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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Senator Seeks an End to Soft Money

Russell D. Feingold is given three minutes to make his case--while many of his colleagues are at a party for major donors. Others agree that action is needed.

August 16, 2000|RICHARD SIMON and GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When Sen. Russell D. Feingold took the podium Tuesday to condemn relentless fund-raising at the Democratic National Convention, few of his Senate colleagues were in the hall to hear him. Many were attending a thank-you party for big donors.

The Democratic Party, which agrees with Feingold that largely unregulated and unlimited "soft money" campaign contributions should be banned, gave him only three minutes to address the delegates and scheduled him in midafternoon--up against Rosie O'Donnell and Oprah Winfrey on national television.

"I cannot stand before you," the Wisconsin senator declared from the podium, "without mentioning my concern and dismay that soft money fund-raising has become so much a part of this convention."

As Feingold spoke, about 300 people, including a number of Democratic senators, were attending a reception at the Armand Hammer Museum, hosted by Occidental Petroleum. The private party was one of 23 convention-week events for contributors to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, some of whom have given $100,000 or more.

The committee expects to raise about $3.9 million from its convention fund-raising.

Like Carrie Nation standing outside a saloon urging temperance, Feingold has been a man on a mission: to stop corporate-sponsored yacht cruises, golf tournaments, wine tastings and other private gatherings that are generating contributions from special interests for the Democratic Party.

The same thing went on two weeks ago at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. But the difference here is that the Democratic Party agrees with Feingold that "soft money" should be banned.

The Democratic Party platform says such a ban, sponsored by Feingold and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), will be the "first piece of legislation that a President Al Gore will submit to Congress--and he [Gore] will fight for it until it becomes the law of the land."

But Feingold finds himself like Diogenes, who traveled the land in broad daylight with a lighted lamp searching for an honest man. In Feingold's case, he is hunting for someone at the convention without a palm out.

"I'm sorry to say it, but the big story at the Democratic convention is really influence-buying and -peddling," Feingold declared in a speech earlier this week to a counterpoint Shadow Convention. "The main show is behind closed doors at big-dollar soft money fund-raisers, and those soft-money contributions, make no mistake, are setting the agenda for the American Congress and for the United States."

He said that the Democrats, on their own, should end the soft-money fund-raising at the convention.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont will be honored tonight at the convention's largest senatorial committee party, co-sponsored by labor and half a dozen corporate giants, including BellSouth and UPS.

"I really wish we had real campaign finance reform," Leahy said. "At some point someone is going to say enough is enough."

Ed Rendell, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, agreed that "yes, what goes on here is obscene." Rendell added: "What went on in Philadelphia was obscene. Our party wants to fix it. The other doesn't."

"Until we can get a majority of Democrats in the Senate, the Republicans will continue to set the rules, and soft money will continue to influence politics," said David DiMartino, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "As a party, we can't unilaterally disarm. We need to go toe to toe in order to compete."

During his brief remarks Tuesday from the Democratic convention podium, Feingold focused on the differences between Gore and Republican nominee George W. Bush.

Feingold said Bush proposes "as, we would say in Wisconsin, the Swiss cheese of campaign finance plans."

According to Common Cause, the political parties have raised $256 million in soft money in the first 18 months of the 1999-00 election cycle.

Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based campaign watchdog, said: "This is the unspoken cloud hanging over L.A. this week. The image [the Democrats] want to put forth is that the first thing that Al Gore is going to do when he gets into office is wipe out soft money.

"Maybe he's going to do that, but they're raising money as quickly as they possibly can . . . and they're unrelenting in the pressure that they're putting on donors."

While waging his lonely crusade during the convention, Feingold has sought to practice what he preaches.

Although he was the featured speaker at a Wisconsin delegation breakfast, he drove to a nearby McDonald's beforehand in his "Feingold for U.S. Senate" van so he would not have to eat scrambled eggs provided by the breakfast sponsor, the Oshkosh Truck Corp.

Feingold said he was troubled by the pervasive corporate presence at the convention.

Corporate presence bothered him at the 1996 Democratic convention as well. And now, "four years later," he said, it is "much worse."

He noted that even the building where Gore will be nominated is emblazoned with a corporate name: Staples.

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