For many House Democrats, selling $1,000 tickets for the 1979 Democratic congressional campaign dinner was a chore, but for Tony Coelho it was a breeze.
Although he had been in Congress only a few months, he sold $50,000 in tickets, the eqivalent of five tables at the annual affair, more than any other member of Congress, including the House and Senate leadership. Coelho did it at a time when Democratic fund-raising was in the doldrums and Republicans were amassing a huge war chest for the 1980 campaign.
After the Reagan landslide, the Democrats turned again to Coelho. They made the sophomore congressman from central California their chief House fund-raiser, a position not bestowed on such a junior member since it was given to a young Texas congressman named Lyndon B. Johnson in 1940.
Tony Coelho (pronounced Co-ello) is on a congressional fast track. He's now seeking reelection for his third term in the House, but the leadership has given him one of the most critical tasks in rebuilding the Democratic party: stoking up the money machine.
He's described by friends as "driven" and by skeptics as "zealous," but they all agree that Coelho, 40, has a touch for fund-raising not seen among Democrats in recent years.
"From what I can see, he's doing an outstanding job raising money," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), whose Beverly Hills district has long been a favorite hunting ground for contribution-hungry Democrats. "He's reaching out to individuals and groups who have never given to the party. He's going out and asking, and I think you have to make a case why the Democrats need it to hold the House . . . " in this autumn's congressional elections.
A similar assessment comes from Coelho's fund-raising counterpart in the Republican ranks.
"He's doing a very good job," said Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, who thinks so much of Coelho that the GOP is targeting him for defeat this fall.
This is part of an occasional series on the performance of several senators, House members and governors who are seeking reelection.
Vander Jagt points out that Coelho and other Democrats are only now copying the direct mail and computer techniques that so vastly expanded the Republican coffers in the long rebuilding period after Watergate. "They are emulating us," he said, but they "have a long way" to catch up.
It is Coelho's passion to catch up. He devotes most of his attention to what he calls the "structure" of the Democratic Party, the nuts and bolts of raising money and spending it for computers, media and other weapons in the ever-more-sophisticated congressional campaign arsenal.
But there is more to his story.
His life and career were shaped on the day Coelho, then 15, and a farmhand were speeding down a dirt path on his family's 100-acre dairy farm in Dos Palos, Calif., on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley, now one of the world's most productive breadbaskets. They took a curve too fast that afternoon. "We ended up in a canal," Coelho wrote last year in recalling the accident. All he remembers, he said, is that he got a headache later.
About a year after the spill, Coelho was milking cows with his older brother when he leaned over to get some feed and passed out, falling into the feed bin. He was carried into the house and started shaking. A doctor who was summoned couldn't diagnose or stop the convulsions.
As he found out a few years later, just after graduation from Loyola University of Los Angeles, and as he was getting ready to enter a Jesuit seminary, Coelho had epilepsy. It may have started with that spill on the farm, but he is not certain. He does recall that, when he was 18, it shattered not only his plans for the seminary but his self-esteem.
"I became very lonely and I used the term suicidal," Coelho said in a recent interview. "I thought I was rejected by my church, I thought I was rejected by my parents. I had all kinds of problems . . . . I was out of college, the summer after college, and I was the big catch for them the Jesuits , and all of a sudden I was foundering, foundering bad."
Coelho's parents were of Portuguese descent, and he learned only years later that there was a Portuguese superstition that epilepsy means possession by the devil.
He got back on his feet with the help of comedian Bob Hope, who brought Coelho into his family after being introduced to him by the Jesuit seminarians. Hope liked to drive the southern California freeways, and he would take Coelho along. In one of their conversations, Hope suggested, in 1965, that Coelho work for a member of Congress.
Coelho wrote to the Democratic congressman who represented his family's farm in California's Central Valley, Rep. B.F. (Bernie) Sisk. Coelho landed a job in Sisk's Capitol Hill office, and went to tell Hope of his good fortune.
"Hope said, 'I don't even know Bernie Sisk. I could have gotten you a job with someone who is a real powerhouse and you would have been better off,' " Coelho remembers.
