House Dems make plans to circumvent campaign reform
By Alexander Bolton
February 20, 2002
As comprehensive campaign finance reform nears its expected enactment, House Democratic lawmakers have already adopted strategies for redirecting the flow of large contributions to outside groups aligned with their party, a move they hope will help them regain control of the Chamber.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) has assured African-American members of his caucus that he will raise money for groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southwest Voter Project to pay for their voter registration and get-out-the-vote operations.
Reform legislation sponsored by Reps. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) that passed the House last week bans soft money but allows federal lawmakers to raise funds in $20, 000 increments for outside organizations as long as those groups are “nonpartisan.” The loose restrictions would allow party leaders to direct hundreds of thousands of dollars for such groups.
Though the NAACP is officially nonpartisan, many Republicans believe it is closely allied with the Democratic Party. One GOP operative said Gephardt’s plans are a cynical attempt to exploit legal loopholes for political gain.
“It’s disgusting they’re crying for reform when they’re already cutting deals with tax-exempt organizations like the NAACP that were playing politics in the 2000 election, ” said Matt Keelan, a prominent Republican fundraiser who has approximately 20 clients in the House.
Keelan and many other Republicans are still steamed over an NAACP-funded ad from the 2000 campaign that reminded black voters of the racially motivated murder of James Byrd Jr. They feel it was an implicit attack on then-Gov. George Bush’s commitment to civil liberties, and one of the reasons Bush garnered few votes from the black community.
Other Democrats say they will also raise funds for outside groups to turn out the party’s base on Election Day.
“I would formulate voter education and registration projects that would be funded by people like myself, ” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). “We can go to all the people that we know. There’s no limit on nonprofit organizations.”
“The Democratic Party has to do that as well, ” Hastings added.
Gephardt pledged to raise the funds for outside groups last week during a private meeting with Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who were wavering in the support for the Shays-Meehan legislation.
A representative from the NAACP also attended the meeting.
Republicans say the ability of outside groups to continue campaign activities on behalf of the parties is one of the reasons Shays-Meehan is unfair.
“The bill is still does not create a level playing field, ” said Rich Bond, former chairman of the Republican Party. “An inherent advantage has been given to outside groups that are predominantly Democratic.”
Clyburn, a onetime opponent who voted for the bill, said he switched his position because of Gephardt’s assurances. Clay and Kilpatrick also voted for the bill.
However, some lawmakers were not convinced that outside groups could replace the party’s grassroots activities, activities that will be curtailed by a soft-money ban.
“I’ve been involved in too many elections in my lifetime to leave questions unanswered to the point where I have to just take people at their word, ” said Thompson, referring to Gephardt’s promise. “The opportunity for [minority] participation and the opportunity for [minorities to participate in] elections in the South has been hard fought for.”
“I was not satisfied enough with what was on the table at the time to change my vote, ” he added. “There were not enough specifics to give me comfort.”
Thompson’s spokesman, Lanier Avant, said that state parties do not have the resources to mobilize voters.
“We have no confidence in the state parties to fund those efforts, ” Lanier said. “We need the national soft dollars.”
“We’ll see if [Gephardt] comes through on his word to redirect his money to the NAACP, ” he added.
Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), a supporter of Shays-Meehan and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that anxiety over minority voter turnout was unfounded.
“I believed all along those activities would not be harmed or undermined, ” said Ford.