Monday, May 24, 2004

Portman rises as draw for donors

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Earlier this month, Rep. Rob Portman helped organize a fund-raising event at the Cincinnati home of his friend, Federated Department Stores executive Tom Cody.

But the event wasn't for Portman.

It was for fellow Ohio congressman Ralph Regula. The Canton Republican hopes to use the $100,000 raised there to help become chairman next year of the House committee that controls federal spending.

As Portman has risen to the top ranks of Republican power here, he has transformed himself from a congressman to a fund-raising franchise.

"It's a price of leadership," said Portman, the Terrace Park Republican. "You have to be willing to support the team. I view it as necessary but undesirable."

Portman chairs the House Republican Leadership, acts as the liaison between the White House and House Republicans, serves on the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Budget Committee, and is communications director for the Bush campaign in Ohio.

And that cachet translates into cash:

• His campaign fund, the Portman for Congress Committee, is pulling in an average of $80,000 a month. And since Portman routinely wins re-election by 3-to-1 margins, almost none of the money goes to pay for Portman's campaign. Much of it goes to help other Republicans raise money.

• Like most congressional leaders, Portman operates a leadership political action committee, a special organization that raises money exclusively to help finance other Republicans. Portman's fund, which he launched in 2001, is called America's Majority Trust. It's now collecting $57,000 a month, virtually all of which goes to help fellow Republicans.

• Much of his fund raising shows up nowhere on paper. He's a Pioneer for the Bush campaign, which means he's raised at least $100,000 for President Bush's re-election. He had to come up with $75,000 recently for a Republican gala in Washington and is required to pay another $25,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. (If he didn't, "he would get a call from the speaker," committee spokesman Carl Forti said.)

Sometimes he lends his name to an effort, sometimes his donor list and sometimes his fund-raising consultant, Rachel Pearson. He speaks at events. He makes phone calls. He travels.

"Someone who raises a whole lot of money is being pulled in a lot of different directions," said Steven Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political fund raising.

Portman's opponent in the November election, Democrat Charles Sanders, said Portman should spend less time raising money and more time serving the 2nd Congressional District, which runs from downtown Cincinnati to southern Warren County, east through Clermont, Brown and Adams counties.

"He's elected to serve the 2nd District, not the rest of America," said Sanders, who is running against Portman for the fourth time. "He should devote his time and energies to increasing the economic growth and development in the district."

What Portman does is common in Washington among top-ranking . Sen. Mitch McConnell's willingness to raise money for fellow GOP senators has propelled the Kentucky Republican to the Senate's No. 2 position.

Portman does it for the same reasons.

"It helps us keep the majority," he said. "That enables me to help set the direction of the House and the country."

Help Portman, help Cincinnati

With his White House connections, his position on the committee that helps write tax laws, and his ability to be in the room when many key leadership decisions are made on everything from pensions to pork, Portman is in demand by groups that want things from Congress.

"Donors are attracted to power, and they are quick to recognize someone who is rising in the ranks," Weiss said. "A donor's money is well spent by going to people in the decision-making capacity. ... Clearly someone publicly identified as being close to Bush is going to attract a lot of positive attention."

The money comes in from old friends, lobbyists, business leaders from Procter & Gamble to Fidelity Investments, and even some people who are essentially Portman groupies - people who see him as a rising star and want to invest in him.

Portman's fund-raising events sometimes feature cameos from White House officials. Indian Hill's Joe Hagin, the White House deputy chief of staff, often attends, said Shawn Smeallie, another longtime friend and donor.

"I think he will continue rising up the leadership in the House. Or I wouldn't be surprised if he had a senior spot in the second Bush administration," Smeallie said of Portman.

Portman's money pays for TV ads in Lubbock, Texas, where a Republican faces a tough re-election - and that Republican, freshman Randy Neugebauer, will owe Portman. Money going out to other Republicans will help Portman earn chits in the House and could one day help make him speaker or chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

And it could help Cincinnati.

The money raised for Regula in Cincinnati is for Regula's new leadership PAC, Care PAC, which has had fund-raising events in Cleveland, Canton and Washington. He hopes to use Care PAC to become the first Ohioan to chair the appropriations committee since James Garfield in 1875.

Regula already chairs a key spending subcommittee that controls all health and education money.

"Now he knows I'm a supporter," Portman said, which could come in handy the next time Portman needs money for Cincinnati.

"The next time is now," he said, pointing out he has asked Regula for $4 million for the University of Cincinnati Medical Sciences Building.

What do donors want?

Portman's donors, both in Cincinnati and Washington, say they know the money Portman raises goes to help other Republicans. They don't care.

"That's his prerogative," said Charleston Wang, a Montgomery lawyer who has given $5,500 to Portman in the past five years. "He's my favorite congressman."

"He's a good leader and a good steward of other people's money," both tax and political contributions, said Bruce Gates, a Washington lobbyist and Portman friend and donor.

Portman said he doesn't know who his donors are - doesn't track them - and that no donor has ever tied his donation to a change in the tax code.

"If they even mention a donation, that's a negative," he said.

Not even the chairman of the Cincinnati chapter of Common Cause, usually a reliable critic of money's influence in politics, would criticize Portman.

In fact, chairman Larry Higdon, an independent who lives in Kenwood in Portman's district, has attended Portman's fund-raising events.

"He's pretty straightforward. He pretty well announces where he is on issues," Higdon said. "If you start waving dollars around, it's not going to have an influence."


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