But, as it turned out, things went well for Coelho. Soon after coming to Sisk's staff, he met his future wife, Phyllis, who works on Capitol Hill for Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.).
Sisk, a transplanted Texan whose district was populated by migrants from Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, became a power in the 15 years that Coelho was on his staff. But he left his real mark on California in federal dams and canals that brought irrigation water to the valley and transformed it into rich farmland. Sisk viewed it as part of his duty to represent the large growers who dominated farm life in the Central Valley for many years.
But in the late 1970s questions were raised by small farmers, and later by the Carter administration, about the financing and operation of big water projects. There was renewed demand that a 160-acre limit on federally subsidized farms, first established in 1902 but never really enforced, be followed.
Sisk decided to retire in 1978, but Coelho had learned many lessons working for him.
"Sisk was grooming him," said James Lake, a California agribusiness lobbyist here who has known both men. "He wanted Tony to be elected. He treated him like a son, and if you're a congressman, and you have a son who wants to be a congressman, you let him be one . . . . "
"In the last five years I was with him," Coelho recalled, "I would go out to the district once a month and I was in the press all over the place. He wanted that. He never had a fear that I would run against him."
In his first congressional race in 1978, Coelho's opponent called him "a very sick man" and asked a campaign dinner audience: "What would you think if Coelho went to the White House to argue a critical issue for you and had a seizure?"
Coelho responded: "A lot of people have gone to the White House and had fits. At least I'd have an excuse."
He won with 60 percent of the vote, and in his first term got an important seat on the House Agriculture Committee. But the Carter administration was critically examining water projects for costs and benefits, helped by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a peer of Coelho's and the son of another prominent California politician of Sisk's generation.
Miller criticized the big subsidies that went to valley growers. The result in Coelho's first term was disappointing stalemate on an issue that mattered back home.
But after the 1980 election, Coelho struck a deal with Miller. According to several sources, Coelho returned to the valley growers and urged them to accept a compromise with Miller. "He took a lot of criticism from those who were rigid, those who thought he was selling out," said Lake, the lobbyist.
One congressional aide who was intimately involved in the negotiations said Coelho told the growers they would have to pay more for federal irrigation water, something they had long resisted, in exchange for legislation that would relax the 160-acre limit, which they also detested. Irrigation law revisions are now moving through Congress supported by both Coelho and Miller.
"Tony understood that you can't stand up on the House floor, in the Reagan era, and argue for big subsidies anymore," said the aide, who asked not to be identified. "He was smart enough to recognize that. He told them the growers the truth."
Said Coelho: "They gave me carte blanche to do what I want."
"For the issues that matter in Coelho's district, he has to be a captive. But once you get beyond water and agriculture, he has tremendous latitude," said Guy Martin, assistant interior secretary for land and water in the Carter administration and now a Washington lawyer.
What Coelho has done with that latitude is devote it largely to helping rebuild Democratic fortunes.
"His contribution is largely political, practical, procedural," says Martin, whose law firm represents the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, of which Coelho is chairman. "He's not the kind of guy like Sen. Paul E. Tsongas D-Mass. who sits up at 2 a.m. pondering the future of the party."
Coelho's mentor, Sisk, was a liberal who grew more conservative in his final years. Coelho describes himself as "very compassionate and fairly liberal in regards to social issues," but possibly even more tightfisted than Sisk on fiscal matters.
Coelho raised eyebrows with his public endorsement of the balanced budget constitutional amendment, opposed by labor and others from whom he's sought contributions. Some of his Democratic colleagues say they think Coelho would be even more conservative (Reagan defeated Carter by 48 to 44 percent in his district) were it not for his party fund-raising duties, which often require him to be on the offensive against Reagan and the New Right.
"In spite of the economy, the people out there like Reagan," said Lake, who was Reagan's press secretary early in the 1980 campaign. "It hurts him, the role he has to take . . . . People say, 'How come Coelho is going after Reagan?' "
Before Coelho, during the 1979-80 fund-raising cycle, Democrats received only about $1.7 million for House races. Coelho hopes that will increase to $6 million by the end of the current two-year cycle. (Even so, Republicans probably will outspend Democrats 10-to-1 this year.)
