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Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2000 / 15 Teves, 5761

Roger Simon

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Paying for democracy -- THE ELECTION OF 2000 was the most expensive in U.S. history, with an estimated $3 billion spent on presidential and congressional races, and another $1 billion spent on state races.

That was an increase of 50 percent over 1996.

Though the two presidential campaigns were restricted by law to spending $67.6 million each for the general election, much more than that was actually spent by the two parties via "soft money" -- unregulated cash that is supposed to be spent for "party building" but, in reality, is spent to elect or defeat candidates.

At the time of its last report before Election Day, the Republican National Committee had raised about $211 million, 74 percent more than 1996, and the Democratic National Committee had raised about $199 million, an increase of 85 percent over four years before.

And that doesn't count the other fund-raising arms: the Republican and Democratic committees that raise money for the senate and house elections.

This was the phenomenon of 2000: What was considered audacious fund raising by Clinton/Gore in 1996 is now standard procedure, at least in terms of the kind of money raised. As The Washington Post concluded recently, "The result, according to election lawyers and political scientists and practitioners, is that the basic pillars of the campaign finance system -- a ban on corporate contributions, strict limits on individual donations, public financing for the presidential general election campaign -- have been effectively eroded."

So while it has been illegal for corporations to make political contributions since 1907 and illegal for unions to contribute to federal campaigns since 1943, in reality under the non-rules of soft money, they can give virtually whatever they want.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was the No. 1 political contributor in America last year, followed by AT&T, the Service Employees International Union and Microsoft.

It is safe to say all these entities want some big things for their big contributions.

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal listed the vast sums of money contributed by industry groups to George W. Bush, the Republican Party and the Florida recount effort under the headline "Big GOP Contributors Look for Return on Their Money."

And -- surprise, surprise -- groups like securities and investment companies that contributed $22.2 million to Bush, the RNC and the recount wanted very specific things. They wanted, the Journal said, for the Bush administration "to get Congress to expand IRAs and 401(k) accounts, and reduce taxes," just like the high-tech companies, who gave $7.7 million, wanted Bush to stop any taxation of the Internet.

Had Bush or the Republicans promised to do any of that in return for money -- that would have been illegal. But as long as you don't make any such promises, you can scoop up whatever you want.

One famous scooper is calling it quits, however.

Patrick Kennedy, who raised $97 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in 2000 -- three times what was raised in the previous election cycle -- has quit.

Kennedy became the DCCC chairman in 1998, supervising a staff of 126 even though he was only 31 and had been representing the First District of Rhode Island for only a handful of years.

But, though he looks like none of them, Kennedy is also Ted Kennedy's youngest son, which means he was John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy's nephew, which means he is something in America.

"If his last name wasn't Kennedy, he would be at Thom McAnn, helping you try on these shoes," one critic says. But Patrick's name is Kennedy and, as it turns out, he excelled at fund raising.

"Patrick Kennedy means $20 million on top of what the DCCC would raise, that's how good he is," David Jones, a professional fund-raiser, told me. "He has got access to people the rest of us can't get a call returned from. Some of them have known him since he was 5 years old or they know his father. The Kennedy magic exists. Big time."

But Kennedy said he had done enough for his party and resigned. It could be because he has become a little publicity shy recently: In 2000, he admitted he took anti-depressents, allegedly shoved an airport security guard, allegedly caused $28,000 damage to a chartered yacht and a Coast Guard rescue boat had to remove one of his distraught dates off another chartered yacht.

Kennedy will be replaced by Nita Lowey of New York, an eight-term congresswoman, a multi-millionaire and a prodigious fund-raiser. It will be Lowey's job to raise enough money to pick up the five seats the Democrats need to regain control of the House in 2002.

She will have to go some to beat Kennedy's fund-raising prowess, however.

When Kennedy took the job, he promised that all those who contributed at least $100,000 to the DCCC would be invited to a weekend retreat at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port.

And not even the Lincoln Bedroom could compete with that.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate