Published on Sunday, August 13, 2000 in the New York Times
Companies Join Big-Donor List for Democrats
by John M. Broder and Richard A. Oppel Jr.
 
WASHINGTON - The Democratic convention starting on Monday in Los Angeles will be a display of wealth, power and influence as gaudy as the Republican show in Philadelphia.

Giving some of the most lavish parties will be Hollywood movie moguls, important Democratic sponsors at a time when the Democratic National Committee remains heavily dependent on its triad of financial support: trial lawyers, trade unions and Hollywood.

But the party has aggressively courted corporate support in recent years and now counts securities firms, real estate investors, telecommunications giants, software makers and insurance companies among its biggest donors. All will be well represented in Los Angeles at seven-figure fund-raising events for Democratic candidates and in the skyboxes ringing the Staples Center.

The Democrats have even topped the Republican Regents, the elite club of $250,000 donors, with a big-dollar cadre of their own, a group of 18 individuals and corporations called Leadership 2000 who have given or raised $350,000 or more. The club includes S. Daniel Abraham, chairman of Slim-Fast Foods; Peter G. Angelos, a trial lawyer and owner of the Baltimore Orioles; Peter L. Buttenwieser, a liberal Philadelphia philanthropist; and Louis Weisbach, a former high school football coach who is now a multimillionaire marketer of promotional products in Niles, Ill.

In the 18 months ending June 30, the Democratic National Committee had collected $118.6 million in soft-money donations, the unregulated gifts from unions, corporations and wealthy individuals, nearly erasing the traditional Republican advantage in such contributions. The Republican National Committee reported $137 million in soft-money donations over the same period.

The Democrats have raised nearly twice as much soft money in the current election season as they did at this point in 1996, when the party had collected $64.1 million. Most of the increase, however, is in the party's House and Senate campaign accounts, not at the Democratic National Committee, which has raised roughly the same amount as in 1996.

While unions are 6 of the party's 10 top donors, the bulk of the party's money is coming from corporations and individuals who are motivated both by ideology and an impulse to put down a marker on what might be a winning ticket.

"Right now the Republicans have been more successful with corporate money because they're in the lead in the presidential race and control the House," said Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College in Maine. "But I would expect we will see more corporate contributions to the Democrats after the convention. When Gore tightens up the numbers in the polls and Democrats look like they have a chance to take the House, I expect to see corporations hedging their bets."

Each of the three major sources of Democratic financing -- lawyers, unions and entertainment figures -- has increased its giving to the party over this point in 1996. The three industries have provided nearly a quarter of all soft-money gifts to the Democratic National Committee so far this election cycle.

The entertainment industry has given Democratic Party committees $5.8 million this year, compared with $5 million in 1996. Labor has contributed $11.3 million so far this year, compared with $9.28 million in 1996. The biggest increase is in gifts from lawyers and lobbyists, who have given the Democrats $11.6 million this year, compared with $8 million for the 1996 election cycle.

Some of the individual trial lawyers who have donated the biggest sums to the Democrats were involved in class-action lawsuits against the tobacco industry and received windfall fees. Mr. Angelos, for instance, has demanded that the state of Maryland pay him more than $1.1 billion for his part in negotiating the state's $4.6 billion settlement with cigarette makers. He and his law firm have given the Democrats $700,000.

Each constituency of the iron triangle has its reasons to be generous to Democrats.

Hollywood has generally supported the Democrats on social issues even as some Hollywood executives have expressed skittishness about Senator Joseph I. Lieberman's condemnation of some movies, television shows and songs, but their jitters have not yet slowed donations. In fact, there will be dozens of Democratic fund-raising receptions in Hollywood next week, including a post-convention party given by the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein.

Labor likewise is a longtime stalwart of Democratic politics. And while it has had its publicized fights with the Clinton administration, notably on trade, it remains ideologically attuned to the Clinton-Gore agenda. The administration has supported minimum-wage increases, middle-class tax breaks, expanded benefits for retirees under Medicare and increased spending on child care and preschool programs, all policies supported by the labor movement.

Organized labor has been highly critical of Gov. George W. Bush's record in Texas on wages, labor rights, immigration, the environment and health care. Teachers unions, an important Democratic constituency, abhor Mr. Bush's support for school vouchers.