What distinguishes Coelho is not only his many fund-raising connections from the years with Sisk ("I had 15 years of dealing with lobbyists") but also the directness he brings to the art of asking people for their money. "I don't mind going up to people and asking them for money," Coelho said. "All you can do is tell me no. And if you say yes, I've got a hit. I've been rejected by people and things that are much more important to me than people saying no about money. What it takes is the ability to ask, and I have the ability . . . . "
Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), elected two years before Coelho and, like him, a former congressional aide, said Coelho walked into a vacuum after the 1980 debacle in which the GOP gained 37 Democratic seats in the House.
"We were a party that was in power and we didn't struggle that hard to stay in power. We turned to unions, traditional sources. The reality was the rise of political action committees, and that went right past us. Coelho is taking a lesson from the Republicans. He has the right quotient of guts and savvy."
A veteran Democratic fund-raiser said Coelho has gone the extra mile to win contributions from such groups as defense contractors, independent oil producers, venture capitalists and other businessmen "the party kicked away in the 1970s." One method: Coelho has set up a "Speaker's Club" giving contributors ($5,000 per individual, $15,000 per political action committee) access to the House Democratic leadership.
"The thing we've done basically is to provide access, to let people talk to people," said Coelho. "Now if somebody wants to talk to me about a bill, and says 'I'll give you X amount of dollars to get a bill through,' I walk away from it, I'm not interested in that. But if they just want to talk to somebody, I'll help them talk to someone. But that's as far as I will go."
A California Democrat said Coelho "is under a tremendous amount of pressure to perform and produce. He writes everything down on 3-by-5 cards. If you're talking to him and he doesn't write it down, you might as well be talking to the wall."
"Today I make a lot of decisions and don't worry about what happened yesterday and never worry about tomorrow," Coelho said. "People say, 'Tony, what are you going to do in the future?' And I say, 'I don't have plans for the future.' Everything is in front of me and nothing is in front of me. When I was told I was an epileptic, it destroyed all my plans, and I don't want to get into that again."
Coelho has been active in trying to overcome what he calls the "terrible stigma" of epilepsy, and has made public service television spots on the subject. His disorder is controlled by medication, but it figures large in Coelho's outlook, particularly his outrage at Reagan administration cutbacks in programs for the handicapped.
And his traumatic experience years ago came back to him when a friend asked for an unusual favor.
The friend was John Weidert, executive director of California Westside Farmers, a group of valley growers. His son, David Weidert, 19, was convicted last year of first-degree murder and kidnaping in the November, 1980, slaying of a 20-year-old retarded man.
The elder Weidert, whom Coelho has known for 15 years and who has contributed to Coelho's campaigns, came to the congressman's office one day and asked for a letter urging a lighter sentence for his son. Such letters can be a routine matter, but Coelho "agonized over it a lot."
"I couldn't say no," he recalled. "Everything came back to me. The flashbacks were all there. I can remember how lonely I was. I couldn't say no because the friendship thing was critical to me.
"I talked to my staff, and they were totally against it because of political reasons. I asked others. My colleagues said don't do it for political reasons. I asked myself, is it legal, is it ethical, is it moral? And the answer to all those questions was yes. Every one of them is yes, and the only negative is political.
"The Republicans are using it in a negative way. I don't like it and it's not the type of thing I would take on a Republican for . . . . I knew I was exposing myself when I was going to be very aggressively out there on the campaign committee. I knew that I would get a Republican candidate just because of that, that I was adding an issue for them . . . . I've got to live with myself, and in the end that's really a lot more important than the politics."
Former Madera County sheriff Ed Bates is the Republican running against Coelho, stressing his own law-and-order credentials without directly making an issue out of the letter, according to his campaign manager, Ron Fletcher. Coelho knows that the Republicans would like very much to keep him busy at home this fall, that he gave them an opening, but he has no regrets.
"It was a tough decision for me; it was not a decision made in a fleeting moment. Do I have any reservations? No."