At the political crossroads where money, influence and candidates join forces, Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), has become what is known in the trade as a "marriage broker."
Coelho, perhaps the most successful Democratic fund-raiser since Lyndon B. Johnson, has quietly developed an expertise in "matching" business people in need of representation with lobbyists in need of new billings, or legislators in need of extra cash with political action committee directors willing to pay for a speech.
Earlier this year, for example, Coelho put John J. Salmon, departing chief counsel to the House Ways and Means Committee, together with Selig Zises, chairman of Integrated Resources Inc., at Joe and Rose's Restaurant on Third Avenue in New York.
Salmon was starting work in the private sector for the Washington office of a New York law firm and, according to associates, was hungry for clients.
Zises, in turn, was concerned that the tax revision bill pending before the Ways and Means Committee would hurt his company, which provides a host of financial services, including the creation of tax shelters. Zises needed a lobbyist.
Salmon, confidant and aide to Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), appeared to be a perfect candidate. On February 25, Salmon registered as a lobbyist for the firm. "Tony specifically recommended him," Zises said.
Despite his connections, Salmon did not produce exactly what his client was seeking. According to Zises, a set of new rules in the tax bill of major concern to Integrated Resources would be adverse to the corporation.
Zises, however, remains loyal to Coelho, praising his support for Israel and for the interests of entrepreneurs. "Tony is a warm, compassionate, substantive, hard-working, energetic guy," Zises said.
On May 28, officials of Integrated Resources demonstrated their continued support of Coelho's Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, pouring in a total of $77,000 to the fund. No other day this year produced as many contributions in amounts of $1,000 or more.
"I do that for a lot of people," Coelho said, describing the process of brokering legislative marriages. "I don't do it just for contributors," he contended. "I love to strategize. I love to look at a problem and say: 'Here's how to solve it.' "
Coelho's exceptional talents as a fund-raiser, power broker and central architect in the restoration of the moribund DCCC have made him the early front-runner in the 1986 battle for House Democratic whip, a key leadership post in the party.
In a larger sense, however, Coelho epitomizes a central tension within the beleaguered Democratic Party -- between the party's reform wing that frowns on the campaign finance world of special-interest PACs and the party's deep thirst for money.
The Democrats' last taste of decisive success came 10 years ago on the heels of Watergate. More recently, the party has been forced off center stage by a Republican Party led by a popular president and flush with cash and the high technology that money buys.
Coelho has entered this shifting political climate on the side of raising money.
"Money," he argues, "is a part of politics and it always will be. The only thing the reformers have done is change the laws about where you can get it. But it is still money. You have to have money in order to do things."
Coelho's hardheaded approach provokes a mixture of anxiety and respect from his colleagues. "He has turned a party position into a House leadership position, shifting a great deal of power to the head of the DCCC," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.). "To get there, there is a lot of stuff in terms of fund-raising and deals you have to make that a lot of us would prefer not to know about. If money is the name of the game, he has clearly learned how to play the game."
"He's done something that a lot of the Democrats think needs to be done, but don't want to do themselves," added Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.).
Some House members, who were willing to speak only on background, repeatedly voiced concerns that as the front-runner for House whip, and as a possible future candidate for Speaker, Coelho has not developed a coherent vision of the Democratic Party.
"My impression is that his position closely parallels that of a majority of the Democratic Caucus," one representative said, suggesting that Coelho's views are determined in part by a desire to reflect the party's majority. "I don't think Tony really has a fully thought-out notion of where we should be going," another said. "He comes out of the California school of politics -- media and a lot of flash," said an aide who has worked with the House Democratic leadership.
As a legislator, Coelho, who is chairman of the Agriculture Committee's dairy subcommittee, recently emerged as a successful negotiator, winning House approval of controversial, industry-written provisions of the farm bill that include a section paying farmers not to produce milk. (The Senate refused to approve this plan, so the issue is now in conference.)
Coelho's hand was also seen behind Ways and Means Committee approval of a tax bill amendment that would save the grandchildren of Ernest and Julio Gallo, the winemakers, millions of dollars in estate taxes. The Gallos, constituents of Coelho, are major campaign contributors, both to Coelho personally and to the DCCC. An aide to Coelho said, however, that responsibility for the amendment benefiting the Gallo family belongs entirely to its sponsor, Rep. Ed Jenkins (D-Ga.), and that Coelho only "tracked" the provision without lobbying for it.
Coelho's ability to meld legislation and campaign contributions extends even to such issues as a Coelho-sponsored proposal to commemorate the April 24, 1915 beginning of the Turkish massacre of Armenians. The proposal, adamantly opposed by the government of Turkey, is strongly backed by Armenian-Americans -- many of whom, in turn, have become regular contributors to the DCCC. Fund-raising by the committee targeted specifically at the Armenian community produced "$20,000 to $25,000 a year," Coelho said.
After the 1980 election, when the proliferating corporate and trade association PAC community was showing a strong bias for the Republican Party, Coelho, the newly elected chairman of the DCCC, and his executive director, Martin Franks, set out to force the business PACs into a bipartisan line.
