The New Fat Cats

Who financed campaign ’96? In Texas, at least, the list of prominent donors contains a lot of surprises.

POLITICAL FUNDRAISING IN TEXAS ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE. Gone are the days when construction magnate George R. Brown helped collect sackfuls of cash for Lyndon Johnson and fat cats like oil mogul H. L. Hunt underwrote right-wing causes. The old Texas establishment, made up largely of developers, oilmen, ranchers, and the bankers who lent them money, has been eclipsed by a new collection of Texans that doesn’t qualify as an establishment at all. They make their money from law, finance, and entrepreneurship—activities that are not unique to Texas—and their attraction to politics is more likely to involve national races and issues. But one thing hasn’t changed: Texas continues to be a major source of political contributions, not just for Texas politicians, but for candidates from Alaska to Florida.

To learn how Texans are spending their political money, I perused more than 1,300 pages of campaign finance reports compiled by the Federal Election Commission from January 1, 1995 to August 1, 1996—all told, more than 52,000 donations by Texans. The FEC list is organized by recipient instead of by donor, so the process of calculating how much an individual contributor gave was painstakingly slow and subject to human error. Still, it offered a revealing look at the new ground rules of money and power in Texas politics—and who the players are. (Some totals include contributions by spouses and businesses.)

Plaintiffs attorneys dominate the list of top Democratic party donors. From Kenneth Bailey of Houston, $180,000. Pat, Michael, and Marynell Maloney of San Antonio, $120,000. The law firm of Baron and Budd of Dallas, $101,000. Franklin Jones of Marshall, $100,000. Nelson Roach of Daingerfield, $80,000. John O’Quinn of Houston, $70,000. Frank and Debbie Branson of Dallas, $66,546. Arthur Schechter of Houston, $60,000. Lee Godfrey of Houston, $50,000. All of these contributions are “soft money” for party committees and are not subject to the $1,000 limitation for donations to an individual candidate. By contrast, only one lawyer—congressman-turned-lobbyist Tom Loeffler of San Antonio—makes the list of the top Republican donors, with $105,000.

Business remains the major source of GOP funds. The Pilgrim chicken empire of Pittsburg heads the roster of Republican contributors with $273,000. Megamillionaire investor Harold Simmons of Dallas is second with $191,250, followed by Enron Corporation of Houston and CEO Ken Lay with $187,000. The rest of the list: Trammell and Harlan Crow of Dallas (real estate), $160,000; Hicks, Muse of Dallas (investments), $130,000; Roy Huffington of Houston (oil), $129,975; Foxmeyer Corporation of Carrollton (pharmaceuticals), $115,000; Norman Brinker of Dallas (restaurants), $97,500; and Earle and Dorothy Craig of Midland (oil), $95,000.

Of course, the Democrats have their business contributors too. Top donors include University of Texas regent Bernard Rapoport of Waco (insurance for labor unions), $120,750; David Bonderman of Fort Worth (investments), $120,000; DSC Communications of Plano (telecommunications), $120,000; former Democratic National Committee finance chairman Truman Arnold of Texarkana (oil), $100,000; C. W. Conn of Beaumont (real estate), $80,000; Ray Nasher of Dallas (real estate), $80,000; Stan McLelland of San Antonio (corporate law), $75,000; Tilman Fertitta of Houston (restaurants), $70,000; and Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale of Houston (furniture), $50,000. At least one corporation hedged its bets: Browning-Ferris Industries of Houston gave $62,050 to the Democratic Party, $61,350 to the GOP.

Most prominent Texas Republicans contributed the maximum of $1,000 to Phil Gramm’s futile campaign for president. One notable exception was former president George Bush; he and his wife, Barbara, anted up for Bob Dole after Gramm was out of the race. Here’s who backed Gramm’s rivals (though in some cases, they also contributed to Gramm).
Lamar Alexander: Anne Armstrong of the South Texas ranching family; grocer Charles Butt of San Antonio; Houston oilmen Jack Blanton, Michel Halbouty, and Roy Huffington; San Antonio banker Tom Frost; Jessica Hobby Catto of San Antonio, daughter of the late Oveta Culp Hobby.
Pat Buchanan:  Ron Paul of Lake Jackson, a GOP nominee for Congress; Patti Stockman, the wife of Congressman Steve Stockman of Webster.
Richard Lugar:  ex-CIA official Bobby Ray Inman of Austin; aerobics guru Kenneth Cooper of Dallas; oilman George Mitchell of the Woodlands.
Pete Wilson:  former governor Bill Clements of Dallas.
Steve Forbes: former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher of Houston; political consultant Karl Rove of Austin; banker Gary Jacobs of Laredo.
Covering all bets (Gramm, Dole, Lugar, and Alexander): Cooper Industries ex-chairman Robert Cizik of Houston.
Gramm and Bill Clinton: Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams. No wonder the Oilers never know which way they’re going.

The list of presidential donors suggests that the wealthiest Republican contributors are a good bit more moderate than the activists in their party. Far-right causes can no longer count on Texas money. No major GOP donor contributed to Pat Buchanan; nor did a single big name help out far-right congressional candidates Ron Paul or Gene Fontenot of Houston.

Many big contributors prefer spreading their money around the nation in $1,000 chunks for crucial Senate and House races rather than donating to political parties. Former lieutenant governor Ben Barnes’s lengthy dance card included incumbent Democratic congressmen Jesse Jackson, Jr., of Illinois and Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts and incumbent senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Max Baucus of Montana. On the GOP side, longtime heavy contributor Peter O’Donnell of Dallas backed incumbent senators Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Houston financier Charles Hurwitz, embroiled in a fight over cutting redwoods, backed three California congressmen. And few GOP contributors had more far-flung interests than Houston’s Randolph DeLay, whose thriving lobbying practice will doubtless fare much better if Republicans remain in control of the House—enabling his brother Tom to hold on to the post of majority whip.

For many critics of modern politics, the stack of FEC reports will furnish proof of the corrupting influence of money and stimulate calls for reform. But the reports also show just how far we have come. Ray Hunt, a son of H. L. Hunt, is a mainstream Republican who even contributes to hometown

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