Monday, February 16, 2004

For politicians, parties pull in campaign money



By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Bring in a former president. Throw a beach party. Host a golf tournament.

Those are some of the ways Greater Cincinnati's congressional delegation will raise money for this fall's election.

Raising money in politics today requires the kind of creativity that parents now bring to birthday parties. The competition for political dollars is fierce, and new campaign finance laws mean money won't come from a few donors writing giant checks, but from hundreds writing smaller ones.

Cocktail parties and "rubber chicken" events remain common, but politicians are getting more creative, said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"A lot of that is to reach to new donors and also to kind of excite the old donors," he said. "Your existing donors can only go to so many cocktail parties. They're looking for something new."

That's why:

• Rep. Rob Portman on Thursday brings in former President Bush as the special draw for Portman's one major local annual fund-raiser. For the previous election, Portman brought in Vice President Dick Cheney.

"The bottom line is Rob does not like to spend a lot of time fund raising. He prefers to focus on the legislative process," spokesman Kyle Downey said.

The Terrace Park Republican does do other fund-raisers in Washington, including a Cincinnati chili festival. Much of the money he raises goes to help other Republicans.

• Sen. Jim Bunning brought in fellow baseball Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson for a Washington fund-raiser, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to a fund-raiser at the Kentucky Speedway. Those are the some of the reasons the Southgate Republican was able to raise nearly $2.7 million last year.

"He's worked like crazy," spokesman Mike Reynard said.

• Rep. John Boehner, a West Chester Republican, plays host to some of the more fun events. Last year, he hired a band and rented a Washington disco called Polly Esthers. He organizes golf tournaments, and throws an annual "Boehner beach party" on Washington's waterfront.

"That event is always right before the August recess. And always a big draw - and a hard-sought ticket," said Boehner's spokesman, Steve Forde.

• GOP Sen. George Voinovich has a birthday party fund-raiser around July 15 every year. He usually brings in a hometown Cleveland celebrity like comedian Drew Carey or former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar. Food, of course, is cake, ice cream and cookies.

• Eric Fingerhut, also a Cleveland native and a Democratic challenger to Voinovich, will mount a book tour with sales helping his campaign; a bus tour; and, borrowing from the Howard Dean presidential campaign, conference calls to dozens of simultaneous house party fund-raisers.

"You know why we have to be more creative?" said Raquel Whiting, Fingerhut's campaign manager. "Because a Democrat hasn't won in 10 years."

Last year, the Greater Cincinnati's House incumbents hauled more than $3.2 million, and they'll raise even more this year.

Those seeking re-election - everyone except Northern Kentucky's Ken Lucas - are sitting on campaign money ranging from $125,000 for Boehner to more than $1.6 million for Portman.

Raising money for challengers is harder. Democrat Greg Harris of Cincinnati, who is running against Rep. Steve Chabot for the second time, said he'll be happy if he can raise half of what the Westwood Republican does. At least Harris expects to raise more money than last time, which shouldn't be hard, he joked: "It was about $12."

Democrat Dan Mongiardo, the Hazard, Ky., doctor running against Bunning, already has put more than $200,000 of his own money into the race. But his spokesman, Eric Niloff, predicts he will be able to match Bunning's fund raising.

"We're an underdog," he said. "But we plan to compete. ... We are going to be about the most entertaining campaign in a long time. We are going to be doing some crazy stuff."

Members of the Tristate delegation aren't the only politicians who use gimmicks. Last year's fund-raisers included fishing trips, baseball outings, even a Bon Jovi concert at $1,000 a ticket.

This month, an Alaskan senator hosts an annual king crab feast while a North Carolina House member offers barbecue. One Illinois congressman rented out part of a romantic Capitol Hill restaurant for a Valentine's Day reception and dinner.

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E-mail cweiser@gannett.com




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