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SENATE

Campbell Fund-Raising Doesn't Match Rhetoric

While pushing reform, he accepts money from special interests--though not PACs anymore. He defends actions.

October 19, 2000|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Campbell is a headstrong Republican congressman who stakes out iconoclastic positions seemingly not in his political self-interest. And in his bid for the U.S. Senate, he refuses political action committee money to promote an image of independence from special interests.

But an examination of his campaign donations over the years shows how difficult it can be to completely disengage from what Campbell calls "the potentially corrupting system."

Although politicians commonly reap donations from like-minded supporters, Campbell's record of fund-raising contrasts sharply with the populist tenor of his political speeches.

"I'm not bankrolled by the special interests," Campbell told a crowd in kicking off his fall campaign to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "I haven't accepted a dime of PAC money in this race. . . . And I'd like to rally you to join me in taking power back from the special interests who call the shots. . . ."

Still, Campbell has raised more than $13 million during his political career, mostly the traditional way: by dialing for dollars, mixing with well-heeled donors and accepting contributions from members of special-interest groups.

His largest sources of political donations are the banking and financial services industries, which have had a keen interest in him as a member of the House Banking and Financial Services Committee.

Lawyers and lobbyists also are among his most frequent contributors, according to a Times analysis of Federal Election Commission records. So are doctors and computer-industry executives.

His donor list is not surprising, given that Campbell represents a large swath of the Silicon Valley.

For example, a lawyer for investment bankers helped him draft legislation that would benefit Silicon Valley financial titans. And two physicians who had donated to his campaign successfully urged him to introduce a bill giving doctors more power in negotiations with HMOs.

Campbell, 48, a Stanford law professor and son of a federal judge, sees himself as a reformer trapped in the skin of a politician. He says he needs campaign cash to get reelected so he can push election reforms.

Campbell used to take money from PACs--more than $2.5 million from 1987 to 1995, according to FEC records.

He even briefly ran his own PAC, the Republican Majority Coalition. But several years ago, he decided to stop taking PAC money, and he has made bashing special-interest dollars a central theme of his campaign.

His opponent, Feinstein, is one of the most prolific fund-raisers in Congress--and during the current campaign, she has brought in more money than Campbell has from most special interests. As of Sept. 30, Campbell had receipts of $4.3 million, including almost $900,000 transferred from his House campaign committee. Feinstein had collected $9.2 million, including nearly $1.1 million from PACs.

So Campbell said he cannot afford to turn away cash from friendly members of key industries.

"What if you really believe in something . . . and people who agree with you contribute to your campaign? Do you refuse the money?" Campbell asked. "If I'm to run for the U.S. Senate and I'm not independently wealthy, then I either raise money or I'm unsuccessful."

"If the criticism is, 'OK, you can raise money, but don't talk to us about being such a reformer,' the rebuttal would be: 'Why deny me the record that I've built? . . . I am a reformer.' "

Campbell was one of about a dozen House Republicans to buck their own leaders to force a vote on a campaign finance reform bill in 1998.

"He has been the real deal in fighting for reform," said Donald J. Simon, general counsel of Common Cause. "He's as genuine as they come on Capitol Hill."

Still, Campbell spends a hefty portion of his time hustling campaign money. In June, about 20 San Diego business leaders attended a $1,000-a-plate ham-and-eggs breakfast hosted by Elizabeth Dole at the Hyatt Regency.

What's the difference between collecting the maximum of $5,000 from a business PAC and gathering the maximum individual contribution of $1,000 from five executives in that business?

"There may be only a perception difference," Campbell said. But, he added, perceptions are important because voters have become increasingly disillusioned about the influence of money in politics.

It's tricky business to woo donations while warning against their potentially corrupting influence.

Campbell recently scratched a fund-raiser at the "home of a personal friend" to avoid "even the appearance of impropriety."

The friend was the public relations director of CalPine Corp., which wants to build a controversial power plant in San Jose. Campbell threw his support behind the proposal, saying the state has a critical need for more electricity. Campbell said he bowed to criticism from power plant opponents in canceling the fund-raiser.

In keeping with his maverick image, Campbell gets mixed reviews from the Silicon Valley lobby, and scored lower than Feinstein on one industry report card.

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