Sunday, January 09, 2005

79TH LEGISLATURE Biggest Political Donors

The year 2004 was what Texas pols call an 'off-year' election. Outside of a national contest between Red and Blue states, it was an off-year in Texas because no major statewide offices were on the ballot.

While campaign spending was down in the Lone Star State, donors continued giving to political candidates — either out of habit or in anticipation of the 2005 legislative session, when officials might decide whose taxes will pay for the next generation of schoolchildren, what to do about asbestos litigation and a host of other issues.

The 20 biggest givers between the 78th and 79th legislative sessions included individuals, political action committees and law firms, which are not bound by the same restrictions as corporations and can give to candidates.

Rank/Contributor Amount Their dog in the hunt

1. Bob Perry $3.2 million This Houston homebuilder, when he wasn't underwriting Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the presidential race, found the time and money to back the state's top Republicans, who last year created a state agency he had wanted. The Texas Residential Construction Commission — which arbitrates homeowners' complaints with builders — was created through legislation Perry's lawyer helped write.

2. Texans for Lawsuit Reform $1.6 million The favorite PAC for Big Business. This group, which takes on trial lawyers at the Capitol, pushed successfully for tort reform in 2003.

3. Texans for Insurance Reform $1.4 million Trial lawyers, who once ruled the state, fight back through this PAC.

4. Texas Lawyers $1.3 million When you are on the losing side, you can't spend too much money.

5. Jim Leininger $1 million This San Antonio doctor-businessman, who made his initial fortune in hospital beds, is the primary underwriter for the school vouchers movement in Texas.

6. Texas Association of Realtors $959,600 Perennial player concerned about taxes and regulations that affect real estate commissions.

7. Mikal Watts and law firm $845,237 Houston trial lawyer who cut his chops on Firestone tires, Chrysler liftgate latches and refineries. Opposes laws that make it tougher for consumers to sue.

8. Williams Bailey

law firm $630,058 Houston lawyer John Eddie Williams Jr. is one of the five trial lawyers who earned $3.3 billion in fees when the state successfully sued several tobacco companies in the 1990s. Will have a specific interest in business's attempts to restrict lawsuits over asbestos.

9. Stars Over Texas PAC $597,500 The sequel to Texans for a Republican Majority without the ensuing criminal investigation. Republican House members banded together to raise money for colleagues. Returned corporate donations after a grand jury indicted members of Texans for a Republican Majority.

10. Republican Party of Texas $498,857 When a donor doesn't want to be publicly identified with a candidate, he just gives money through the political party. Both sides do it.

11. SBC Texas Employee PAC $458,752 The state's largest phone company fights to keep a leg up on its competitors in today's deregulated environment.

12. Walter Umphrey and law firm $422,500 Another of the five 'tobacco lawyers,' this Beaumont litigator is a longtime supporter, mostly of Democrats, who opposes restrictions on lawsuits.

13. Ryan & Co. $415,000 The Dallas-based company, which runs its own employee-funded PAC, is one of the nation's largest tax consulting firms. It specializes in state and local tax issues and giving money to Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Her predecessor, John Sharp, is a principal at the firm.

14. Bracewell & Patterson law firm $405,983 A corporate law firm with 400 lawyers that grew from its Houston roots to 11 offices nationwide. In Texas, it boasts of working with the state's top officials to represent companies involved in energy, electricity, health care, Internet networking and refining, as well as cities and public transit agencies.

15. Harold Nix and law firm $346,620 This East Texas law firm in tiny Daingerfield gets a lot of respect among plaintiff law firms. Nix is another of the tobacco lawyers — the $3.3 billion gift that keeps on giving, mostly to Democrats.

16. Lonnie 'Bo' Pilgrim $332,520 The East Texas chicken magnate is noted for wearing his pilgrim hat on packages of Pilgrim's Pride — and passing out $10,000 checks on the Senate floor before a crucial vote on workers' compensation 15 years ago. That episode, and subsequent changes in the law, is the reason state politicians now require you to step outside the Capitol before taking your donation.

17. T. Boone Pickens $327,500 Dallasite who made his fortune in natural gas has visions of pumping water from rural areas and piping it to the state's thirsty cities. He's preparing for a fight from farmers who fear Pickens will turn their water tables on them.

18. Robert McNair $321,291 Houstonian who made his fortune in energy, then invested it in football (Houston Texans) and politics.

19. Associated Republicans of Texas $319,621 Does what its name implies — gathers up money to support Republican candidates. Unlike Texans for a Republican Majority, this political committee did not usecorporate donations in a way that attracted the attention of prosecutors.

20. Harold Simmons $318,000 Dallas billionaire who persuaded Legislature several years ago to let him bury radioactive waste in the Panhandle. Actually, his business partner Kent Hance, who's from the Panhandle and is the only politician to defeat George W. Bush (for Congress in 1978), did most of the arm twisting. The money helped though.

Figures include money contributed to candidates and office-holders between June 1, 2003, the close of the 78th Legislature, and Nov. 2 when elections were held for the 79th Legislature. They exclude money to support or oppose one-time ballot propositions.

Source: American-Statesman computer analysis of records provided by the Texas Ethics Commission; (512) 445-3617

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