Without Limits, Candidates Eye
Jump to a list of the candidates' major contributors.
By Richard Tapscott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 1997; Page C01
Nearly every day, Republican James S. Gilmore III and Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. are handed lists of people to call. When they have a free moment, the candidates for Virginia governor consult their lists, pick up the nearest telephone and dial for dollars.
It's a common routine for state and federal political candidates across the land but with a big difference for Gilmore and Beyer: In the Old Dominion, each call to a corporate executive or other wealthy donor can yield $10,000, $50,000 or more.
Virginia is one of the few states that do not limit what an individual or corporation can give in cash or services directly to candidates for state office. By contrast, Maryland bans corporate giving and allows candidates to accept only $4,000 from individuals. Candidates for federal office can accept only $2,000 from individuals.
Particularly late in campaigns, Virginia's sky's-the-limit system can free the candidates from the drudgery of scrambling for hundreds of small contributions. Throughout, it can reduce the cost of fund-raising by direct-mail appeals, which can soak up half the take, or by expensive receptions.
The campaigns also need not devote precious cash to pricey office space and airplane charters, since those can be donated by businesses, regardless of the cost.
On the surface, it's a dream for candidates, most of who detest fund-raising but who sometimes must spend as much as 40 percent of their time doing it to feed a voracious television advertising campaign. Gilmore and Beyer are advertising heavily this year, and together they have raised nearly $12 million in what is on course to be the costliest fall campaign for governor in Virginia history.
But the state's campaign finance system, which demands frequent public disclosures, also is littered with potential trapdoors.
"If you take $50,000 or $10,000, you're going to have to answer for it, if it's from somebody new or questionable," said Chris LaCivita, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. "You have to pay a lot more attention as to who you're soliciting money from."
Some recent big-time contributions have come back to haunt their recipients.
In April, the Virginia Democratic Party sheepishly returned $100,000 from oil broker Roger Tamraz, who has been linked to national fund-raising scandals.
The state's Republicans were put on the defensive by a $125,000 contribution from Smithfield Foods Inc., a meatpacker fined $12.6 million by a federal judge in August -- the largest fine ever for violations of U.S. clean water laws. Critics allege that the campaign contribution led the administration of Gov. George Allen (R) to look the other way while Smithfield violated water pollution laws.
And yet, the money keeps rolling in.
Gilmore, who resigned as state attorney general in June to run for governor, has collected $50,000 this year from Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, who supports Gilmore's antiabortion position and conservative stances on other social issues. Robertson also gave Gilmore $50,000 last year.
Beyer, a two-term lieutenant governor, has taken in $90,000 from Edward H. Bersoff, a technology executive from McLean who sides with Beyer on the need to devote more state aid to higher education and road construction.
Much of Virginia's political establishment defends the wide-open campaign finance system as refreshingly honest, a laboratory for House Speaker Newt Gingrich's suggestion that fewer -- rather than more -- limits should be applied to contributions. At the same time, the system is vilified by would-be reformers who say it promotes barely concealed bribery.
Although he plays by the current rules, Beyer says he doesn't like them.
"I'd rather see Virginia move in the direction of the federal system, putting real limits on the amount of money that can be given," said Beyer, a 47-year-old automobile dealer from Alexandria. "The genius of Virginia's system is full disclosure, which wards off an awful lot of the abuses. We still have a situation where, if you run for state office, you've got to ask for enormous amounts of money."
A spokesman for Gilmore said that "as of right now," the 47-year-old Republican does not favor limiting contributions.
"The current laws seem to be working fine," said Gilmore spokesman Mark A. Miner. "The public has a chance to see where the money comes from."
Some critics say Virginia's policy accelerates the spiral toward more and more spending in elections, though Gilmore and Beyer appear to be spending on a pace not much greater than that set in 1994 by Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who had to deal with strict limits.
Political scientists say the more dominant force driving up the cost of Virginia's campaign this year is the rough parity between Republicans and Democrats.
Political insiders also see the lack of contribution limits as a safeguard against one wealthy individual spending millions to "buy" an election. An opponent in such a race would have access to large contributions to offset the power of personal wealth.
But Julie Holt-Williams, executive director of Common Cause Virginia, said the system has created an imbalance of power among contributors.
"The average person doesn't have the same kind of access as the people who give a large amount of money," Holt-Williams said. "It's selling our government to the highest bidder."
Mark J. Rozell, a political scientist at American University, agreed: "It's disturbing that an individual who contributes that much clearly will have special access to state government. Big contributors have inordinant influence, and it means less contact with ordinary citizens."
Rozell also is wary of contributions such as donated office space or free use of corporate aircraft. "In-kind contributions are a wonderful way to disguise contributions to a candidate," Rozell said. "It doesn't reflect the actual cost."
In most instances, Beyer said, big donors in Virginia races do not exercise too much influence on officeholders and public policy.
"But where you see a big donor's major check . . . reflected in public policy -- Pat Robertson's $100,000 being reflected as making abortion illegal, school vouchers, things like that -- I think it can" have too much influence, Beyer said.
