Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign has helped raise more than $360,000 in large contributions to a special Democratic Party account designated for the New York race, allowing corporations and wealthy donors to give far more than the legal limit to boost her candidacy.
The "soft money" donations detailed in recent disclosure reports--including $160,000 just from two Westport, Conn., party activists--go to an account created by the Clinton campaign and the Senate Democrats' campaign arm. The tactic lets the first lady tap her supporters for checks far in excess of the $2,000 she can take directly, as well as corporate donations that she cannot accept at all.
The first lady has attended 11 fund-raising events for the "New York Senate 2000" committee, officials said, raising soft money from donors in Texas, California and her native Chicago in addition to her adopted home state. Other big contributions include $25,000 from Metabolife International Inc., a San Diego diet pill supplement maker that has tangled with Clinton administration regulators, and $20,000 from Chicago-based TV mogul Fred Eychaner.
This dual fund-raising arrangement has been a favored tactic among both Republicans and Democrats for years, allowing prominent politicians to collect unlimited sums for their parties at the same time they add to their own bank accounts.
But the Clinton team appears to be waging a far more intense drive than other Senate candidates to raise soft money that will help her effort. Disclosure reports show that "victory committees" set up by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in six other states with key Senate races have raised less than half as much combined as the New York committee alone.
The checks to the DSCC, sources said yesterday, are in addition to the nearly $8 million that Clinton's Senate campaign committee raised last year, the most of any Democratic candidate. That money was collected in less than six months in a fund-raising drive spearheaded by Terence R. McAuliffe, a close friend of President Clinton who initially planned to guarantee the loan for the Clintons' new $1.7 million house in suburban New York.
The New York Senate race is shaping up to be perhaps the year's most expensive contest, with Clinton's advisers expecting to collect $25 million and her likely GOP rival, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, aiming for about $20 million. Both Clinton and Giuliani likely outraised all other Senate candidates last year, with Giuliani pulling in well over $6.6 million, according to advisers.
But Democrats have also showed their hand early on a strategy of spending additional millions in soft money to boost the Clinton campaign. Giuliani's team, sensing what one adviser to the mayor called "a real Achilles' heel" for Clinton, is considering a proposal to reject all soft money spending by the national party on the mayor's behalf.
The DSCC and the first lady's campaign advisers contend that they make no explicit commitment to the New York donors to spend their soft money contributions to benefit Clinton, a promise that would be illegal under federal election law.
"It's perfectly proper," said a senior adviser. "We have no control over how the DSCC uses it."
But at least some of the contributors clearly believe their checks effectively amount to a quid pro quo: They give money to the DSCC, which puts it back into the New York race.
"Every candidate needs to raise a certain amount of money for the DSCC," said one New Yorker who gave several thousand dollars to the soft-money committee. The contributor said the first lady is raising the money "in order to get the DSCC to support her campaign."
Jim Jordan, the DSCC's political director, said that although the committee encourages Senate candidates to raise money for it, "there is nothing obligatory about that arrangement," and that the committee strictly abides by the federal rules that prohibit donors from "earmarking" their contributions to the committee for use in particular races.
Yesterday, DSCC Chairman Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.) told the Associated Press that he would spend "whatever is required to win" in Hillary Clinton's race for the New York Senate seat. "Between the DSCC and Hillary Clinton's own campaign efforts, spending will reach the maximum levels that are effective," he said.
Already, Democrats have spent substantial soft money resources in New York aiding Clinton. Last fall, Giuliani launched an early series of television ads in upstate New York paid for by his Senate campaign. Democrats responded not with ads paid for by the Clinton campaign but with $338,000 in advertisements funded by DSCC soft money--the first such ads this election cycle anywhere in the country.
Even as editorialists in New York blasted the first lady for benefiting from an election loophole first opened by her husband in his 1996 reelection campaign, Democratic officials denied any explicit linkage between soft money raised by Clinton for the DSCC and the advertisements, which asked voters to "call Hillary" and support "leadership that's on our side."
The documents filed by the DSCC show that the soft money fund-raising was happening at the same time the early air war was launched. Not only did the joint committee bring in more than $120,000 in November as the ads were beginning, but the DSCC itself also received a $500,000 soft money donation in October from Local 1199, a politically connected New York union whose check was the largest single contribution to any national party committee last year.
Republican attorney Benjamin L. Ginsberg said the effort was a legal but brazen one. "You've got to hand it to them: Once you get past the pious rhetoric," he said, "Bill and Hillary Clinton have done more to open up the soft money loopholes in federal campaigns than anybody else could have imagined."
Giuliani advisers said they were "bouncing around" the idea of forgoing any soft money boost from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, although Giuliani spokesman Bruce J. Teitelbaum said yesterday that "we are not going to preclude any options at this point." He said Giuliani has not raised "any soft money to date to benefit the Giuliani campaign."
According to Democratic officials, the soft money funds for the New York operation are solicited by both the Clinton campaign and the DSCC. They say the joint committee is a matter of "efficiency and ease for our donors," as Jordan put it, allowing them to write one check to support both the candidate--up to the maximum $2,000--and the DSCC in unlimited amounts.
Democratic officials refused to disclose the total amount raised so far by the joint committee. Details are available, however, through the monthly disclosure reports filed by the DSCC that reveal the national party's share of the money. A full accounting is not due to the Federal Election Commission until later this month.
By far the biggest contributions were two checks of $80,000 each from Sandra G. Wagenfeld and Francine E. Goldstein, Democratic activists in the aviation industry who operate as a political giving team and have hosted several party fund-raisers at their Westport, Conn., estate.
In June, the two attended a White House state dinner for the president of Hungary. Later that month, President Clinton keynoted a $10,000-a-person Democratic National Committee luncheon at their house, thanking them "for being so wonderful to Hillary." Two days later, Goldstein contributed $100,000 in soft money to the DNC and Wagenfeld sent in an additional $50,000 check to bring her total for the year to $100,000. They did not return several messages seeking comment.
Ironically, in the Democratic presidential contest, the two are not supporting Clinton's vice president and are actively working for former senator Bill Bradley. Several sources familiar with the Clinton fund-raising acknowledged that this is part of a broader trend the first lady has encountered, with a number of key donors to her New York Senate effort also backing Bradley over Vice President Gore.
The money given by the Connecticut duo far overshadows any other contributions to the other joint Senate Democratic fund-raising committees. The effort in California, for example, has produced only $57,000 for the DSCC so far, and the largest contribution was one $20,000 donation from the Gallo winery.
Other big contributions to the New York soft money drive included $18,000 from California environmentalist Cindy Harrell-Horn, $16,000 from New York art gallery Pace Wildenstein and several corporations based in Clinton's native state of Illinois. Music publisher Gail Zappa gave $4,000; Esprit founder Susie Tompkins Buell donated $3,000.