TUNICA, Miss., Aug. 24 — The dozens of shiny new green golf carts were lined up with military precision, like rows of miniature tanks prepared to charge onto a well- groomed battlefield.
But that was where the war analogy ended. These golfers — House Democrats who are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, joined by a group of Washington's most powerful corporate lobbyists — said they were adversaries only on the links, not in the halls of Congress.
"It's all about relationships, and these are my friends," said Kate Moss, a lobbyist for SBC Communications, adjusting her visor against the harsh sun. Kyle Rogers of the American Gas Association prepared to brave the swampy heat for a chance to tee off with the lawmakers.
The backslapping on the golf course was part of a $750,000 weekend fund-raiser sponsored by the caucus's political action committee in Tunica, a gambling-and-golf mecca close to Memphis. And it was a stark reminder of why it has proved so difficult in Congress to overhaul the campaign finance system.
Participants at a golf outing on Friday greeted Representative Bennie G. Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, left, the sponsor of the Congressional Black Caucus's fund-raising weekend in Tunica County, Miss.
(Rollin Riggs for The New York Times)
Representatives Robert C. Scott, Democrat of Virginia, left, and Earl F. Hilliard, Democrat of Alabama, discussed campaign finance.
(Rollin Riggs for The New York Times)
Black politicians who were once crucial supporters of an overhaul — most important, of a moratorium on soft money, the unregulated donations that have come to dominate the campaign finance debate — have changed their minds.
A bill to ban soft money is now stalled in the House. But if it comes up for a vote this fall, no group of lawmakers is likely to be more influential in the bargaining than the 38 members of the black caucus.
As they were courted this weekend on the golf course and over fine food and wine by lobbyists for corporations that are some of the biggest soft-money donors on Capitol Hill, several caucus members said they resented being told they must consider giving up soft money just as they were getting good at raising it.
"We'll never be able to match the resources the Republicans can generate, but soft money allows us to be competitive," said Representative Bennie G. Thompson, whose district includes Tunica, where several casinos have sprouted from cotton fields in what used to be the poorest county in the nation. "To be competitive, you've got to have resources."
The caucus would not provide a full list of the corporate donors here. But a partial list included Philip Morris, the tobacco giant; Anheuser- Busch, the brewing company; Entergy, the energy company; Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor; Household Finance, the consumer- credit company, and the American Gaming Association, which represents the casino industry.
Mr. Thompson, the event's host, said the two casinos that helped underwrite the weekend, the Horseshoe and the Grand, had each pledged $50,000 in services and cash donations, which allowed them to call themselves platinum sponsors of the event. Gold donors pledged $25,000, while silver donors promised $10,000. A similar fund-raising event here last summer raised $500,000 for the caucus.
"My parents taught me to get to the table, and that's what we're trying to do: get to the table," said Representative James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and a past caucus chairman.
As he walked into the Grand Casino showroom for a buffet dinner paid for by Entergy, Mr. Clyburn said it was a sign of progress that black lawmakers were mixing so openly with lobbyists and executives of industries that once did little to court minority politicians.
"I don't see anybody bothering the Republicans when they do this," he said, noting that in three days, the caucus could hope to draw only a small fraction of the money that a single Republican dinner featuring President Bush might produce. The caucus's goal, Mr. Clyburn said, was to insure that the interests of black lawmakers and their constituents "are going to become an integral part of every business decision taking place in this country."
About half of the money raised here is expected to come in the form of soft money, donations that tend to be made by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.
Although soft money cannot be used to assist a specific candidate, it can be used for issue advertising and voter-turnout programs that often serve the same purpose. The Democratic and Republican parties each raised about $250 million for last year's elections, double the total in the 1996 election cycle.
Advocates of a ban say that soft money is corrupting politics by allowing deep-pocketed donors to buy influence in Congress. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a group that advocates a soft-money ban, said that the rural and inner-city voters often represented by black caucus members tended to be hurt most by the current system, since they could never hope to raise enough money to counterbalance the fast-rising flood of corporate soft money. "This system damages them," Mr. Wertheimer said.
Most members of the black caucus have indicated they would support the Democratic leadership in the House and support a soft-money ban if there was a vote on the Shays- Meehan bill, named for its House sponsors, Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, and Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts.
But when a vote appeared close last month, nearly a third of the caucus members signaled they would split with the party and vote against the bill, arguing that soft money had been vital to get-out-the- vote drives that bolstered their campaigns and the campaigns of white Democrats with largely black districts.
As he relaxed with other caucus members in the Horseshoe Casino in a lavish hospitality suite sponsored by Budweiser, Mr. Thompson called it hopeless to think that he and other black lawmakers from poor, mostly rural districts could ever make up for the loss of soft money.
His district is identified in census figures as the third poorest in the country, with a median income of about $13,000 a year. And there was little hard money to be raised from loyal voters who can usually help him out only with "fish fries and spaghetti dinners," he said.
Even House Democratic leaders who are staunch supporters of a soft- money ban say that black caucus members who oppose the ban have reason to be concerned about a moratorium and that the caucus's voter- education programs in Florida last November might have put Al Gore in the White House if there had been just a little more money.
"They have a very valid argument," said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who is not a member of the black caucus but flew to Mississippi to help the caucus raise money this weekend and to seek support in his race to become deputy Democratic leader in the House. "If you can't get hard money, you need to do something."
As he took a seat in the Horseshoe's hospitality suite, Representative Earl F. Hilliard of Alabama, whose district is listed as the seventh poorest in the country, said that he saw a soft-money ban as `'a threat to my continued service in the Congress."
In his district, he said, soft money was used last November for get-out- the-vote drives that made it possible for many of his impoverished Democratic supporters to reach the polls to cast a ballot. "I've got people who are 20 miles from the polls," Mr. Hilliard said. "How do we pay to get them there? Soft money."
He said the black caucus, through soft-money donations, was helping him pay for the services for a lawyer and a demographer as he lobbies the Alabama Legislature to stop it from redrawing the borders of his district in a way that threatens his re-election chances. "This has to paid for by somebody," he said.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company