Miner said Gilmore does not believe that contributors have unusual influence over the candidates' policies. "Jim Gilmore makes decisions on principle," Miner said. "He's not influenced by any one group or any one person. . . . There is no Gilmore-Robertson education plan."
Miner said Gilmore has not proposed a plan under which public funds in the form of vouchers could be used by parents to pay tuition at private schools but believes that such a plan "should be on the table." Beyer and other Democrats believe vouchers would undermine public schools.
The candidates don't raise all their funds from major donors. Republicans estimate, for example, that Gilmore has more than 4,000 small contributors. Page Boinest, Beyer's spokeswoman, said the Democrat held 125 small receptions during the summer to meet with people giving $25 to $100.
Candidates need small contributors, who form an invested grass-roots organization vital to literature drops and other get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day.
The traditional defense of Virginia's system is that it provides full disclosure. More so than many states, Virginia does require frequent reports of campaign giving -- daily during the closing weeks.
But the reporting requirement doesn't always fulfill its promise, and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics cites Virginia for having "very lax enforcement mechanisms."
In a study released this week, Common Cause said statewide candidates and those running for the House of Delegates are not diligent about completing campaign forms and don't always fully identify the "financial interests" of contributors.
A review by The Washington Post of reports filed by the candidates for governor found that vague identification is common. Beyer had taken in $5.9 million, according to the most recent reports. Of that total, $338,525 was listed as coming from givers identified as being either retired, a homemaker, self-employed or simply unspecified. Gilmore, who has raised $5.6 million, got $356,873 from people so identified.
Public opinion surveys indicate that voters don't much care for the system.
In a Washington Post poll of 808 Virginia adults Sept. 12 to 16, 76 percent said they favored limits on how much individuals can donate to candidates for state office. And 83 percent said money has too much influence on Virginia's statewide elections.
Some analysts question whether such opinions will lead to changes.
"The public means what it says in the polls," Rozell said, "but they don't base their voting decisions on it."
Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Ellen Nakashima and Metro researcher Bridget Roeber contributed to this report.
The Sky's the Limit
Virginia's wide-open campaign finance policies allow candidates to raise large sums of money from groups and individuals. A look at those who had given the most this year to the campaigns of Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. and Republican James S. Gilmore III through Sept. 15:|
Beyer's Biggest Contributors:
Group ||City |
West Group||McLean |
|Northern Virginia PAC||Vienna |
|Armada/Hoffler Enterprises Inc. ||Chesapeake |
|Atlantic Food Services Inc. ||Manassas |
|Dominion Resources Inc. ||Richmond |
|Democratic Governors Assn. ||Washington |
|United Co. ||Bristol |
|CDC Real Estate Consulting Group ||Vienna |
|ESG Cos. (Edward S. Garcia) ||Virginia Beach |
Name||Company ||City |
|Edward H. Bersoff ||BTG Inc. ||McLean |
|Albert J. Dwoskin ||A.J. Dwoskin ||McLean |
|Curtis M. Coward ||McGuire Woods ||Vienna |
|Alan L. Wurtzel ||Circuit City Stores ||Delaplane |
|George W. Logan ||Valley Bank ||Salem |
|David Arenstein ||-- ||Richmond |
|Michael A. Caggiano ||Falcon Advisors ||McLean |
|Tori Winkler Thomas ||Mark Winkler Co. ||Alexandria |
|Mario Morino ||-- ||Great Falls |
|Larry D. Silver ||Silver Communication ||Fredericksburg |
Gilmore's Biggest Contributors:
Group ||City |
|Republican National Committee ||Washington |
|National Republican Senatorial Committee ||Washington |
|Dominion Resources Inc. ||Richmond |
|Philip Morris Cos. ||New York |
|Mid-Atlantic Medical Services ||Rockville |
|Friends of Jim Gilmore ||Richmond |
|Circuit City Stores Inc. ||Richmond |
|Pittston Coal Management Co. ||Lebanon, Pa. |
|Virginia Power ||Richmond |
|Newport News Shipbuilding ||Newport News |
Name ||Company ||City |
|Bruce C. Gottwald ||Ethyl Corp. ||Richmond |
|J. Douglas Perry ||Dollar Tree Stores ||Virginia Beach |
|Pat Robertson ||Christian Broadcasting Network ||Virginia Beach |
|Edward B. Via ||-- ||Roanoke |
|Tracy Marks Morton ||Marks & Sons ||Richmond |
|Richard L. Sharp ||Circuit City Stores ||Richmond |
|Hays T. Watkins ||CSX Corp. ||Richmond |
|David A. Harrison III ||-- ||Hopewell |
|Floyd D. Gottwald Jr. ||Albemarle Corp. ||Richmond |
|William A. Hazel Sr. ||William A. Hazel Inc. ||Broad Run |
SOURCE: State campaign finance data provided by the Virginia Public Access Project and the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University. Analysis by The Washington Post.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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