Coelho said he told corporate PACs: "You people are determined to get rid of the Democratic Party. The records show it. I just want you to know we are going to be in the majority of the House for many, many years and I don't think it makes good business sense for you to try to destroy us."
Coelho and Frank's efforts have been strikingly successful. Incumbent House Democrats now receive more money from PACs than from individual contributors, and receive a higher proportion of their cash from PACs than House Republicans and senators of both parties.
In addition, the DCCC, which raised $10.4 million in 1983-84, received more money from PACs ($1.5 million) than the committee raised from all sources in 1979-80 ($1.2 million), although the PAC support was from both business and labor.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, argues that the growing dependence of Democratic candidates and of Democratic Party committees on business PACs has encouraged a form of "institutional schizophrenia."
Wertheimer contends that Democratic reliance on support from organized labor has caused problems, but "to take it to the next level -- dependence on labor and business -- is not a solution, it's an exacerbation of the problem . . . It has a direct impact on the party trying to figure out what it is and what it should be."
Even Wertheimer is ambivalent about Coelho, however, noting that the DCCC has, in addition to building support from PACs and major contributors, worked hard to develop a program of small, individual donors. This includes a direct mail donor base, paralleling on a lesser scale the massive direct mail programs of the Republican Party committees.
Wertheimer's criticisms are dismissed out of hand by a leading congressional reformer, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "What's he supposed to do instead of raise money from business PACs , print money? I think people should criticize him if he didn't."
Coelho was even more adamant in defending his fund-raising tactics:
"Those of us that are involved in party-building and politics, we are just as principled as these other folks. If some of them would get off their duffs and help us out, we'd be able to do more . . . These people, you talk to them, they go home at 5 in the afternoon and they don't work Fridays or Mondays. That's fine, that's wonderful. I'm not criticizing anyone. But don't throw sticks and stones at those of us that are busting our . . . off so they can be in the majority, so they can be subcommittee chairmen or full committee chairmen, and they can make the news and do all their wonderful things and be pontifical about how principled they are."
While Coelho has critics among reformers and some of his colleagues, he has developed strong backing within the Democratic wing of Washington's lobbying community.
Bill Cable, a partner in the firm of Timmons and Co. and one of a "kitchen cabinet" of lobbyists formed by Coelho, said, "Tony's a great American. A lot of guys in the lobbying business have really changed their perception of whether or not it makes any sense to spend any time on the Democratic side of the aisle . . . In this sense, he has been willing to open up channels of dialogue. He can put people who have a problem down in front of people who are going to make a decision on those problems."
By his own account, Coelho said part of his drive to succeed stems from discovering at age 21, upon graduation from college, that he had epilepsy. Within a month of the discovery, he said, an offer by the Jesuits to enter the priesthood was withdrawn, and his Portuguese parents, believing epilepsy to be a form of possession by the devil, initially rejected him.
"I was in the gutter," he said. But he was rescued, he said, first by Jesuit priests and then by comedian Bob Hope, with whose family he became close. Hope, according to Coelho, encouraged him to go into politics, and for 15 years he served as staff aide and administrative assistant to Rep. B.F. Sisk (D-Calif.), replacing Sisk upon his retirement in 1978.
"Some of the people who say they don't know my substance -- they don't know me, they don't know what makes me tick," Coelho said, responding to privately voiced criticism that he lacks legislative vision. "They don't know that through the government I've basically been able to be a success. I'm the only Portuguese to be elected to the U.S. Congress, the only epileptic . . .
"I know who brung me to the dance and I'm going to go home with the person who brung me to the dance. I go around preaching that to people: How did you get where you are? It wasn't through the Republican Party, it was through the Democratic Party. You need to go back to your roots."
Coelho argues that the experience of dealing with rejection has turned him into a fund-raiser par excellence. "I have tremendous inner peace. I have no trouble asking people for money and I have no trouble being rejected. You can't make me feel bad."
Throughout a lengthy interview, Coelho repeatedly used the phrase "I have inner peace," although he is known as one of the most driven men in Congress. His own office reflects this division. One wall is almost entirely covered with fish tanks: "Fish calm you down. They are calming." The adjoining wall is a high-tech system of six television sets and three video tape recorders, designed so that he can see the news on the three major networks, Cable News Network and Public Broadcasting, while simultaneously controlling the recorders when a story or visual backdrop catches his eye.
Coelho acknowledges that his main liabilities in running for House whip are twofold: his reputation as a wheeler-dealer fund-raiser and his reputation as an extreme partisan.
"My job is to be the hit man. My job is to be political," he said. "I wasn't elected to be a nonpartisan chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee."
Without a massive fund-raising effort after the election of 1980, Coelho contends, the Democratic Party faced the prospect of quickly becoming a minority in the House.
"What had happened, in 1980, we had our bottoms kicked. If the Republicans had been successful, they would have completed the job. And we would have been so far down in the ground we couldn't have picked ourselves up, we couldn't have done it. Because we didn't have any money, we didn't have any technology. I'm not going to let reformers scare me into thinking that I can't ask people for money. I'm going to ask. I'm going to ask very passionately.