Cantwell pledge not to take PAC money has holes
Seattle Times Washington bureau
If raising campaign cash for the U.S. Senate is like a marathon, Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell doesn't have much of a running start.
Cantwell owes about $2.4 million from her bruising 2000 race to knock off incumbent Republican Slade Gorton.
With her seat up for grabs in less than two years, Cantwell is launching an aggressive fund-raising schedule to collect about $13 million.
The former high-tech executive's efforts are made harder by her 2000 promise to refuse money from political-action committees, or PACs.
Cantwell said she is forsaking PAC money as part of her focus on campaign-finance reform, and she wants to spend her time talking to regular Washingtonians instead of D.C. fat cats.
But her campaign is benefiting from corporations and special interests through contributions from their employees who lobby Congress.
The no-PAC pledge underscores the tough choices Cantwell faces as she sets about to raise $20,000 a day until Nov. 7, 2006.
PACs, formed by corporations, labor unions and interest groups to make political contributions, are allowed to give federal candidates $5,000 for the primary and an additional $5,000 for the general election. By contrast, individual donors are allowed to give only $2,000 per election.
Cantwell is one of six senators, including former presidential nominee John Kerry, D-Mass., who refuses PAC money. Her no-PAC pledge dates from May 2000, when she left Seattle's RealNetworks to run against Gorton.
RealNetworks stock was trading at about $50 a share at the time. Her portfolio was once estimated at more than $40 million.
"For too long, the powerful special interests have controlled the agenda," she said in 2000. "That's why I'm spending more of my time talking to the citizens of Washington state than going to Washington, D.C., to solicit campaign contributions."
But RealNetworks' stock price started to plummet within a few months of her announcement and now trades at about $5 a share.
Almost as soon as she arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2001, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and other party leaders urged Cantwell to break her pledge and solicit PAC money to help pay off her campaign debt, estimated at $4 million. Instead, Cantwell focused on raising individual contributions.
As of Sept. 30, campaign-finance records indicate Cantwell has about $264,000 in cash and debts of $2.4 million. Cantwell owes most of the $2.4 million to herself. She hopes to retire about $130,000 in bank loans by tomorrow, the deadline for the next reporting period.
Last year, Cantwell reported her personal finances included between $1 million and $5 million in RealNetworks stock. Her office said she had not decided how much, if any, personal money she will devote to the 2006 campaign.
By comparison, Washington's senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray, had more than $1 million in the bank two years before her 2004 re-election. Murray eventually raised about $13 million.
Personal moneyIt's not easy to determine the influence of corporate dollars on Cantwell's campaign.
For example, campaign-finance records compiled by Dwight Morris & Associates indicate AT&T's PAC gave Murray $5,000 in her 2004 election.
The same records reveal the telecommunications company gave nothing to Cantwell in the same period.
But executives who work at AT&T's Washington, D.C., office wrote checks to Cantwell's campaign. Two vice presidents for congressional affairs at AT&T gave a total of $3,500. A lobbyist who lists AT&T as a client gave an additional $3,250.
Cantwell serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which is poised to take up legislation vital to the telecommunications industry.
It is illegal for a PAC or company to reimburse employees for political donations, and a spokeswoman for AT&T's political group said all laws were obeyed.
"Our employees are free to use personal money as they please," said Claudia Jones, director of media relations for AT&T in Washington. "It's their money. They can do whatever they want."
PAC bucks: "the cleanest"?Cantwell said she has no self-imposed restriction on taking money from individuals, no matter which company they represent.
"You have to draw the line somewhere, and I'm going to take money from individuals," she said. "I'm not discriminating against anybody who gives to me based on where they work."
Former Washington Rep. Al Swift, a Cantwell supporter, has urged her to break her PAC ban.
Not because she could raise more money, he said. But because it is more ethical to take money from PACs directly than to accept money from the lobbyists and lawyers who work for them.
"I've always argued that the cleanest money you get is PAC money because it's so traceable," said Swift, now a lobbyist in D.C. "Anyone can go online and see which PAC is giving money to a candidate. If sunshine is a good way to get rid of corruption, show me a better way."
Swift remembers going to fund-raisers for members of Congress who accepted PAC money and attending functions for those who didn't, and seeing the same donors at each event.
If a corporation wants to give to a candidate, the executives can give personally. So can their spouses and children, who may not have the same name or address.
"It still comes from the interests but it's a hell of a lot harder to trace," Swift said. "The money still gets into the system."
Starbucks, Pearl Jam helpCommon Cause, a D.C.-based good-government group, supports Cantwell's no-PAC pledge, even if it comes with holes.
"We applaud anytime an elected official does anything to show people they care where corporate money comes from," said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause.
Cantwell's office said she is prepared to raise the cash necessary to mount a successful campaign.
Last month, Starbucks executives held a house party for Cantwell, and members of the Seattle music scene raised $100,000 during a Jan. 21 Cantwell fund-raiser hosted by Pearl Jam's manager.
Although Cantwell doesn't mention her PAC pledge much these days, friends said it will make her fund raising incrementally more difficult.
"I think her dilemma is she's made a pledge and she doesn't want to appear to be backpedaling on an ethical issue," Swift said.
Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company