Politicians' cash hunt is on now12/01/2006
San Antonio Express-News
AUSTIN — The setting was a rear room in a private club. Two already-acquainted men in suits met briefly. Pleasantries were exchanged.
A check passed between them.
This wasn't a business deal or scene from a gangster movie, but a run-of-the-mill political fundraiser, where lobbyists ply elected officials with contributions, hoping, hinting — though never explicitly asking — for political favors down the road.
Lobbyist Raul Liendo wasn't keen to explain why he forked over $250 to a San Antonio lawmaker in the weeks leading up to the 2007 legislative session. He was just following orders from his client, TXU Energy's political action committee.
I'm just the delivery guy," Liendo said at a Tuesday night fundraiser for Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.
Liendo didn't want to discuss whether the commingling of money and politics best serves the public good, saying, "I just work with the system that's in place."
As a hired gun for an energy giant, Liendo was a bit player in the elaborate though rarely displayed ritual of political fundraising. It's a busy time for him: Austin's high season of check writing and catered receptions in the parlors of exclusive clubs.
For politicians, the period between the general election and the barring of political contributions for 30 days before the Legislature convenes is a last-minute scramble for funds.
This year, that window of opportunity ends Dec. 9. For lobbyists, it is a time to deepen existing friendships — and a chance for those who backed losing candidates to mend fences with the winners.
"They call it 'the late train,'" said Andrew Wheat, research director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based group that backs campaign finance reform.
Embracing the railroad motif, at least one politician made clear he wasn't holding any grudges.
"Choo-Choo ... It's not too late!" Rep.-elect John Zerwas, a Republican from the Houston area, wrote in his train-illustrated invitations to a Thursday night reception at the Headliners Club. Zerwas did not return calls for comment.
The single biggest fundraising week of 2002 — the last year there was a gubernatorial race — occurred during the year-end late train period, Wheat said. According to his numbers, more than $6 million was raised that week. Fundraising totals for 2006 won't be known until next month.
Castro said his fundraiser at the Austin Club, to which he allowed access to a reporter, was his chance to repay $12,000 in campaign debt incurred in his race against Republican challenger Nelson Balido.
"I'm not trying to make off like a bandit," Castro said.
Looking dapper in a navy suit, he stood for two hours in the stately President's Room beside a table of potato chips, popcorn and mixed nuts, greeting a dozen or so guests.
There were handshakes, chitchat, and, almost invariably, the passing of an envelope, which Castro tucked discreetly into the pocket of his pressed shirt. Most lobbyists stayed no more than five minutes.
Castro raised $9,800 that night. Nursing a hot chocolate afterward, he said he'd like to see less special interest money in politics. But there's been little appetite in Texas, he noted, for taxpayer-financed campaigns.
So for now, he thinks the best chance for reducing the effect of special interest money is to back campaign contribution limits. He hopes that will pass next year.
Upstairs, in the Millennium Room, a newcomer, Rep.-elect Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, was hosting a fundraiser of his own — and showing his position on the learning curve.
Campaign workers had sought contributions of as much as $5,000, a faux pas given Miles' newness, according to veteran political consultant Bill Miller.
"When people ask for these exorbitant amounts it tells you two things: They don't know the way the system works up here or the hierarchy of the pecking order," Miller said.
"The caboose," he added, "is the freshmen-elects."
In most cases, incoming freshmen ask for a maximum contribution of $1,000, but that doesn't mean they're going to get it, Miller said.
Reached later, Miles agreed he had some learning to do.