State's big political spender increased contributionsHomebuilder Bob Perry spent $6.7 million on state campaigns.
By Laylan Copelin
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
This fall, Houston lawyer John O'Quinn threw a $2.7 million lifeline to the sinking campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell. San Antonio businessman Jim Leininger spent millions this year targeting opponents of school vouchers.
Yet, in the world of big-moneyed politics, Houston homebuilder Bob Perry has no peer, according to a new report by Texans for Public Justice, a group that supports campaign finance restrictions.
Bob Perry Builder's donations rose 44 percent from past two-year election cycle.
During this election cycle, Perry spent $6.7 million, 44 percent more than in the past two-year cycle, in statewide and legislative campaigns to maintain his status as the top individual donor in Texas.
At the federal level, Perry eclipsed billionaire financier George Soros to become the top individual donor, with $9.3 million, mostly to conservative committees not limited in the money they can accept.
"It's shocking," said Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice. "Bob Perry is an ATM."
Perry, Leininger and O'Quinn also are poster boys for state legislation aimed at capping an individual's combined political donations at $100,000 for each two-year election cycle.
State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, is a co-author of the legislation.
Fear, he said, might be the motivating factor for change.
Lobbyists who traditionally held sway find that they have less power unless they are representing a big donor such as a Perry.
"All the folks who lobby and give $500 or $5,000 are finding it doesn't mean as much," Strama said.
For lawmakers, the fear of a big donor targeting them might unite Democrats and Republicans behind the bill, Strama said.
He vowed that his measure would limit donations from all individuals, whether business owners or partners in law firms.
"It's when both sides fear the power of big donors that we might pass this bill," Strama said.
In Leininger's case, the San Antonio businessman who favors Republicans went after his own kind, targeting GOP incumbents who opposed a pilot program to test school vouchers.
O'Quinn represents the return of the personal injury lawyer willing to spend millions on a Democratic candidate.
Ken Hoagland, a spokesman for Leininger, acknowledged that the momentum for vouchers might have slowed, because candidates he supported lost more races than they won. But he denied that the losses represented a referendum on vouchers.
"We're working harder than ever," he said. "Let's hope the merits of the issue can eclipse the politics."
Unlike some donors' self-interest, Hoagland said of Leininger, "There is nothing in it for him except helping children."
In Perry's case, spokesman Anthony Holm said, all the donations are transparent, and his motive is to support candidates and policy that will create jobs.
Perry favored Republicans, particularly in competitive races, but his money was so pervasive, it also fell to some safe Democratic incumbents.
In Central Texas, Perry gave Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, $15,000, but he placed losing bets ($70,000 and $65,000, respectively) on Ben Bentzin and Bill Welch, two Travis County Republicans who lost bids for the Legislature.
His big donations went to the Republican Party ($780,000), Texans for Lawsuit Reform ($601,000) and the political action committee for Hillco Partners, a lobbying firm that represents Perry ($545,000).
In some instances, Perry donated six figures to candidates.
He gave $380,000 to Gov. Rick Perry (no relation), $320,265 to Attorney General Greg Abbott, $285,000 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and $250,000 to Comptroller-elect Susan Combs.
He gave $262,500 to Houston Rep. Joe Nixon's unsuccessful bid to become a state senator, then sent $55,000 to the eventual winner, Houston radio talk show host Dan Patrick.
That kind of "late-train money," when donors give to the winners after backing the losing candidate, is not unusual.
Between Election Day and Saturday, the last day to donate before the legislative session starts, winning candidates typically collect about 15 percent of their total donations, Wheat said.
This week is the peak, with back-to-back-to-back fundraisers scheduled for Austin's private clubs. Four years ago, Wheat said, winning candidates raised $6 million in one mid-December week.
Neither Leininger nor Perry will fight legislation capping their donations, their spokesmen said.
"I don't believe Mr. Perry will be working against that bill in any shape, form or fashion," Holm said. "But it should be fair to all sides."
Hoagland said of Leininger: "He will play by whatever the rules are."
In June, Wheat said that only about 85 individuals had given $100,000 or more. But he added that they represented about one of every four dollars given by individuals.
Wheat said he gives the cap little chance of becoming law.
The state leadership — the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker — has not championed the effort.
No one ordered an interim study of the issue, a sign that it is on the list of concerns for the leadership.
"If you could have a fair, straight vote, it would be interesting," Wheat said. "But I don't know if the leadership is going to let that happen."