Bush Donors Wear Big Hat, Give Big Money ; in Free-for-All World of Texas Fund-Raising, His Backers Came From

By Scott Baldauf, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

Bush Donors Wear Big Hat, Give Big Money ; in Free-for-All World of Texas Fund-Raising, His Backers Came From


Scott Baldauf, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


People who have given money to Gov. George W. Bush come from all walks of life, from multimillionaire business-men to the auto mechanic who can barely scrape together a $100 contribution.

Collectively, though, political donations from people who helped elect the Texas governor reveal a certain reliance on the state's biggest businesses - energy, agriculture, banking, and, of course, lawyers and lobbyists.

While many analysts are poring over contributions to Governor Bush's presidential campaign, a close look at fund-raising during his 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial races also provides a revealing glimpse at the interests that helped to put Bush in office.

Take Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim, whose Pilgrim's Pride Inc., has drawn some $500,000 in pollution fines over the past decade. He gave Bush's gubernatorial campaign $125,000. Currently, his firm seeks a permit to inject 500 gallons a minute of chicken wastewater into underground wells around Pittsburg, Texas.

Or Kenneth Lay, chief executive officer of the Enron Corp., who helped make the once-sleepy Houston-based energy company into a world power. He gave $122,000 to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns, $1,000 to Bush's presidential campaign, and is now encouraging dozens of friends, family members, and employees to give Bush the $1,000 federal limit themselves.

More typical is the check from Weldon Willig, a high school football coach from The Woodlands, Texas. He gave $100.

With friends like these - and 170,000 other donors - Bush has become the top fund-raising candidate in American history. As "master of the universe" of Texas's - and now America's - fund- raising system, Bush's campaigns raised a combined $108 million for his gubernatorial and presidential bids since 1994.

His backers and some independent political analysts say such broad-based fund-raising inoculates him from charges that big donors get something more for their money than the sought-after "access."

"He's not at the mercy of a single group of contributors because his universe of contributors is so vast," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, a state political newsletter. "I know too many people who gave $100,000 contributions to Bush but couldn't get something from him when he became governor."

The quid-pro-quo perception

But there is also a large contingent of people who argue that big donors expect - and sometimes get - special consideration from politicians they have supported financially. And the Bush campaign, because of its mammoth reach and its heavy reliance on big business, epitomizes what's wrong with the campaign-finance system, some say.

"These contributors do have a special economic interest in seeing George W. Bush become president," says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group in Austin that has analyzed donors to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns. "They'll say ... they don't have an interest in policy [such as tax breaks or eased regulations]. But the truth is they do."

According to the Texans for Public Justice analysis, donations from 1,000 corporate executives accounted for nearly half of all Bush's gubernatorial campaign funds. (See chart, above.) That concentration of donor power is worrisome to many.

In states that allow large individual contributions or that have no contribution limits at all, as in Texas, "the lack of limits ... gives those top contributors an immense amount of power," says Samantha Sanchez, co-director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Helena, Mont. …

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