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Politicians' money-raising season cut short by Sept. 11

By Jo Mannies
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, politicians just wanted to talk about homeland security.

The last thing they wanted to talk about was their political security, which, in the campaign world, boils down to one thing: money.

In the days following Sept. 11, the majority of fund-raising events were canceled. For weeks after that, candidates declined to answer questions about money and skirted talk about whether they were raising it.

But you bet they were still raising money. They were just being more discreet about it. Most candidates had scheduled a full round of money-making events when Sept. 11 dramatically reset the nation's priorities. September and October are key fund-raising months for candidates planning to run in the 2002 elections. In Missouri, the filing deadline is in February, so candidates want hefty bankrolls to scare off potential challengers. Traditionally, November and December are less favorable times to raise money for political coffers, because donors are focused on the holidays and would likely give their money to charities instead of politicians.

Still, I found it difficult to get candidates and officeholders to discuss the matter in the weeks right after the terrorist attacks. To them, it seemed unseemly to talk about money when the public was pondering the more serious matters of mortality. Naturally, everybody said they didn't feel like campaigning or raising money, and weren't doing it.

I pressed them on whether that would create a problem because of the necessity of having to raise money for next year's contests. That's when some began to open up, discussing their internal staff debates on whether to hold fund-raising events and when, and how to mesh that necessity with their own conflicted feelings. Most politicians had the same feelings in the pit of their stomachs post-Sept. 11 that other Americans had.

Missouri's next round of campaign-finance reports were due on Oct. 15. If I wanted a story before then - which also was what my editors sought -- I needed to get the candidates to talk about their fund-raising activities. Some didn't return my phone calls because, aides said, they didn't feel that the topic was appropriate. I got called back only when I explained that I wanted to offer them an opportunity to publicly discuss the political dilemmas they were facing. When asking about political fund raising, politicians assume that reporters are out to make them look bad, so they shy away from candid discussions of volatile issues such as this. I emphasized that I was not out to make anybody look bad, and that I just wanted to outline the problems that politicians were facing.

The result was a story that focused on the candidates' mixed feelings about raising money at a time when nobody feels like doing it.

Many were eager to talk about their hopes that the nonpartisanship that characterized everyone's immediate response to the attacks would carry over into next year's elections, perhaps leading to less rancor and more emphasis on issues.

Missouri State Auditor Claire McCaskill was particularly candid and agreed to allow a reporter and photographer to drop by her fund-raising event. No other candidate was that open about their post-Sept. 11 fund raising.

The reporting process wasn't perfect. October campaign reports showed that St. Louis County Executive George R. "Buzz" Westfall had raised $600,000 in the last week of September. That was many times more than the September tallies of any other candidate for any other office. Westfall declined to be interviewed.

Westfall's spokesman Mac Scott denied the money was generated by a fund-raiser, which is usually the case when a big lump sum shows up on the campaign reports. He said that the money came from phone calls made earlier in the month, presumably before Sept. 11. It could have been that Westfall simply told his likely contributors that the checks needed to be received by Sept. 30 to be included on the October report, Scott said.

It was too bad that I failed to uncover Westfall's fund raising while he was doing it. That could have offered keen insight into his approach and how he ended up being so successful at approaching donors at such an emotional time.

Jo Mannies is a political reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.