Parties get $100m in 'soft money'

By John Aloysius Farrell, Globe Staff, 2/1/2000

ASHINGTON - Shrugging off calls for reform, the two major parties raised about $100 million in unregulated ''soft money'' from unions, major corporations and wealthy individuals in 1999, according to reports filed yesterday.

Even as Congress came within a handful of votes of banning that controversial source of funds last year, soft money flowed in from Hollywood, from Wall Street and from Minnesota to Texas. It came from retailers and financiers and cigarette manufacturers. Soft money donors included major corporations like AT&T and Microsoft; big unions, and lots of rich people.

Struck by the numbers from 1999, campaign finance specialists predicted yesterday that the Democrats and Republicans might raise $500 million in unregulated soft money funds in the 1999-2000 election cycle. The biggest influx of soft money donations always occurs in the summer and fall before the general election.

Soft money donations flow through the biggest loophole in federal election laws. Soft money is given to the Republicans and Democrats for ''party-building'' activities, and so is not capped or regulated like the ''hard money'' given to presidential or congressional candidates.

''Soft money is going to be huge this cycle,'' said Larry Makinson, of the Center for Responsive Politics. ''We are looking at probably half a billion dollars in soft money.''

When combined with the fund-raising success of GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush - who reported raising $70 million in hard money in 1999, and spending $17 million in the three months leading up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary - the soft money totals appear to guarantee that the 1999-2000 election cycle will be the most expensive yet.

Trailing just behind Bush and the two major parties were Democrats Bill Bradley ($27 million) and Vice President Al Gore ($28 million) and GOP candidate Senator John McCain ($16 million). Publisher Steve Forbes spent a total of $33.6 million, $28.7 million of it his own money.

The Republican National Committee listed $28 million in soft money donations in its annual report yesterday, which was the deadline for filing the 1999 year-end reports. The Democratic National Committee was right behind, with just under $20 million.

Though final figures were not available for the parties' congressional fund-raising committees, party officials estimated that these filings would add at least $50 million to the soft money totals for 1999.

In recent years, candidates of both parties have taken advantage of the parties' big soft money treasuries to run televised advertising that boosts individual candidacies.

''There is an unlimited appetite for money in politics, and this is the one place where there are no limits,'' said Makinson. ''This will probably be the fastest-growing part of the money pie this season.''

The previous record for soft money expenditures was reached in the 1995-1996 cycle, when the parties raised and spent $260 million.

The RNC total was boosted by several six-figure contributions in December alone, including some $400,000 donated by Bush's fund-raising ''pioneers,'' and their firms and families.

Sam Fox, a Bush pioneer, gave the RNC $250,000 in December. Officials from the Enron Corporation, a Texas energy firm with close ties to Bush, gave the RNC $75,000. Other big donors included the Philip Morris Co., the tobacco conglomerate, and Finn Caspersen, the CEO of Knickerbocker Management Inc. Each gave the Republicans $250,000 in December.

On the Democratic side, the big donors reported yesterday include Peter Angelos, the trial lawyer who owns the Baltimore Orioles, who gave $100,000, and Jon Corzine, the Goldman Sachs & Co. executive who donated $100,000.

Other big Democratic donors were Tim Gill, the chairman of Quark, Inc., who gave $225,000; Louis Weisbach, the president of HA-LO Industries, who donated $264,000, and the Pechanga Band of Mission Indians of California, who gave the Democrats $100,000.

Among the other Democratic donors were Marc Andreessen of Netscape ($12,500); Los Angeles screenwriter Stephen Bing ($75,000); record producer Quincy Jones ($10,000), and journalist Gail Sheehy ($1,000).

The special Democratic ''New York Committee'' reported receipts of $72,500 to help Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign.

The DNC distributed $118,000 to New York in the second half of 1999, the report said.