Parties raise $40 million

Thursday, May 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Democrats set new record

WASHINGTON - It was yet another record-breaking night in the nation's capital.

The Democratic and Republican parties expected to rake in more than $40 million at fund-raisers held just blocks apart Wednesday night. The windfall delighted candidates and annoyed campaign finance reformers.

"What is it with these guys?" said Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center For Responsive Politics. "They go from one record-breaker to another. This is another symptom of a spending arms race that is quickly spiraling out of control."

The Democratic National Committee led the way with a "National Tribute to President Clinton," a barbecue-and-beer hoedown that raised an estimated $26.5 million. That's a record for a single event.

The old mark? A mere $21.5 million, set by the Republican National Committee last month.

The Democrats sold more than 13,000 tickets to their gala at the MCI Center, a basketball and hockey arena at 7th and F streets.

Over on 9th and H streets, at the Washington Convention Center, the Republicans held a more modest event, financially speaking. They raised an estimated $14-15 million at a black-tie-and-champagne dinner for their Senate and House campaign committees.

Neither party apologized for raising money, saying they need as much as possible to win close races for control of the White House and Congress.

"Nobody is going to unilaterally disarm," said Jim Wilkinson, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee "Everyone knows that if you're going to be competitive in a presidential race, or a House and Senate race, you've got to raise money."

DNC spokeswoman Jenny Backus said the Democratic party was as much a pep rally as a fund-raiser.

"We win elections on grass roots and issues, and these dollars tonight will help us generate those grass roots efforts," Ms. Backus said.

Democrats stressed the fact that they sold tickets for $50, but those folks had to sit upstairs and buy food at concession stands. Only those who paid from $1,000 to $500,000 could chow down on barbecue trucked in from Arkansas and Tennessee.

The crowd, many dressed in blue jeans and sweat shirts, heard from both Clintons and both Gores. President Clinton touted wife Hillary's Senate bid in New York, and said there's nothing wrong with raising money for causes like gun control, health care and debt reduction.

"I don't think that is corruption," Mr. Clinton said. "I think that's good for America. That's why we're here tonight."

Vice President Al Gore and wife Tipper thanked the crowd for helping them keep up with the Republicans financially. Mr. Gore also pledged "to make meaningful campaign finance reform the law of the land."

Then came the entertainment. The crowd heard manic funnyman Robin Williams crack jokes about George W. Bush: ""Some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some get it as a graduation gift."The Democrats also heard music from Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, LeAnn Rimes and Darius Rucker of Hootie and The Blowfish.

Ten unions ponied up the maximum $500,000 for the Democratic event. They included the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Last month's record-setting performance by the Republican National Committee also featured a festival of special interests. They included the gun, tobacco, and health maintenance organization lobbies.

Corporations that gave the RNC $250,000 or more included AT&T, Philip Morris, UPS and US West.

Many of those same groups showed up at Wednesday's congressional event, spending up to $100,000 and filling up more than 600 tables. They dined on grilled tenderloin and silver queen corn souffle timbale.

GOP presidential candidate Bush did not appear, but the crowd did hear from one of his longtime supporters: Former President George Herbert Walker Bush.

Mr. Bush praised his son and mocked Mr. Gore's alleged penchant for exaggeration, saying he recently rented the film Love Story.

"I still cry at the scene where Al Gore invents the Internet - it's beautiful," the elder Bush said.

Afterward, the Republicans danced to the country tunes of Clint Black.

Few doubt that the 2000 elections will continue to set new records for spending. This despite the fact that the last presidential election year, 1996, produced a series of criminal investigations and congressional inquiries over questionable fund-raising tactics.

Both events Wednesday night raised what is called "soft money," funds the Republicans and Democrats are supposed to use for "party-building activities."

But a variety of campaign finance reform organizations say the parties are using this money to help presidential candidates exceed federal spending limits, particularly through television advertising.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who made campaign finance reform a theme of his Republican presidential campaign, said through a spokesman that "the system is lurching out of control," further alienating voters.

"It's like any other evil," he said. "Unless that evil is eradicated, it will then proceed unchecked."

Republican strategist Rich Galen cited estimates that this year's entire election could wind up costing $2.5 billion in spending. But he noted that is about a third of what Americans are expected to spend on Land Rovers.

"I don't have any problem with the total amount of money spent on the free political process," Mr. Galen said. The problem, he added, is that so much of that money is funneled through relatively few people and corporations, or their lobbyists.

But don't expect any changes in an election year, said Mr. Galen, who writes an Internet political column called Mullings.

"Over $30 million in soft money will be raised within two blocks ... on the same night," Mr. Galen wrote early Wednesday. "Is this a great town or what?"