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May 27, 2008: Leadership PACs helping politicians help themselves

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ
  • Star Tribune
  • May 26, 2008 - 7:06 PM

WASHINGTON - When the Republican National Convention takes place in the Twin Cities this summer, one of the hottest tickets in town will be a golf outing at Hazeltine National Golf Course in Chaska. Minnesota Congressman John Kline has already put down a $4,800 deposit.

The money will not come out of Kline's pocket or any campaign account. Instead, it will be paid by his own political action committee (PAC), the same type used by industry lobbies and special interest groups.

So-called leadership PACs are increasingly being used by politicians to expand their networks, raise their profiles and, on occasion, live well. The PACs also permit pols and donors to get around ordinary fundraising limits and rules on giving gifts, throwing parties and paying for travel.

It's one of the fastest-growing frontiers in the world of political money.

Dollars raised and spent by politicians' own PACs have grown fourfold over the past decade. More than 200 members of Congress now have leadership PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent group that tracks federal election reports.

The money can't be spent on their own campaigns but can be used to increase politicians' visibility and entertain donors who can also contribute directly to their campaigns. The PACs are much less restricted than ordinary campaign funds in how they can be used.

"It looks like a petty cash fund," said former lobbyist Kathy Gill, who now teaches at the University of Washington. "And it gives me heartburn to see people who are running for office running their own political action committees."

Politicians spend their PAC dollars in ways that often reflect their tastes and personalities. Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, an avid sportsman, spent $830 for a pair of PAC fundraisers at a trap and skeet center in Maryland.

Al Franken, a show business veteran, spent a total of $75,000 in PAC money to stage a series of precampaign rallies, including a Minneapolis fundraiser with guitar legend Leo Kottke.

Sen. Norm Coleman, who enjoys an occasional cigar, hosted an after-hours convention party at the elegant Club Macanudo on New York's Upper East Side.

Helping their allies

All such events have a core political purpose. Coleman, for example, was working hard to become chairman of the Republican National Senatorial Committee when he used $45,000 from his PAC to throw a reception at the 2004 GOP convention.

Representatives for all the Minnesota PACs portray their primary mission as helping to keep political and policy allies in office. "The purpose is really to support other candidates, especially other Minnesota candidates, who have similar missions and philosophies," said Hamline University law Prof. Lucinda Jesson, who manages Sen. Amy Klobuchar's new PAC.

But federal election records show that in many cases only a small proportion of leadership PAC money actually goes to help other candidates.

Klobuchar's PAC, Follow the North Star Fund, has given other candidates and party groups about a third of the nearly $300,000 she has raised, though Jesson says the year-old PAC is still just starting up.

If Klobuchar's fund follows the lead of Coleman's Northstar PAC, that ratio won't change much. The Northstar PAC, the largest in the state, has raised $1.6 million since it was created in 2003. Of that, about $600,000 -- somewhat more than a third -- was contributed to other candidates and party organizations.

The same is true of Franken's Midwest Values PAC, which has raised more than $1.1 million since it was formed in 2005. Franken's PAC has given other candidates and political organizations about $381,500 -- also about a third of all the money it has raised.

In all three PACs, records show, most money has been plowed back into expenses for management, consulting, websites, travel, events and, in Coleman's case, polling.

The pattern varies among Minnesota members of the U.S. House, where Kline, Peterson, and Democrats Betty McCollum and Jim Oberstar have formed leadership PACs in recent years. Peterson's Valley PAC and Oberstar's Mesabi Fund have contributed about 20 percent of their funds to fellow Democrats.

Kline's Freedom & Security PAC, which is paying for the convention golf outing, has turned over 55 percent of the money it has raised to his party and fellow candidates, one of the highest totals in the state's House delegation. It's topped only by the 85 percent contributed by McCollum's largely inactive Betty PAC.

'Beholden'

Using gauzy names such as Restore America and Wave the Flag, national leadership PACs also give big campaign donors a way to more than double their legal contributions.

For example, entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein topped out with a maximum $5,000 contribution to Franken's Midwest Values PAC in 2006, then contributed the legal limit of $4,600 to Franken's election campaign last year.

Double-fisted giving is not unusual. Even in its infancy, Oberstar's new Mesabi PAC relies on the same transportation and labor interests that have given to the Minnesota Democrat's reelection campaign. And Peterson's Valley PAC gets contributions from some of the same farm organizations that fund his campaign.

However, while leadership PACs can raise more and spend more than candidates' regular campaign committees, their real value appears to be as extensions of their founders' political networks.

Some of the money that Franken's Midwest Values PAC contributed to other candidates benefited Minnesota Democrats such as Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. Those and other contributions made Franken a significant Democratic Party donor at a time when he's seeking the DFL Senate endorsement in June.

"What leadership PACs do is buy political support," said Prof. David Schultz of Hamline University in St. Paul. "They make people beholden to them."

Franken campaign spokesman Andy Barr characterized the PAC expenditures as a way to fortify Democratic politics in Minnesota. "To the extent that we spread PAC money around the state, it was about building the party," he said.

To a much greater extent than any other Minnesota politician, Coleman's PAC expenditures have been particularly heavy in travel, including stays in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Palm Beach.

St. Paul business executive Jeff Larson, treasurer of Coleman's PAC, described the trips as fundraising outings related to helping other GOP candidates.

A lot of Coleman's travel also was related to his 2004 bid to lead the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which he lost by one vote. Much of that politicking, in fact, required helping GOP colleagues in the Senate. Coleman's PAC contributed $200,000 to other GOP campaigns in that election cycle, more than any other senator's.

"In politics today, the way it's set up, you have to raise money to be successful," Larson said.

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753

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