Read the article at the Dallas Morning News

Wealthy trio give bulk of party donations

Men say they're aiding important Texas causes, not buying influence

Thursday, October 26, 2006
By CHRISTY HOPPE / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Three mega-donors have been financially carrying the state's political parties in recent months, providing the vast majority of the money raised in state bank accounts by the Republicans and Democrats, campaign disclosure reports show.

Dallas trial lawyer Fred Baron indirectly provided $317,000 of the $470,000 taken in by the Democratic Party – or 67 cents of every dollar raised – this year.

For the Republicans, San Antonio physician-turned-businessman James Leininger and Houston homebuilder Bob Perry together gave $680,000 of the state party's $1.2 million in contributions.

The donors say they merely want to help the parties – Mr. Baron to rebuild the Democratic Party, Mr. Perry to fund a statewide get-out-the-vote effort, and Dr. Leininger to support a party that agrees with him on school vouchers.

But to some, the squaring-off represents yet another battle in the long-running feud between trial lawyers and big business.

Campaign watchdogs note that the largesse means that a very few wealthy people are setting the agenda for Texas. The contributions reflect a similar trend in giving to Texas candidates; small numbers of donors are giving the vast majority of money to candidates for governor and other offices.

"Their money makes a difference on what issues the political system responds to," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice. "The money determines who runs, who wins and what issues get talked about."

'Smaller donors'

GOP executive director Jeff Fisher said the state accounts of the party don't reflect the broader giving that is directed toward its federal account – where most small donations go because of provisions under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act.

"We have a very diverse fundraising plan that really through the years has depended more on smaller donors than larger donors," Mr. Fisher said.

He said, though, that Mr. Perry and Dr. Leininger are aiding the fight against wealthy trial lawyers who he believes want unfettered rights to sue and to sap corporations.

"These are people who are committed to conservative business principles and are antithetical to trial lawyers who are after frivolous lawsuits," Mr. Fisher said. "There is always going to be a competition between the two groups."

For the Democrats, who don't control any statewide office and have seen their fundraising abilities diminish, Mr. Baron has established the Texas Democratic Trust political action committee, and he has provided most of its $1.4 million. So far this year, the trust has funded two-thirds of the Democratic Party's state account.

"The difference here is not ideology- or policy-driven," said party spokeswoman Amber Moon. "You have an investor who wants to see the rebuilding of the party and the inclusion of people."

Ms. Moon said that on the other side, Mr. Perry is trying to protect business and Dr. Leininger is pushing for school vouchers.

"They are expecting bang for their buck. They want someone adhering to their policy," she said.

Mr. Baron said that he sold his interest in his old law firm Baron & Budd several years ago and that his donation has nothing to do with lawsuit limits.

"This is not an issue-driven thing with me. This isn't tort reform; it's not an education program; it's not something other than creating a platform for democratic ideas in Texas," Mr. Baron said.

He said that the Democratic Party was "defunct operationally" last year and that he decided to provide the seed money to rebuild its infrastructure.

"The money was designed to attract small donors and regular people to get involved in the Democratic Party," he said.

On the Republican side, the donors also said they are simply helping a party advance philosophies that they share.

Anthony Holm, a spokesman for Mr. Perry, said the donations were "to help the business environment in Texas and to help grow jobs."

Mr. Perry dismisses the notion that his hefty donations give him undue influence, Mr. Holm said.

"The Republican Party of Texas is made up literally of millions of people. There's no way for one person to have such an impact on it," he said.

Dr. Leininger believes deeply that school vouchers are the best way to give low-income children the best education opportunities, and the Republican Party has been the most receptive to his ideas, said spokesman Ken Hoagland.

"It's fair to ask if these large contributions have too much influence on the process," Mr. Hoagland said. "But without these kinds of generous contributions, we would see the candidates and the party overwhelmed by contributions from the richest plaintiff lawyers in Texas."

The case for a cap

The escalation in giving underscores the need for a $100,000 cap per election cycle on how much any individual can give, said Mr. McDonald of Texans for Public Justice.

"Individuals, no matter what party, shouldn't have the mega-power that they do because they have huge checkbooks," Mr. McDonald said.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry opposes such a cap, saying Texans can judge for themselves whether contributions are appropriate. His Democratic opponent, Chris Bell, favors a cap, while independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn has not called for a limit. Independent Kinky Friedman proposes publicly financed elections. Each of the candidates has taken large donations from a handful of contributors.

"It matters, because in Texas, where it's efficient to go get huge amounts of money, the political parties and the candidates start ignoring the middle class and the small donors," Mr. McDonald said.