We knew we wanted to take a different kind of look at top political contributors in Washington state this year, so after kicking it around a bit we came up with a project that was a sharp departure from what we'd done in the past.
First, we decided to look at just the top individual contributors. For this story, we'd skip the PAC's, the unions, the party committees, the Boeings, the Microsofts and the Weyerhaeusers, which we report on regularly anyway. Instead, we'd write about people and who they give to and why and what they think of the political fund-raising process.
Second, we wanted a broader approach than we usually take in campaign-finance stories. I wasn't interested in fingering, for example, just the top contributors to this year's crop of congressional candidates. Instead, we'd compile a Top 50 list of the largest contributors of the 1990s at all levels federal, state and local.
We began with the 1991-92 campaign cycle because it was the farthest back computerized information was available at the state level. It also coincided conveniently with the first congressional election in Washington's 9th District, a seat gained after the 1990 Census. And it seemed that seven years of data would give us a pretty good grip on who the top givers were over time.
The story framework was refined by me and Danny Westneat of our Washington, D.C., bureau, in consultation with politics editor Mark Matassa and our AME for projects and investigations, Dave Boardman. Danny and I later got crucial reporting assistance from our city hall reporter, Susan Byrnes. Our research editor, Tom Boyer, provided invaluable assistance untangling some knots during the data-crunching.
The story ultimately told us much we hadn't known about some of the major contributors in our area and no doubt told readers even more, since many of the people on our list are somewhat reclusive. The tone of the story also was much different than most campaign finance stories we write or see elsewhere. Here's how it began:
"If the state's top 50 political financiers were all to gather in a room for a photograph, several things about the group would be immediately obvious. They're all rich, some extraordinarily so. And they're all white.
"If they were to begin talking, it would be evident they're also obsessed in some way with politics the sport of it, the celebrity of it, the detailed public policies behind it.
"But beyond these broad similarities, it turns out the fattest cats of the local political scene are nearly as diverse in their views about government, the role of politics in American society and even their own relevance to it all as any random group of people plucked off a downtown Seattle street."
The project divided itself naturally, if not always neatly, into two parts, numbers and people. They both provided challenges. Some of the data was a mess and some of the truly rich don't talk to reporters.
Nonetheless, we wound up with a 100-inch Sunday story we really liked and a full-page table giving a rundown on the Top 50. Danny followed up the next day with a parallel look at small contributors, folks who send politicians a steady stream of checks for $10, $25 or $50. Such donors have become increasingly important in Washington state because of strict limits on campaign contributions for state and local offices.
I did a third piece, which ran later, on politicians who give to their own campaigns. These folks are some of the most generous contributors around, but their money is usually ill-spent because they almost never win. An accompanying table detailed the Top 20 such candidates of the 1990's in Washington.
This package took a couple of months of my time to get together, mainly because of data problems that often were compounded by the refusal of some people on the list to return our calls. That made it impossible to get confirmation from them that our numbers were somewhere in the ballpark.
Nonetheless, we wound up with a package of stories with which we were very pleased and I'd heartily recommend the approach we took to anyone who wants to get beyond the immediate and provide a little perspective on the motivations of individual donors.
Here are a few caveats:
Define your project carefully. What we did may or may not make sense elsewhere depending on the kind of campaign-finance reporting you've done previously, the data available and its condition. For this project, I looked at federal hard and soft money contributions from 1991 through mid-1998, contributions to state legislative and constitutional-office campaigns, state initiative campaigns (always big items in the West), individual contributions to state political party committees (paper records), contributions to city and county offices and initiative campaigns (about half paper), and contributions to state-level independent-expenditure committees (more paper).
Know your data. What I had to work with varied hugely in quality. Federal Election Commission data is pretty accurate. State Public Disclosure Commission data gave me ulcers.
The main problem I had with FEC data, and it's well-known to anyone who has worked much with it, was the entry of individuals' names in many different ways. The record was for a fellow named Lucius A.D. Andrew III. His name is in FEC records in no fewer than eight permutations (that I found, at least): Lucius Andrew, Lucius A. Andrew, Lucius A.D. Andrew, Lucius A.D. Andrew II, Lucius A.D. Andrew III, Mr. Lucius A.D. Andrew III, Lucius D. Andrew and Lucius Andrew III.
This problem was common to all databases I worked with save that of the city of Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission. This little operation has by far the cleanest political data I know of, and each contributor is given a unique identification code.
There is no effort by the FEC or the state Public Disclosure Commission to address the name problem, so you have to solve it yourself. This meant multiple searches and sorts, usually followed by line-by-line examination of files containing anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand records. The latter were necessary because there was always the chance that, for example, local skyscraper developer Herman Sarkowsky's last name might be misspelled as it was more than once.
Keep a good file log. If you're working with multiple databases, you'll wind up with literally dozens of files. Make sure you know where they all came from.
Cross-check your data if possible: I used raw FEC data from the agency web site, but relied heavily on former FEC webmaster Tony Raymond's classy FECInfo site to double-check my results.
Be careful. Because we had data from several sources, I wound up working in Fox Pro with DBF files generated by Fox, Excel and Monarch. Sometimes for instance if an Excel-generated DBF file was derived from an Excel file that included a column with underlying computational formulas - the files would not join cleanly in Fox Pro. The result was inaccurate data. Fortunately, by that time I had a very good feel for what some of the numbers should look like and spotted the problems.
Be flexible. We thought at the outset that we had a pretty good idea who would wind up on the Top 50 list. And, as expected, local tech billionaires Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Craig McCaw were on it, as were the scions of old money made in real estate, timber and airplanes. But we also found a few people among the Top 50 whom we'd literally never heard of and a number of others whose names we were familiar with but had written little about over the years. We shifted our focus and devoted much of our reporting effort to some of the relative unknowns and came up with a richer story. One example:
The oldest person on our list was a 91-year-old woman Susan Byrnes found living in a nursing home. She was on the list mainly because candidates and causes kept bombarding her with solicitations and she kept sending them checks.
Beware of the dead: Since big contributors are likelier to be older, make sure they're still alive if you look at contributions over a long period. Four people who could have made the Top 50 had died at some point during the seven years we considered.
Let your data be your guide, not your master. When examining lists of individual contributors it's difficult to come up with an iron-clad scheme that's going to cover everything you find out there in the real world. Though we set out to report on individuals, we deviated from that literal path when it seemed to make sense. Two key examples:
First, we considered couples as one entity when both were significant contributors. In these cases, the couples almost always gave to similar candidates and causes, so it just seemed sensible to group them.
Second, we included the corporate contributions of closely held companies we knew to be controlled by one individual. The most prominent example was Thomas J. Stewart, the CEO of Services Group of America, one of the nation's larger privately held companies. Stewart, who had paid $5 million in fines for making about $100,000 in illegal contributions to local campaigns, was the No. 2 contributor on our list, with the vast bulk of his donations funneled through his corporation and its PAC. It would have made no sense to leave him out.
On the other hand, we included only the individual contributions of Bill and Melinda Gates, which placed them 11th on the list. We report periodically on the corporate contributions of Microsoft and felt no need to cover that ground yet again in this story.
Be straight with your readers: If you've got misgivings about your data and I did point out the potential problems in an explanatory note with your tables. Our note told readers about data-entry errors by public agencies, the possibility totals might be incomplete because names are entered in more than one way and that paper records were examined selectively. As a result, we said, the numbers reported likely were the minimum anyone actually gave. That and a lot of time spent checking and rechecking may be the reason we received no complaints from anyone on the list about our conclusions.
Finally, these stories can be fun. Have a good time.
Tom Brown can be reached at (206)464-2353 or
by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.