Missouri: Where fund-raising flap falls flat

DES PERES, Mo. - Washington is abuzz about political fund-raising but in this heartland community 1,000 miles away, the latest developments are more like irritating background noise.

Many people here surely don't care for the way politicians collect money for campaigns. And many feel uneasy about how President Clinton and Vice President Gore used the White House to woo donors.

But most residents interviewed are paying limited day-to-day attention to the news from Washington about congressional hearings, newly surfaced videotapes of White House coffees for contributors, the prospect of independent counsels, money-laundering through Buddhist nuns and Senate votes to block a campaign-finance-reform bill.

"I just don't have the time to follow it," says Peggy Baumann, 37, a St. Louis stay-at-home mother of two children.

"I never even heard about the videotapes," acknowledges Aaron Head, 23, who works in direct-mail advertising in Brentwood.

Nearly two dozen interviews in the western suburbs of St. Louis this week found that most people are too busy working, raising families and worrying about local issues to get too worked up about something as remote from their lives as political fund-raising.

As Sue Riggio, 57, a Maryland Heights stock clerk, bluntly puts it, "I don't give any money to politicians so it doesn't matter that much to me."

That does not mean people here lack political savvy. Missouri has long been a bellwether state in presidential elections. And although the "Show-Me State" tends to lean Republican, it has a Democratic governor and five of its nine congressmen are Democrats.

"People here are quite independent and knowledgeable. They know how to figure things out and vote rationally in their own interests," says Rep. Jim Talent, the Republican in whose district the interviews were conducted.

Talent, elected to a third term last year after outspending his Democratic rival by 3-1, says he agrees that the campaign-finance system needs reform. But he worries that a quick-fix might make matters worse.

"Nobody who has to live within the current system likes it," he says, adding he'd support a requirement that contributions come only from the candidate's home district or region.

Both of Missouri's Republican senators, Christopher Bond and John Ashcroft, voted last week to block legislation, known as the McCain-Feingold bill, that would overhaul the campaign finance system. But few of their constituents interviewed here knew it.

Karen Brown, 31, a business planning manager from Fenton, says politicians will be forced to act only when people become outraged about fund-raising abuses.

Of the latest revelations about White House fund-raising, she says, "I've always thought Clinton was kind of shady. This is icing on the cake."

But prosperous economic times in this area have tempered discontent with Clinton. The unemployment rate is just 3.7% in Missouri and 3.8% in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

The economy here is anchored by manufacturing jobs at Chrysler, Ford and McDonnell Douglas-Boeing plants. Sprawling suburban growth along I-170 and I-270 has been stimulated by modern office parks for high-tech and financial companies.

Those interviewed didn't mention economic problems when asked to list issues that concerned them most. Education, crime, health care and traffic seemed far bigger worries, along with just finding time to balance work and family demands.

As for the financing of political campaigns, most tend to dismiss the investigations in Washington as so much Republican sniping.

"It's a big flap over nothing," says Art Amoroso, 78, a retired St. Ann insurance man who usually votes Republican.

The interviews here are consistent with polls showing the public paying little attention to campaign-finance probes in the House and Senate. An ABC survey this week showed only 10% of respondents were following the investigations very closely and 30% hadn't heard about the White House videotapes of Clinton greeting contributors.

As interviews got more in-depth, however, four themes emerged:

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are thought to be interested in making drastic changes to the current fund-raising system.

Even if they do change it, the old problem of big money influencing politics will continue.

There is little citizen agreement on what can be done to fix the complex system.

Whether a candidate supports campaign-finance reform will not be the deciding factor in next year's vote.

Gus Bloebaum, 48, a corporate employee assistance director from St. Charles, knows that Bond voted in the Senate to block the McCain-Feingold bill. Yet, Bloebaum says he doesn't think it will make much difference in Bond's quest next year for another term.

"That's the trouble with the finance system. Once a politician is in office he can collect enough money to make it hard to get him out. We need term limits," Bloebaum says.

The feeling that everybody-does-it makes it difficult for voters to blame one party or politician for the campaign-finance situation.

"All of the candidates, Republican and Democrat, collect money for their campaigns. President Clinton is for reform, but he's still out raising money," says Al Sesay, a 50-year-old computer repairman from Ferguson. "Who do you punish?"

By Richard Benedetto, USA TODAY