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  • Go back to Tracker -- Fall 1998

    Uncovering the Power Behind "Leadership" PACs
    By Jonathan Riskind
    The Columbus Dispatch, Washington Bureau

    Campaign contribution limits aren't quite so constraining for politicians armed with a so-called "leadership" political action committee.

    So to tell the real story of who was giving how much to Rep. John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, it was necessary to shine a light on the potential presidential aspirant's use of campaign finance laws to boost his fund-raising prowess.

    Doing the Aug. 2 story (Kasich rakes in local cash, www.dispatch.com) didn't involve reinventing the reporting wheel or unearthing the next Watergate. But the end result was a good look at who is putting significant dollars behind a powerful politician, a national GOP player who could be his party's 2000 nominee.

    Since Kasich, House Budget Committee chairman, hails from a Columbus district, it has been important for The Dispatch to stay on top of his presidential drive. But this is the type of story that could be done by many newspapers about a number of different members of Congress.

    For instance, Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., had $1.3 million in his Spirit of America leadership committee as of June 30. It could be interesting to see who's donating to that possible GOP presidential candidate and how they match up with his regular congressional committee contributors.

    Since Kasich founded his Pioneer PAC in addition to his regular congressional committee, big bucks supporters have been able to exponentially increase their contributions.

    Dozens of members have leadership committees. The money can be used for such things as political travel to campaign for others in your party or campaign contributions to other members, although it cannot be shifted to a presidential committee.

    It's possible quite a few politicians use leadership committees to ratchet up the amount major donors can contribute. Certainly Kasich has done that successfully.

    The maneuver has been dubbed the "family plan" by some Kasich insiders. Quite simply, it means having individuals, couples and family units give money to both committees in a coordinated fashion. It's totally legal, but allows a politician to raise the fund raising stakes considerably.

    The maximum contribution to a congressional committee during a two-year election cycle is $2,000 per person, but individuals can give up to $10,000 per cycle to a leadership committee. So a single person can give up to $12,000 and a couple as much as $24,000.

    What did that mean to Kasich and his drive to raise money both for his congressional reelection (achieved overwhelmingly Nov. 3) and the Pioneer PAC supporting his national activities?

    In all, by June 30 Kasich's congressional committee had hauled in nearly $1.2 million and his leadership committee about $1.25 million. But the real key to understanding Kasich and his base of support thus far was knowing where that money came from.

    As of June 30, one family of Columbus area developers gave him a total of $48,000, the most he had received from a single family. Nineteen other couples or families gave at least $14,000.

    Overall, those 20 families gave Kasich nearly $500,000, about one-third of the $1.6 million in non-PAC, itemized contributions Kasich received to that point. Including another four dozen or so individuals and families who contributed at least $10,000 brings Kasich's total from a relatively small group of donors to nearly $900,000.

    Indeed, when Kasich's contributions were broken down by zip code it was revealed that just five Columbus suburbs or neighborhoods generated more than $734,000 for his combined coffers.

    The story also showed just how important big givers are to a politician, particularly when the double committee technique is employed.

    While most politicians stress how many people give, the reality is small contributions usually are just a fraction of the total amount raised. In Kasich's case, a mail campaign raised $100,000 from 5,000 people.

    As Sheila Krumholz of Citizens for Responsive Politics, whose database was the key to doing this story, noted, all of this was legal, ethical and just plain smart. But Krumholz worried it allowed a few contributors to loom especially large in Kasich's eyes and possibly gain too much access.

    His base was extremely local, with 16 of the top 20 donors and nearly all of the second tier of top contributors from Columbus.

    Most of his contributors are well-known, influential Columbus businessmen or families, including a bevy of Bank One executives who gave a total of $73,500 with most longtime Kasich backers who appeared happy to be able to drastically increase their financial support.

    At the same time, it was possible to identify growing pockets of support outside Ohio, places to watch as Kasich tries to go national.

    The Dispatch's own publisher and his wife were major backers, giving $10,750 through June 30. We placed that fact fairly prominently in the story to make sure nobody could accuse The Dispatch of ignoring or hiding their involvement with Kasich. (Publisher John F. Wolfe never said a word to me before or after the story was published.)

    You need a database that combines a politician's two committees. Center for Responsive Politics, based in Washington (www.crp.org) can provide a floppy disk containing the two committees on a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel or a database program like Microsoft Access.

    The Center for Responsive Politics also has a great format that uses a code to identify donors by profession. That can be a big help if you're trying to show what industries are backing a certain politician.

    All it takes is some simple sorting on the computer to find out who's giving what combined. I had some great help from Elizabeth Victor, the Washington bureau's assistant, who spent hours crunching the numbers after we figured out the appropriate sorts and Excel formulas.

    For instance, doing an alphabetical sort on donors by name instantly clustered together all the families. It helped to know the prominent Columbus families, but I called every single family of the top 20 for reaction and/or comments, and also to check my figures.

    One tip: get your graphic approved early and by a wide range of editors. An editor Saturday afternoon began worrying it might be confusing and dropped it; thus, the complete list of top 20 givers never made the paper.

    The August Kasich story built on database reporting done in 1997, when we wrote a detailed initial story about Kasich's growing desire to run for president.

    The March 16, 1997 story (Kasich: An eye on the White House) by myself and bureau chief Roger K. Lowe included a complete look at Kasich's congressional committee fund raising activity, also based on a Center for Responsive Politics database. As part of reporting that story I discovered Kasich had just launched Pioneer PAC at the end of 1996.

    It was in doing subsequent spot checks of who was giving to Pioneer PAC (leadership PACs must file monthly at the Federal Elections Commission) that I noticed a lot of familiar names giving a lot of money. Ah, I thought, it would be interesting to see just how much Mr. and Mrs. Columbus were really giving to Kasich.

    And it was interesting. The Aug. 2 story provoked much comment in Columbus, and it gives us the basis on which to continue monitoring who's backing Kasich and how that changes as he runs for president.

    Jonathan Riskind can be reached at (614) 461-5200 or by e-mail at jriskind@dispatch.com.