White's family appeal proving to be lucrativeBy KRISTEN MACK
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Contributing to Mayor Bill White is a family affair.
Nearly a third - $622,500 - of the $1.95 million he raised this year came from 59 couples or families whose combined donations effectively raise the ceiling on the city's campaign finance limits.
"That's a huge percentage of the money he raised," said Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans For Public Justice, a nonprofit organization that tracks money and politics. "It is a legal way to circumvent limits."
Indeed, the limits only are imposed on individuals. Multiple contributions from one household are entirely legal.
Real estate developer Walt Mischer and his family were among White's biggest contributors, tipping the scales at $25,000. Mischer, his wife Leila, mother Mary and sister Paula each gave $5,000. For good measure, his company, Mischer Investments, chipped in another $5,000.
"It's not a way to get around anything. It's available. This is consistent with prior contributions," Mischer said of his family's participation in local politics and its particular affection for White.
"We have supported him from the moment he decided he was going to run. If he were running for a different elected office before or after mayor, we would give him the maximum."
Mischer noted that during Bob Lanier's first race for mayor, there were no limits in place. In fact, Lanier received notable contributions of $50,000 each from investor Fayez Sarofim and gallery owner Meredith Long.
The next year, campaign finance limits went into effect. The current maximum allowable contribution - $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for political action committees - has been on the city's books since 1992.
As previously reported, more than half of White's campaign donors contributed the maximum. The large donations helped White reach his self-imposed $2 million fundraising benchmark largely in one night.
Andrew Segal, of Boxer Property Management Corp., and his wife and three children, all of whom are listed as students on White's campaign filing, contributed a total of $25,000.
Popular with attorneys
It's not just families who are contributing in blocks. Lawyers at Susman Godfrey, where White began his legal career, ponied up $27,500. The largest number of attorneys associated with one firm, seven lawyers at Baker Botts, gave White $14,500. The Baker Botts Amicus Fund, a PAC, donated another $5,000.
None of this is to suggest that these kind of contributions are a new phenomenon. But now that candidates for city elective office are required to file their campaign finance reports electronically, it is easier to search for commonalities between contributors.
"It was one of the loopholes that was created when campaign finance laws were put in place," Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, said of couples writing separate checks to candidates.
"Having observed many fundraising operations, it's not unusual to see couples stand next to each other and sign the checks. That's part of expectation."
Herb Butrum, White's fundraiser, agreed it is nothing out of the ordinary.
"Many of them are playing at this level because they recognize his exceptional leadership and they want to do everything they can to help continue that," Butrum said. "I don't think it's any more complicated than that."
No limit in state races
City candidates aren't the only ones subject to limits. In federal races, the maximum contribution is $2,300 per individual. In state races, however, it's no holds barred. People can contribute as much as they want and often do.
That prospect has to excite White, who has aspirations for higher office.
Remember, White spent a record-breaking $9.7 million to win the mayor's seat in 2003, his first race for elected office. Nearly $2 million of that was his own money.
"Bill White has made a great effort to convince wealthy and powerful people to join his cause," political consultant Dan McClung said. "He has connections to them better than most people do."
White isn't expected to draw serious opposition for his third and final mayoral term. What will be interesting is whether his high-dollar donors contribute to this degree if he runs statewide.
Should that happen, the mayor - a former chairman of the Texas Democratic Party who was deputy energy secretary during Bill Clinton's administration - no longer will be able to cloak himself in a nonpartisan veil.
And those Republicans he has won over may feel obligated to saddle up with one of their own.