Democrats Not Shy About Chasing Cash

Democrats Not Shy About Chasing Cash

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Despite recession, lobbyists note increase in requests for campaign contributions COLUMBUS — Ohio House Democrats returned to power in January after 14 years in the minority and brought with them an aggressive fundraising style that some lobbyists wish they had left behind. More than a half-dozen lobbyists, some independent and some representing influential trade groups, say House Speaker Armond Budish and his team are asking for “outrageous” amounts of campaign cash — setting unprecedented goals and telling some groups they need to give House Democrats as much as $8 to $10 for every $1 that goes to Republicans.“They’ve taken it to a whole new level,” one said.

“It’s phenomenal,” said another. “It’s much more Householderish, very aggressive,” said a third, who was not the only one to make a comparison to former House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican whose tactics led to a federal investigation that produced no charges.

“They’re asking for stuff that there’s just no way we can raise. Their expectations are not in sync with reality.”

The recession has had little impact around Capitol Square.

One veteran lobbyist calculated that if he attended every legislative fundraiser for all of 1992 (a legislative election year), he would have spent $22,600. Through just the first four-plus months of this year (an off-election year), House Democratic fundraisers alone would have cost him $28,000.

Budish, a soft-spoken Beachwood Democrat and elder-care lawyer, raised almost $1.4 million during the last two-year election cycle, an unprecedented amount for a minority lawmaker.

He is hardly the first House speaker to aggressively pursue campaign money, and a few lobbyists who talked to The Dispatch said they do not have concerns about the tactics of Budish and his team.

But most lobbyists who talked, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution from legislators and their employers, said two things have set apart Budish and his team since even before the November election: the amounts of money requested and the tone of the requests.

One longtime lobbyist said: “I would say they’re a little clumsy. I don’t think it’s malicious, I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. I don’t think they know the rights and wrongs of how to do it, to make sure it doesn’t sound like a quid pro quo.”

Budish said he uses the same tactics as when he raised money for nonprofit and community groups before joining the legislature.

“You ask for what you identify as the high end of reasonable within their capacity,” he said. “You never get more than you ask for.

“There are no demands. People can give or not give as they choose.”

Lobbyists and special-interest groups usually give because they fear losing access to key lawmakers.

“I think the days of buying legislation are long gone, and you can ask the casino guys if I’m right,” said one veteran lobbyist. “It’s about access. You at least have to get in the game.”

Budish said he is careful to separate discussions of contributions and policy.

“We try to be reasonable in our requests,” he added. “There are plenty of lobbyists who felt comfortable telling us they’re not going to do what we asked for, but they’ll do something else. That’s fine.”

Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe, who keeps an eye on ethical issues related to legislators and lobbyists, said fundraising requests cross a tough-to-prove legal line when official action is taken in exchange for a contribution.

“Usually to show these kind of cases, you have to get someone on a recording,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s two people with perhaps different interpretations of what occurred.”

Bledsoe said his office has received a few anonymous calls this year from people he suspects are lobbyists complaining about fundraising activities.

In the last election cycle, many political-action committees, other than unions, heavily favored House Republicans.

Now, Democrats think those amounts should automatically flip to them because they control the House, some lobbyists say.

A veteran lobbyist said House Democrats met with him and representatives of other associations in December, before even taking over, and relayed goals that at least matched what the group had given to Republicans in the previous two years.

“Usually you wait and see if philosophically they agree with your position or are passing bills to hurt or help your industry before you make a decision on who you support,” he said.

One veteran lobbyist said the problem is that Democrats are looking back at donations made during a time he equated to baseball’s steroids era.

In recent years, he noted, Republicans controlled everything at the Statehouse — often by wide margins — so the positions of key lawmakers were well-known, the chambers held similar policy views, and donors knew what they were getting for their money.

But today, the legislature is split, the House majority is narrow, and the House Democratic Caucus is still largely unknown around Capitol Square.

“At a 60-39 majority you’re going to raise a lot more than a 53-46,” said one lobbyist. “That’s close enough that you’re not going to get 10-to-1. No one is going to misplace a bet that badly.”

Still, another lobbyist said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a huge fundraising advantage for House Democrats when new campaign-finance reports are filed in July.

“The Republicans are doing terrible. They aren’t getting along. They have a bunch of random events, and the left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing.”

Jim Siegel, The Columbus Dispatch, 5/24/09