Mega-donor trend spurs call for cap on political spending
By JANET ELLIOTT and R.G. RATCLIFFE
AUSTIN - Fewer than 125 people have contributed 40 percent of the money raised in the governor's race, focusing a spotlight on mega-donors and their interests.
An analysis by the Houston Chronicle of the $25 million raised by the four major candidates between last year and the first six months of this year found key donors with interests ranging from energy and tort laws to food processing and home building.
Their contributions ranged from $50,000 to $850,000.
Texas is one of seven states with no limits on the size of campaign contributions. Critics say the absence of limits has created super-donors who wield a disproportionate amount of political power.
Last week a coalition of citizen groups, including the League of Women Voters and Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, called for a $100,000 aggregate limit on the amount individuals can give to all state candidates and political committees.
"Too few in this state have too much political clout," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, one of the organizations calling for the limit.
A separate analysis by TPJ found that 54 people have given their favorite candidates for governor $100,000 or more, said McDonald.
In politics, they say, money talks. But 13 of the biggest donors in the governor's race wouldn't discuss their reasons for giving with the Chronicle.
Walt Borges, who spent 15 years as a journalist examining campaign finance records, said most donors can't answer questions about their giving without revealing their self-interest.
"If you reveal the reason that you are giving, you identify yourself upfront as a partisan, someone who is not giving as a civic leader for good government," said Borges, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Houston home builder Bob Perry, who gives more to Texas politicians than anyone else, has a strong interest in limiting lawsuits against his company. Perry, who gives mostly to Republicans in statewide and legislative races, was a major proponent of legislation in 2003 creating a new state agency to handle complaints against builders outside of the courts.
Perry and his wife, Doylene Perry, have given $130,000 to Gov. Rick Perry, no relation, so far this election cycle. Bob Perry rarely discusses his political contributions, but his spokesman Anthony Holm explained Perry's philosophy.
"Gov. Perry has been great for the state of Texas. He has brought high-paying jobs to the state, protected Texans from frivolous lawsuits, raised teacher pay and has been a champion for every Texan,"said Holm.
The governor has raised nearly $13 million over the past two years.
About one-third of that came from 75 donors who gave $50,000 or more.
They include Bob Gillikin, president of Cummins Southern, a Dallas distributor of diesel engines and generators, $100,000; East Texas chicken processor Bo Pilgrim, $150,000; Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, of Mineral Wells, $100,000; and Charles "Dave" Wood, a Dallas insurance company owner, $116,000.
Believes in full disclosure
Robert Black, a spokesman for the governor, said many of Perry's major financial supporters have been with him since he first ran for agriculture commission in 1990.
"The governor's position on campaign finance has been very consistent.
He believes in full disclosure" of donors and their employers, said Black.
The biggest donor to independent candidate Kinky Friedman is an exception when it comes to discussing why he backs the Texas humorist.
John McCall, who made a fortune selling beauty supplies and lives primarily on a 10,000-acre ranch in Uvalde, readily discussed his support of Friedman in an interview Friday. He has given Friedman $850,000 over the past two years.
McCall said his only interest is supporting his friend of 20 years and independent candidates in general. He said he can't remember voting since he cast a ballot for independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992.
"I don't want the state to buy any of my shampoo. I don't want them to buy any of my cattle," McCall said. He added that if he didn't give Friedman the money, "his voice would not be heard."
"The shampoo lobby," Friedman said Thursday when asked about McCall.
"He's richer than God, so he'll never have his hand in Texas' pocket."
More individual donors
On the other end of the spectrum, Friedman has more individual donors than all of the other candidates combined, largely from sales of his T-shirts and talking dolls. He has raised more than $3 million.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has raised about half of her $7 million from 29 individuals and political committees. A Republican running for governor as an independent, she has attracted key support from two attorneys who shared in a $3 billion legal fee for representing Texas in the 1990s litigation against cigarette manufacturers.
John Eddie Williams, of Houston, has given Strayhorn $460,000, and Walter Umphrey, of Beaumont, has given $450,000. Prominent litigator Joe Jamail, who was not part of the tobacco team, donated $100,000.
Other major donors are George Ryan and his Dallas-based accounting firm's political committee, who together have given $600,000.
The company's history of contributions to Strayhorn was cited last year in a state auditor's report that concluded the comptroller reduced some tax bills for companies that gave through PACs or tax consultants to her campaign.
Strayhorn denied any wrongdoing, and the audit didn't allege any violations of state law. But the report recommended a number of reforms in the comptroller's handling of tax disputes.
Neither Williams, Umphrey nor Ryan returned calls.
Borges said Strayhorn may be getting some support from plaintiff's lawyers because they are looking for an alternative to Perry, who in
2003 backed a successful constitutional amendment limiting damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.
"It appears here, since Strayhorn is a Republican and not receptive to trial lawyer liberal politics, that their funding her has more to do with having somebody oppose Perry and making him spend his money," said Borges.
David Alameel, who owns dental clinics in Dallas, has given $375,000.
He's a personal friend of Strayhorn, said spokesman Mark Sanders.
"We've had an absolutely overwhelming outflow of support from people who want to shake up Austin and see this current regime ended," said Sanders.
Democrat Chris Bell has raised $2 million, with a little more than one-third coming from seven individuals and a political committee of Corpus Christi attorney Mikal Watts' personal injury law firm.
The committee donated $100,000. Key support also came from Aubrey Swift, the deceased chairman of Houston-based Swift Energy, $110,000, and Houston attorney Tom Pirtle, $110,000. Ricardo Weitz, a Houston auto dealer, has donated more than $173,000 worth of travel in his plane for Bell.
Heather Guntert, a spokeswoman for Bell, said his next campaign finance report, due in early October, will show a $250,000 donation from attorney Harold Nix, of Daingerfield, another member of the tobacco case legal team.
Bell is picking up support from traditional Democratic funders in the wake of some recent polls showing Strayhorn lagging, Guntert said.
"Chris Bell is very, very proud to be a Democrat," he said. "There's no downside to being a Democrat and getting the support of big Democratic donors."
Austin Bureau reporter Lisa Falkenberg contributed to this report.
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