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Gore Was 'Solicitor-in-Chief'

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 1997; Page A01

Vice President Gore played the central role in soliciting millions of dollars in campaign money for the Democratic Party during the 1996 election and has built a national fund-raising network that is the most formidable in American politics today, according to records and interviews with more than 100 organizers, donors and officials.

In his zeal to raise money and do President Clinton's bidding, Gore took the unusual step of requesting large contributions for the Democratic National Committee – often in private phone calls – with an urgency and directness that several large Democratic donors said they found heavy-handed and inappropriate for an incumbent vice president. Gore became known at the DNC as the administration's "solicitor-in-chief" after Clinton adamantly refused to make direct requests for contributions, according to two senior Democratic officials.

But having perfected the 1990s version of presidential campaign fund-raising, Gore now faces a dilemma: The old system, the subject of numerous investigations and public disgust, may taint those who have most effectively mastered it. The vice president's apparent advantage in the year 2000, when he is expected to seek the presidency, may turn into a handicap.

"Al could be the victim of his own success," a close Gore associate said.

During campaign '96, fund-raising and government action also became intermingled in at least one instance, donors and party officials said, when Gore called to thank a Texas telecommunications executive after his firm gave $100,000 to the DNC. That contribution was intended, in part, as a reward to the administration for Commerce Department assistance – including the forceful intervention of then-Secretary Ronald H. Brown – to help the firm win a $36 million telecommunications contract in Mexico, according to officials.

DNC records made available to The Washington Post show that Gore also played a traditional fund-raising role in attending 39 events as the principal attraction at lunches, dinners and receptions, raising $8.74 million in 1995-96 for the DNC. Gore was also the principal at 23 White House coffees and joined Clinton at another eight. He also used the vice president's residence for a number of "donor stroking" events, as one key fund-raiser called them, such as a May 7, 1996, dinner for 50 supporters who already had raised at least $100,000.

According to DNC officials and several large donors, at least $40 million of the $180 million raised by the DNC in 1995-96 was brought in by Gore and his fund-raising network, which included longtime Gore aide Peter S. Knight, who managed the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign.

Gore's efforts paid off in 1996 and have the additional benefit of positioning him for a presidential run. In California and Texas, Illinois and Ohio, New York and Florida – states with the largest number of electoral votes – Gore has a cadre of several dozen proven fund-raisers, according to state organizers and Gore associates.

"He's got a huge network," a key Democratic fund-raiser said, "and he'll be able to raise 10 times what anyone else can."

Gore declined repeated requests over the last four months to be interviewed for this article. His spokeswoman, Lorraine Voles, said on Friday, "There is nothing inappropriate about the vice president calling people for money." Gore sees no distinction between attending routine fund-raising events and personally soliciting contributions, Voles added.

It is not illegal for a vice president to solicit campaign contributions.

Gore's direct telephone solicitations – apparently unprecedented for a vice president, according to three of his predecessors – were often blunt but successful.

In October 1995, for example, Gore called James C. Hormel, chairman of Equidex Inc., which manages the Hormel family meatpacking fortune. The vice president asked Hormel to contribute to a DNC advertising campaign touting Clinton's record. "There was a sense of urgency that depended on timing because it was for a media buy," Hormel said in a recent interview.

Hormel also attended a meeting that month in a San Francisco hotel where Gore made another pitch for money to about a dozen business executives. On Oct. 25, Hormel wrote a check for $50,000 to the DNC, followed seven weeks later by another check for $30,000. He gave an additional $50,000 in 1996.

From 1994 through 1996, Gore made dozens of similar overtures in directly asking donors for money.

Another donor recalled Gore phoning and saying, "I've been tasked with raising $2 million by the end of the week, and you're on my list." The donor, a well-known business figure who declined to allow his name to be used, gave about $100,000 to the DNC. The donor said he felt pressured by the vice president's sales pitch. "It's revolting," said the donor, a longtime Gore friend and supporter.

Yet another major business figure and donor who was solicited by Gore, and who refused to be identified, said, "There were elements of a shakedown in the call. It was very awkward. For a vice president, particularly this vice president who has real power and is the heir apparent, to ask for money gave me no choice. I have so much business that touches on the federal government – the telecommunications act, tax policy, regulations galore." The donor said he immediately sent a check for $100,000 to the DNC.

Some large donors who were not solicited directly by Gore suggested that direct vice presidential appeals for money would be improper. For example, William A. Brandt Jr.'s firm, Development Specialists Inc. of Chicago, gave $150,000 to the DNC last year without being called by Gore. Brandt, a regular Democratic donor, said, "I think if Gore called me and said 'How about giving,' I would be deeply offended."

Jay Stein, head of Stein Mart Inc. and another longtime Gore friend who gave $100,000 to the DNC without being asked by Gore, insisted that direct appeals for money would be "out of character" for the vice president. "I don't think anyone in political office should ask for money," Stein added, "particularly on a one-to-one basis."

'People Were Panicked'
Gore's fund-raising activism was born of the panic that beset the White House in early 1995 after Republicans captured both houses of Congress. Gore associates said the vice president worked tirelessly to raise money following long, emotional meetings in the White House with Clinton and chief strategist Dick Morris.

"Morris was pushing the hell out of the president and the vice president," said one key Democrat. "He was saying the polling in early 1995 showed that Gore was likely to be a defeated vice president and his career would be over. . . . We thought a Democrat was going to challenge Clinton, and we were worried about Colin Powell then. They were scared to death. People were panicked. The vice president was panicked." Morris insisted on millions of dollars more for an intensified television advertising blitz.

While Clinton performed what fund-raisers call "donor maintenance" or "donor servicing" – such as speaking at dinners, attending coffees or inviting donors to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom – the president told his campaign fund-raisers that he would not make direct requests for campaign money.

"You guys are the fund-raisers," Clinton told several key campaign and party officials in 1995, according to one participant. "I'm not going to make calls to do your job."

Instead, the task fell to Gore, whose appeals to big donors had three phases.

The first phase had actually begun before the 1994 congressional elections as it became clear that the Democrats were in trouble. Gore went to DNC headquarters and worked the phones in the party chairman's office on two occasions, raising about $400,000, officials said.

Sam Dattel, who runs a real estate firm in Memphis, said he was in Washington on business in the fall of 1994 when Gore called his hotel room. "We'd like you to give $50,000," Dattel quoted the vice president as saying. "We need all we can get." Dattel said he replied, "Mr. Vice President, that would be a little heavy for me. I'll do what I can."

The conversation lasted "less than a minute, 40 seconds. . . . I was surprised," said Dattel, who added that he wrote a check for $10,000 to the DNC. Records show that Dattel gave $10,000 on Sept. 27, 1994. He had previously given $30,000 that year, and in 1995 and 1996 he gave another $20,000.

The second phase of Gore's soliciting occurred in the fall of 1995 when Morris needed to finance his media campaign in an effort to seize the initiative for the Democrats. Gore made about 50 direct solicitations, and DNC records show the vice president raised more than $1 million from these calls. One person who attended a small fund-raising event with Gore said "the vice president sounded more like the DNC finance director."

The third phase unfolded last spring when Clinton had to decide who would manage the Clinton-Gore reelection committee. Knight, a lawyer and longtime Gore fund-raiser, had been named chairman of the upcoming DNC presidential gala on May 8 and was a candidate for the reelection job.

"Gore wanted to make Peter look good, wanted to make him look successful so he could be campaign manager," said one senior Democratic official. The successful gala pulled in $12.3 million, one of the largest party fund-raisers ever, and Knight got the campaign post.

Yet another senior Democratic official said, "I don't think any vice president ever put in the time on fund-raising" that Gore did.

Gore has been embarrassed by his statements regarding a DNC fund-raiser he attended last April at a Buddhist temple in California. Gore initially said it wasn't a fund-raising event, but memos prepared by the DNC for his staff clearly show that those joining the vice president for lunch at the Hsi Lai Temple had to contribute $2,500 per person to the DNC.

Gore has also said that he thinks the current controversy and investigations about fund-raising are "overblown" and detract from the administration's domestic and foreign policy agenda. The vice president told associates that he found fund-raising distasteful; one associate said he made such calls with "bamboo under the fingernails."

Gore's efforts to solicit Democratic contributors were unusual for a vice president, according to his predecessors. Former vice president Dan Quayle said in an interview that during 1991-92 he occasionally asked key Republicans to serve on fund-raising committees or to host fund-raising dinners. "But I never made a solicitation. They [party finance chiefs] never put me in that position," said Quayle, who declined to comment on whether Gore's solicitations were appropriate.

Walter F. Mondale, who unsuccessfully sought reelection as vice president in 1980, and George Bush, who successfully won a second term as vice president in 1984, said through spokesmen last week that they never directly solicited campaign funds.

A Thank-You Call
Gore's call last year to thank the chief executive officer of a Texas telecommunications firm, DSC Communications, for his large contribution to the DNC illustrates the intertwining of fund-raising, lobbying and government action during the 1996 campaign.

