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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Hedge Donors Butter Up Both Sides

More major corporations are giving big money to Democrats and Republicans. Since they're not sure who will win, they ensure they won't lose either way.

August 16, 2000|MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With billions of dollars in revenue hinging on federal policy decisions, a Virginia power company has decided to press its case by investing nearly $1 million in political donations and dispatching a squad of lobbyists and executives to this week's Democratic National Convention.

But Dominion Resources, seeking to maximize its clout in Washington, is adding a new twist to the traditional approach of filling lawmakers' campaign coffers: donating huge sums of money to both political parties.

The company has given $630,728 to Republican campaigns, while steering $364,005 to help the Democrats seize control of Congress and keep their grip on the White House, records show.

The Richmond-based energy giant is not alone--at least 23 donors have contributed more than $250,000 to both major parties since Jan. 1, 1999. This elite group, which has nearly quadrupled in size since the 1996 campaign, includes AT&T Corp., Microsoft Corp., AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and Mirage Resorts Inc., all of which have a substantial interest in issues before the government.

The sharp rise in major two-party donors lays bare the emphasis on business calculations--and lack of ideology--behind the money fueling the parties' record-breaking fund-raising for the November election.

"We want to have a seat at the table," said William C. Hall Jr., a Dominion Resources vice president.

The explosion in big two-party contributions also reflects the uncertainty over which party will control Congress and the White House after the November election.

"They don't know where to place their bets, so they're placing bets on both sides," said Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks money and politics. "There really does seem to be no embarrassment left in Washington about this stuff."

By any measure, the number of big two-party donors is skyrocketing. At this point in the 1996 election cycle, 40 donors had given at least $100,000 to each party. This year, 87 have broken the six-figure barrier, according to an analysis by the Campaign Study Group of Springfield, Va.

AT&T, the top corporate donor to both parties, has already provided nearly $2.5 million, more than triple the $732,000 it gave at this point in 1996.

The two-party strategy carries risks. The National Republican Congressional Committee has signaled its disapproval by forming a "75% club" to recognize donors who steer 75% of their contributions to Republicans. They are rewarded with special meetings with GOP officials.

For companies such as Dominion Resources, the stakes are enormous.

A sprawling power company with annual revenue of $8.6 billion, Dominion Resources provides gas and power to 4 million customers on the East Coast and in the Midwest. With its network of nuclear and coal-burning power plants, it faces a constant threat of new expenses imposed by changes in environmental policy.

Moreover, the power industry is in the throes of deregulation, which is opening up lucrative markets to competition for the first time. In that climate, Hall said, obscure decisions in Washington can mean the difference between gains or losses of billions of dollars. So, Dominion Resources has dumped enough money on each party to make it one of the top donors to both.

"It does help in gaining access," Hall said. "You can present your arguments, your rationale for why you believe certain legislative proposals are good, bad or indifferent."

The company has offered a taste of its largess to the Democratic convention. On Tuesday night, it co-sponsored a Mardi Gras party hosted by Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. At the GOP's national convention in Philadelphia, the company rented a warehouse to entertain delegates and elected officials.

Hall cited the misfortunes of Microsoft--namely the Justice Department's antitrust suit--as evidence of the potential harm to "companies that haven't participated in the process."

He added: "You cannot just stick your head in the sand and expect everything is going to be fine."

Like Dominion Resources, Microsoft has sharply increased its donations to both parties. It has given $878,380 to the GOP and $390,292 to the Democratic Party for the November election, up from just $45,795 to Republicans and $5,000 to Democrats at the same point four years ago.

"We really find there are members of both parties that have shown leadership on issues that are important to us," said Microsoft spokesman Rick Miller.

He downplayed the influence of the antitrust case on Microsoft's growing role in Washington, saying its priorities were increasing trade with China, offering more U.S. visas to foreign high-tech specialists and setting standards for Internet privacy.

The top two-party donor, AT&T, has given $1.5 million to the GOP and $985,350 to the Democrats. It also donated $3 million worth of telephone and Internet service to the Democratic convention and $2 million worth to the Republican convention.

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