The Bush Money Machine: Fundraising's Rewards

Pioneers Fill War Chest, Then Capitalize

At a resort in Georgia last month, Republicans gathered to celebrate success in collecting money for the candidacies of George W. Bush.
At a resort in Georgia last month, Republicans gathered to celebrate success in collecting money for the candidacies of George W. Bush. (Thomas B. Edsall -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas B. Edsall, Sarah Cohen and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 16, 2004

First of Two Parts

GREENSBORO, Ga. -- Joined by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and a host of celebrities, hundreds of wealthy Republicans gathered at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge here in the first weekend in April, not for a fundraiser but for a celebration of fundraisers. It was billed as an "appreciation weekend," and there was much to appreciate.

As Bush "Pioneers" who had raised at least $100,000 each for the president's reelection campaign, or "Rangers" who had raised $200,000 each, the men and women who shot skeet with Cheney, played golf with pros Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller and laughed at the jokes of comedian Dennis Miller are the heart of the most successful political money operation in the nation's history. Since 1998, Bush has raised a record $296.3 million in campaign funds, giving him an overwhelming advantage in running against Vice President Al Gore and now Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). At least a third of the total -- many sources believe more than half -- was raised by 631 people.

When four longtime supporters of George W. Bush in 1998 developed a name and a structure for the elite cadre that the then-Texas governor would rely on in his campaign for president, the goal was simple. They wanted to escape the restraints of the public financing system that Congress had hoped would mitigate the influence of money in electing a president. Their way to do it was to create a network of people who could get at least 100 friends, associates or employees to give the maximum individual donation allowed by law to a presidential candidate: $1,000.

The Pioneers have evolved from an initial group of family, friends and associates willing to bet on putting another Bush in the White House into an extraordinarily organized and disciplined machine. It is now twice as big as it was in 2000 and fueled by the desire of corporate CEOs, Wall Street financial leaders, Washington lobbyists and Republican officials to outdo each other in demonstrating their support for Bush and his administration's pro-business policies.

"This is the most impressive, organized, focused and disciplined fundraising operation I have ever been involved in," declared Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, who has been raising money for GOP candidates since 1980. "They have done just about everything right."

For achieving their fundraising goals, Pioneers receive a relatively modest token, the right to buy a set of silver cuff links with an engraved Lone Star of Texas (Rangers can buy a more expensive belt buckle set). Their real reward is entree to the White House and the upper levels of the administration.

Of the 246 fundraisers identified by The Post as Pioneers in the 2000 campaign, 104 -- or slightly more than 40 percent -- ended up in a job or an appointment. A study by The Washington Post, partly using information compiled by Texans for Public Justice, which is planning to release a separate study of the Pioneers this week, found that 23 Pioneers were named as ambassadors and three were named to the Cabinet: Donald L. Evans at the Commerce Department, Elaine L. Chao at Labor and Tom Ridge at Homeland Security. At least 37 Pioneers were named to postelection transition teams, which helped place political appointees into key regulatory positions affecting industry.

A more important reward than a job, perhaps, is access. For about one-fifth of the 2000 Pioneers, this is their business -- they are lobbyists whose livelihoods depend on the perception that they can get things done in the government. More than half the Pioneers are heads of companies -- chief executive officers, company founders or managing partners -- whose bottom lines are directly affected by a variety of government regulatory and tax decisions.

When Kenneth L. Lay, for example, a 2000 Pioneer and then-chairman of Enron Corp., was a member of the Energy Department transition team, he sent White House personnel director Clay Johnson III a list of eight persons he recommended for appointment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Two were named to the five-member commission.

Lay had ties to Bush and his father, former president George H.W. Bush, and was typical of the 2000 Pioneers. Two-thirds of them had some connection to the Bush family or Bush himself -- from his days in college and business school, his early oil wildcatting in West Texas, his partial ownership of the Texas Rangers baseball team and the political machine he developed as governor.

"It's clearly the case that these networking operations have been the key driving Bush fundraising," said Anthony Corrado, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution and a political scientist at Colby College. "The fact that we have great numbers of these individuals raising larger and larger sums means there are going to be more individuals, postcampaign, making claims for policy preferences and ambassadorial posts."


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