The story of DSC begins with a key Gore fund-raiser and Washington lobbyist named Daniel A. Dutko. Credited with raising more than $700,000 for the Clinton-Gore reelection committee in 1995, Dutko collected another $2.3 million for the DNC in 1995-96. His firm, the Dutko Group, is registered to lobby on behalf of some 50 major clients, including Coca Cola, the Wine Institute and DSC Communications, a telephone switching and computer equipment manufacturer in Plano, Tex.

In 1995, DSC was engaged in a fierce battle for a $36 million contract to supply switches to Telmex, Mexico's national telecommunications agency. Foreign competitors included heavyweights Alcatel of France, and Ericsson of Sweden.

That winter, DSC asked lobbyist Dutko for assistance, according to those involved in the episode. Dutko contacted the firm's local member of Congress who in turn contacted the Commerce Department to ask that DSC receive assistance. Eventually, the Advocacy Center – a little-known branch of the Commerce Department – went to work.

A brainchild of former commerce secretary Brown, the center was established in 1994 to assist U.S. companies seeking contracts overseas. Advocacy Center files boast of 206 "Success Stories" over the last two years; the file on DSC shows the intense level of involvement by Commerce officials.

DSC needed high-level intervention to counter competitor Alcatel, which owns 5 percent of Telmex, according to the Commerce records. Brown initially sent a letter to Jaime Chico Pardo, Telmex's chief executive. As the competition heated up, Brown called Pardo on May 25, 1995, pressing DSC's bid to win the contract.

Less than three weeks later, DSC announced it had won the $36 million contract. On June 30, 1995, DSC gave a $25,000 contribution to the DNC. Terry Adams, a spokesman for DSC, said the contribution was tied to a Democratic gala dinner in Washington.

In 1996, Dutko, acting both as the firm's lobbyist and as a top party fund-raiser, recommended that DSC give $100,000 to the Democrats, Adams said. James L. Donald, DSC's chairman and a conservative Republican who previously had not given such substantial donations to the Democrats, approved the contribution as a "thank you" to the Clinton administration. A check for $100,000 was written to the DNC last May 7. (DSC gave $20,000 to the Republican National Committee in 1995-96, as well as $65,000 to the Republican Senate and House campaign committees, Federal Election Commission records show.)

Dutko said of the contribution to the Democrats, "I don't think there was anything wrong or inappropriate about it."

Dutko then asked Gore to call Donald to thank him for contributing to the party, although Gore associates maintain the vice president was not told that the contribution had been made because of DSC's appreciation for U.S. government help with the Mexican contract. Gore, Donald and Adams would not discuss the details of the vice president's call, which was made last spring. Voles, Gore's spokeswoman, said, "The call did not have anything to do with the supposed contract."

The Loophole
Under the law, the Clinton-Gore committee could only accept contributions of up to $1,000 from an individual and could not accept any corporate donations. To finance the reelection campaign, the Democrats relied on a loophole permitting large individual and corporate contributions to the party.

DNC officials credit Knight, Gore's longtime administrative assistant, with raising about $6 million for the party. Knight accepted contributions for the DNC even after he took over as the Clinton-Gore campaign manager, according to several donors. Knight declined to be interviewed for this article.

Peter Angelos, a Baltimore labor lawyer and majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles, said that in the spring of 1996 he called the DNC about contributing. Angelos was told to call Knight. After making an appointment, Angelos drove to Washington and met with Knight at Clinton-Gore headquarters on May 24, 1996.

"I wrote out the check that day," said Angelos, who added that he handed the $100,000 contribution to Knight. Angelos quoted Knight as saying, "The more you give the better."

In 1995, Gail Zappa, widow of the late rock star Frank Zappa, said her attorney made inquiries about campaign contributions and learned that Knight was the man to see. Over a 12-month period, Zappa donated $240,000 to the DNC, sending her checks directly to Knight.

Upon meeting Gore at one point during the campaign, Zappa found him warm and open but dressed in a suit that made him "look stiff like a policeman." With the next $50,000 check she sent Knight, she enclosed a note: "Peter, can Gore get a new suit now?"

In the coming months, Gore must decide whether to set up a political action committee that would serve as the nucleus of a presidential campaign. Bush and Mondale set up PACs in the 1980s that raised millions initially used to underwrite political travel and support state and local candidates. As the presidential campaigns began, the PACs provided millions more in seed money for the race to the White House.

A close Gore associate wondered if such a PAC would be politically prudent, given public suspicions of fund-raising activities. Voles, the vice president's spokeswoman, said, "At this time there is no plan to develop a PAC."

Researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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