April 17, 1997

Confident and Enthusiastic, G.O.P. Solicits Big Donations


WASHINGTON -- Undeterred by the furor over campaign fund-raising, Republicans are planning a black-tie dinner next month featuring congressional leaders in hopes of attracting contributors who will give or raise as much as $250,000 apiece.

For a quarter of a million dollars, donors will get breakfast and photographs with Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who will share their "opinions on our party's issues and strategies for the 105th Congress," the invitation says.

They are also guaranteed a seat at one of the four head tables with Republican luminaries at the dinner, which will be held May 13 at a Washington hotel. In addition to breakfast and dinner, they are invited to lunch with Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who will talk about "Republican strategies for the upcoming 1997-98 elections." Their donations earn them the title of "co-chairman" of the event.

The Republican National Committee expects a handful of the more than 2,000 guests to give or raise $250,000 each. It hopes to raise a total of $11 million.

A spokeswoman for the Republican committee, Mary Crawford, said there was nothing untoward about the party's soliciting large donations and offering contributors a chance to rub shoulders with congressional leaders. It is the fund-raising practices of Democrats, not Republicans, Ms. Crawford said, that are being questioned.

The Republicans are so certain of their ground that a pile of "Gala Facts" sheets describing the benefits for each level of contributor were openly available on tables at the committee's spring meeting in Florida last weekend. The planners of the gala were reflecting the attitude of Lott, who earlier this year described the solicitation of unlimited money as "the American way."

One Republican who plans to attend the gala said the concern among his circle of donors was not about how the event appears in light of the fund-raising controversy but whether any of the gala proceeds would go to help Gingrich pay off the $300,000 levied against him in January by the House ethics committee. They were assured it would not, he said.

Critics say the Republicans are demonstrating a surprisingly casual approach to the appearance of trading money for access.

"It's the Republican version of your White House coffee, where large donors are being sold access to the leaders of the 105th Congress," said Kent Cooper, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a public-interest lobby that promotes overhauling the system of campaign finance.

"These are the people who will be setting the agenda for the next Congress," Cooper said, "and their time is being auctioned to the wealthy in the guise of party fund-raising."

According to the gala fact sheets, those who give or raise $100,000 are designated "vice chairman" of the event and receive essentially the same treatment as those who give $250,000, except they are not seated at the head tables. Instead they are promised "VIP seating."

Those who give or raise $45,000, dubbed "deputy chairman," get no breakfast and only "preferential seating" at the gala. A contribution of $15,000 buys a table and gets the giver on the dinner committee. The minimum amount accepted is $1,000, which buys only a general admission ticket to the gala and earns no special appellation.

The Republican National Committee is soliciting the unlimited, unrestricted donations from individuals, corporations or political action committees -- and will distribute the cash to Republicans running for the House and Senate, governorships and state legislatures across the country in the 1997 and 1998 elections.

The event comes at a time when political donations during President Clinton's re-election campaign last year, particularly such "soft money" contributions to the Democratic National Committee, are under fierce scrutiny. The news media and congressional committees are looking into questionable contributions, including whether the Chinese government tried to buy influence with the White House through large contributions.

The Democrats have said they would return $2.7 million of the $210 million they received in contributions in the 1994-96 election cycle -- either because they were from foreign nationals or because the money's origin was unclear -- but they deny any deliberate wrongdoing.

Republicans have returned checks totaling just $231 of the $280 million they raised in the same period. The checks were given back when the donors volunteered to party officials that they were citizens of other countries. Campaign finance laws prohibit noncitizens from contributing to U.S. political parties or candidates.

The only sign that Republicans have any concern over financial contributions is a new warning label -- "contributions from foreign nationals are prohibited" -- on their fundraising materials.

Still, Republicans are proceeding with the gala confident that the public is making a distinction between them and the Democrats.

"The climate that our country is in right now was generated by what was clearly an orchestrated effort on the part of the Democrat Party to solicit and receive funds from illegal sources," Ms. Crawford of the Republican committee said. "That is not a bipartisan problem."

Donors to the gala are not buying access to influence Congress, she said; they are supporting Republican philosophy and principles, like lower taxes and smaller government.

"That is a fundamental part of party-building in our political process," Ms. Crawford said.

She said the mere fact that the party was planning such a huge event this soon after a losing presidential campaign and this far in advance of the 1998 midterm elections demonstrated its "high degree of confidence" that its fund-raising ability and its political future were sound and that it would not be blamed by the public for the money problems swamping the Democrats.

But Cooper of the Center for Responsive Politics said the event reconfirmed that influence in either party was only for the rich.

"I think the public will see this as another example of a system in which they are not being represented," he said. "If you don't have the economic wealth, you're not going to be at those events."

Cooper suggested that if the donors were interested only in the party's principles, the party would not need to use congressional leaders as a draw.

The Republicans in the first quarter of this year raised $11.2 million and lowered their debt to $6 million from $9.75 million. Earlier this month the Republican National Committee received a single donation of $1 million, from Rich and Helen DeVos of Michigan. DeVos was a co-founder of Amway.

The DeVoses are out of the country, but their daughter-in-law, Betsy DeVos, chairman of the Republican Party in Michigan, said that her in-laws had never received or expected anything special for their many donations over the years and that she had no problem with such large donations.

"Obviously neither party has a problem with large donations," Mrs. DeVos said. "It's fully reported, and as long as that's a part of the law, certainly the parties should continue to accept them."

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