And trial lawyers, put bluntly, despise Mr. Bush, who has made the trial bar a favorite whipping boy and has moved to limit awards in personal-injury and class-action lawsuits. The Clinton administration encouraged plaintiffs' lawyers to pursue multibillion-dollar lawsuits against cigarette companies which yielded huge fees to the lawyers. And Mr. Clinton won trial lawyers' undying devotion and financial support with his 1995 veto of a bill to curb shareholder lawsuits against companies with wildly fluctuating stock prices. Congress, in a rare act, overrode the president's veto, but the trial bar has not forgotten the president's act.

Labor is doing more than it ever has to support the Democratic ticket, according to John Sweeney, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., who provided a detailed account of labor's plans to help the Democratic ticket this fall. Contributions to Democratic committees, while significant, are but a fraction of the financial and shoe-leather efforts that unions are planning for the fall, he said.

"The Republicans are going to spend more than ever because they want that house over there so badly," Mr. Sweeney said in an interview in his office overlooking Lafayette Park and the White House. "We can never match them dollar for dollar. But we have people power and an ability to communicate with people one-on-one. They have to try to buy that kind of voter contact."

The A.F.L.-C.I.O. expects to spend about $48 million in the 2000 campaign, compared with about $35 million in 1996, union officials said. Much of the spending in the last election cycle was on television advertisements critical of Bob Dole, the Republican nominee.

But this year the union is redirecting its efforts away from television toward organizing its members to get out the vote. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. and its member unions plan to put 650 full-time workers on the street this fall, organizing every local, every factory and workplace, every shift to mobilize support and turn out union voters, said Steve Rosenthal, the labor federation's political director.

Other unions are planning independent expenditures as well. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees plans to spend roughly $3 million on outside efforts, including an advertising campaign sponsored by a union-created group, American Family Voices. The Service Employees International Union will spend as much as $5 million, in addition to its hefty contributions to Democratic committees and candidates.

"These are the largest contributions that the American labor movement has ever made," said Gerald McEntee, president of the 1.3-million-member federation. "Everything is on the table -- the presidency, the leadership in the House and now the Senate -- and our members understand the stakes."

The Democrats rewarded Mr. McEntee and Mr. Sweeney with prime-time speaking spots at the convention Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

Executives in the entertainment industry said that the relatively small increase in donations from Hollywood this year reflects two factors -- a certain complacency after controlling the White House for eight years, and a lower level of passion for Vice President Al Gore than for Mr. Clinton. Mr. Gore's selection of Senator Lieberman, an outspoken critic of the entertainment industry, as his vice-presidential choice has also dampened the ardor for the ticket in Tinseltown.

"There's always a different level of enthusiasm when you're trying to get back something; 1992 was a different dynamic because we were trying to get back the White House after 12 years," said Donna Bojarsky, a political adviser to several major Hollywood figures. "Then there's Clinton as a phenomenon out here that Gore just can't match. He'll have the money he needs, but the level of enthusiasm is different."

The trial lawyers have been more generous in their giving to Democrats and more explicit in the reasons. Governor Bush has harshly criticized what he calls the greed of the trial bar and tried to limit their fees for winning multibillion-dollar settlements from the tobacco companies. Mr. Bush's support for tort law changes and limits on settlements has made him anathema to plaintiffs' lawyers.

"He has dedicated himself to gutting consumer rights," said Ron Motley, one of the nation's most feared trial lawyers and the bane of the tobacco industry. "He's for the pharmaceutical industry and the oil industry, and he's going to get a substantial amount of money from the tobacco companies."

Senator Lieberman has advocated revision of tort law and limits on damages that plaintiffs can receive in damage suits, a position at variance with Mr. Gore's. Some trial lawyers have privately raised concerns about Mr. Lieberman's views, but for most plaintiffs' lawyers the Democratic ticket remains vastly preferable to the Republican alternative.

"As a general rule, his record on civil justice issues has not been real strong," said Debbie D. Branson, chairwoman of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. But she said Mr. Lieberman's presence on the ticket would not diminish trial lawyers' support for Mr. Gore.

"We know what Gore's commitment is, and we certainly know what the Bush agenda is," Ms. Branson said. "We're quite confident that a Gore administration will support the civil justice system and protect American families."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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