Monday, June 06, 2005

Outsiders' Stealth Cash in Elections

I just came across this Nov. 27, 2004 piece by Rick Casey. Pretty interesting how outside money was used in the previous election cycle, and also to see how pro-voucher interests were tied to them. Vouchers have thusly emerged from the margins to the center in party politics, as you can see. George Clowes of the Heartland Institute does an interesting analysis of political opinion on vouchers depending on how questions are worded. He finds, for example, that when vouchers are spun as helping minorities, support goes up and a policy that used to be in the margins becomes mainstream. As with any poll, wording of questions must always be kept in mind.


Nov. 27, 2004, 11:06PM

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

Knowing that their political money is "radioactive" — that it would be used against candidates who received it — some trial lawyers would wait until a few days before Election Day to make large contributions so they wouldn't show up until after the election.

In the past month, however, there has been a new stealth player in Texas politics — a band of billionaires and millionaires who spent the whopping sum of at least $320,000 to try to influence legislative races with one issue in mind: school vouchers.

Of that, $230,000 went to nine Republican candidates after the final report covering contributions received up to 10 days before Election Day.

All Children Matter

In Harris County, Ann Witt, who lost to incumbent Rep. Scott Hochberg, received $50,000 five days before the Nov. 2 election.

State Sen. Talmadge Heflin, who is challenging a loss to businessman Hubert Vo, received $25,000 the same day.

The group, operating under the unarguable title All Children Matter, was founded a few years ago by Richard DeVos, the billionaire founder of Amway.

According to IRS records, the group counts its contributors only in dozens, but they include the likes of John Walton of the Wal-Mart family, who gave $300,000, and Richard Sharp of CarMax, who tossed in another $100,000, both in 2003.

The only Texan who shows up is Dr. James Leininger, the wealthy San Antonio hospital bed manufacturer who funds conservative causes. He gave $97,500 to an offshoot called All Children Matter, Tx. The only other contribution to the Texas fund on record is $50,000 from the All Children Matter national office.

Michigan origins
DeVos set up the "527" political action committee (a type made famous by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and in the presidential election) after failing to persuade fellow voters in Michigan to back vouchers in a 2000 statewide referendum.

DeVos and his wife contributed $2 million, and relatives put up another $2.5 million — more than a third of the $12.9 million raised to sell the proposition.

Despite outspending opponents of vouchers by about 2-1, DeVos and his allies lost 69 percent to 31 percent.

Polls show waning enthusiasm for vouchers. Last spring, the Scripps-Howard Texas Poll showed Texans opposing vouchers 58 percent to 36 percent, the lowest support since the poll began asking the question in 1998.

I was unable to reach two Austin political operatives shown on the All Children Matter payroll Friday, but there appears to be a pattern in their contributions. Most made early in the campaign were for Republicans who faced no serious opposition.

Houston's Rep. Joe Nixon, for example, received $20,000 in four installments. He had token primary opposition and no Democratic opponent in the general election.

One exception was Democratic Rep. Ron Wilson of Houston. He favored vouchers and was generally close to the Republican leadership. He was punished by voters in the primary, losing despite receiving $15,000 from All Children Matter.

But the really large contributions came in the final days before the election to races thought to be close.

Candidates are required to report contributions of more than $1,000 within 24 hours, but if they fax them in (as Witt and Heflin did) rather than file electronically, they don't show up on the Texas Ethics Commission Web site until after the election and can only be discovered by checking files in Austin. This rarely happens as reporters are as busy as candidates in the closing days.

The contributions reported here were discovered by Campaigns for People, an Austin-based campaign finance reform group. Its head, Fred Lewis, said there may be more, since his group checked only 12 races. The size and secrecy of the contributions, said Lewis, are a "microcosm of everything wrong with our campaign finance system."

"It comes in late," he said. "It's a huge sum of money. It's very few donors, and there's no outcry by the public."

He's right. It's one thing to engage the public in a debate on an issue such as vouchers. But it can't be healthy for a democracy when a small group of rich men from out of state use a legal loophole to give as much as $50,000 to a candidate without the public learning about it until after the election.

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at

1 comment:

  1. You are absolutely correct when you talk about the wording of the opinion polls. They frame it as parental choice to get the highest favorable ratings.

    I wonder what the percentages would be if they asked if the public thought public school funding should be increased.

    ...if the pollsters were honest about how vouchers only worked for the rich.

    ...if the pollster were honest about vouchers taking money from public education, further under-funding it.

    Maybe we would see lower numbers?