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Bradley can hit the open wallet

Bill Bradley, campaign finance crusader and former basketball star, is also a most valuable fundraiser.

By SARA FRITZ Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 1999


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DES MOINES, Iowa -- When Bill Bradley moved from professional basketball into politics in the 1970s, he quickly honed an ability to raise campaign contributions that was every bit as effective as his jump shot.

By 1989, when Bradley mounted the final campaign of his Senate career, he had become so good at fundraising among wealthy donors that he collected a then-unheard-of sum of $700,000 at a single Hollywood party given by Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

Ten years later, Bradley is making campaign finance reform a centerpiece of his 2000 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination because he thinks that special interest money is -- as he puts it -- "eating away at the fabric of democracy."

Yet Bradley contends that while raising large campaign donations has compromised the integrity of many politicians, it never has affected his own judgment. He insists that his wealthy contributors were motivated by friendship, not by a desire to gain advantage in Washington.

"In my case. . . . I've never felt any compromise or potential compromise," he said Tuesday in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "My contributors say they are doing it because they believe in me."

To be sure, Bradley has cultivated a maverick reputation that sometimes puts him at odds with the interests of his contributors. But critics say the former New Jersey senator is deceiving himself when he says he has never been compromised by seeking contributions from business executives whose profits depend on Senate legislation.

"Bradley can deny the reality of being compromised all he wants," said Ellen S. Miller, executive director of Public Campaign, a non-partisan group seeking campaign finance reform. "But from the public perception, every candidate is subject to the same corrupt influences. Appearance or reality -- it doesn't matter to the American people."

Bradley's views on campaign finance reform will be on display Thursday, when he and Republican Sen. John McCain -- both candidates for their party's presidential nomination -- stage an unusual joint appearance in Claremont, N.H., to advocate an end to the funding of presidential contests with unrestricted "soft money" contributions from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals.

The two men will agree that if they both are nominated, neither of them will accept soft money contributions in the general election. Soft money is the unlimited donations that don't go directly to the candidate and thus are not subject to the $1,000-a-year limit set by federal election laws.

Unlike Bradley, however, McCain willingly acknowledges that he has been tainted by the system he seeks to change. In the late 1980s, McCain was implicated in the Keating Five scandal -- one of five senators who took soft money contributions from California savings and loan owner Charles Keating, who was seeking government favoritism.

As for Bradley, he has never sought soft money contributions for himself. Instead, Bradley's strength has been his ability to persuade Hollywood movie moguls, Wall Street investment bankers and sports stars to bundle many checks of $1,000 each from their friends until they have amassed large amounts of money. Eisner's party for Bradley in 1989 was early evidence of the success of this technique known as "bundling."

Miller calls Bradley the "king of bundling from Wall Street." She notes that Bradley has collected nearly $500,000 for his presidential campaign from one zip code -- 10021 -- on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where wealthy investment bankers live.

"When candidates have to spend so much time listening to the problems of the wealthy," she said, "how can they help from being affected? They don't hear about how hard it is to get decent health coverage. Instead, they get an earful about taxes or government regulations."

In Tuesday's interview, however, Bradley rejected the notion that he depends on well-connected contributors to bundle checks from their friends and business associates.

"Nobody can tell me what bundling is," Bradley said. "It's one of those things that is illusive as to what it means. If I have friends in asingle place (such as a Wall Street firm) and all of them contribute to me, it just means that I have friends in that place."

Bradley said he has never depended upon one person in each firm to collect or bundle the checks from co-workers. He said that may be the way others receive money, but "that's not the case in my case."

As for Eisner's record-setting fundraiser in 1989, Ronald Brownstein, in his book The Power and The Glitter, recalls that while the party at the Century Plaza Hotel was ostensibly held to collect money for Bradley's Senate campaign, Hollywood saw it as a way to promote the New Jersey politician as a potential Democratic presidential nominee.

"It didn't make me feel compromised," Bradley said, referring to the Eisner party. "It didn't bother me at all."

At the time, Bradley was not closely identified with the liberalism of the Hollywood elite. Today, however, the content of his campaign for the nomination is much more akin to the politics of Eisner and his crowd, who continue to support Bradley.

Under his proposal for campaign finance reform, Bradley said, he would effectively eliminate this system by replacing privately financed congressional campaigns with a system of partial public funding similar to what now exists in the presidential contests.

Instead of collecting checks of up to $1,000, Bradley would supply candidates with $2 in public funds for every $1 they raise in private contributions of $250 or less. He said that by requiring candidates to raise some small private contributions in exchange for public funds, it would separate serious candidates from those who have no chance of winning.

Bradley said he would offer free television time to candidates who agree to abide by a specific spending limit. He would provide for same-day voter registration and require every employer to give their employees at least two hours off on Election Day in order to vote.

He acknowledged his campaign finance plan does not solve every problem that exists with the current system. For example, he said he cannot figure a way to constitutionally limit independent campaign advertising by groups unrelated to the candidate.

"If somebody could tell me how to solve it, I would do it," he said.

Likewise, he said his proposed ban on soft money contributions would not be foolproof. While he would outlaw soft money donations to national parties, he does nothing to curb soft money contributions through state parties. He said the federal government cannot supersede state law on this matter.

Even if McCain and Bradley are not nominated by their parties, Bradley suggested their pledge to jointly eliminate soft money could influence future discussions of this issue. No two candidates of opposite parties have ever made such a pledge.

"I think it will remind people of what could have been," said Bradley, who has predicted that soft money could total nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in 2000. "Without a ban on soft money, we are going to have an orgy that will make 1996 look pretty tame, and it was pretty raw."

Bradley's long-time wealthy supporters do not object to his efforts to reduce their role in politics. On the contrary, he said, they are cheering him on.

"They are strongly supportive," he said. "They are sick of it (the current system) because they are getting requests for money constantly."

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