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Price of politics

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Texas philanthropist Bernard Rapoport has never set foot in North Dakota, but he's among the biggest individual donors to the state's Democratic-NPL Party.

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Texas philanthropist Bernard Rapoport has never set foot in North Dakota, but he's among the biggest individual donors to the state's Democratic-NPL Party.

Rapoport gave the party $20,000 from 1998 through 2001. He also donated $5,000 to Heidi Heitkamp's failed gubernatorial campaign in 2000.

The 85-year-old former insurance magnate said his respect for and friendship with Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan are the source of his generosity.

"I just love them. They are just great. Generally, when I get a call, they're both on the line, and all I say is, 'Who and how much?' " said Rapoport from his office in Waco, Texas.

He called Conrad and Dorgan "two of the very, very best U.S. senators," adding that he knows and contributes to all 50 Democratic senators.

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Rapoport is one of 13 out-of-state donors of $10,000 or more to the state Democratic party from 1998 through 2001. The donor giving the largest sum, $170,000, is Peter Angelos, the Baltimore trial lawyer and Orioles baseball team owner.

During the same period, members of the North Dakota Republican Party reported one $10,000-or-greater donation from an out-of-state resident. It came from a Chicago entrepreneur, a friend of former state House Majority Leader John Dorso. No other person inside or outside North Dakota contributed more than $9,200 to the state Republican Party in the four-year span.

The Democratic-NPL's fund-raising success is a credit to the good work of the state's all-Democrat congressional delegation, said Vern Thompson, the Democratic-NPL executive director.

"People like what they're doing," he said.

He counters any criticism of the size and source of the donations by noting that all are legal, all are reported according to law and all come with no strings attached.

He and Dorgan both say Republicans hide their income by getting it from their national party in a way that doesn't have to be disclosed.

"The Republican Party, as you know, gets very large chunks of money from the national Republican organization, so you can't ask them. ... That's unlimited money and undisclosed. Tobacco is a very big fund-raiser for them. The pharmaceutical industry is a very big funder," Dorgan said. "So when you're evaluating fund raising in the state parties, all of that is a part of the Republican fund-raising case, but you're not allowed to ask them about it because it's undisclosed."

Dorgan said he sees Rapoport and some of the other big donors at national political events two or three times a year.

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Rapoport buttressed Thompson's contention that the donations come with no requests for favors. He praised Dorgan and Conrad's integrity and said that, for his generosity to the North Dakota Democrats, he receives nothing in return from the senators, nor would he want anything.

"There's nothing they could do if I wanted them to. I do get chocolate when I go to Kent's office, all I want," he said, in a reference to a bowl of candy Conrad keeps handy. He said he still hopes to visit the state some day.

In his memoirs, "Being Rapoport: Capitalist with a Conscience," he tells of his life as a liberal activist and supporter of Democrats from the days of Ralph Yarborough, who first became a Texas senator in 1957. Rapoport also is a good friend of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and has visited South Dakota, he said.

Daschle connection

Another giver to the state Democrats is Peter Buttenweiser, a Philadelphia education consultant and heir to the Lehman banking fortune who donated $20,000 in the four-year period.

Calling them "your good senators," Buttenweiser said, "I consider Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad to be personal colleagues. We talk quite a bit on the phone."

He said he met Dorgan through Daschle and now knows them both. "At their request, I have provided some help to the North Dakota Democratic party," he said, adding, "I've always loved Kent Conrad's sense of humor. He's a funny guy. He's fun to be with."

Like Rapoport, Buttenweiser does not confine his donations to North Dakota. News reports in 2000 said he gave about $1.3 million to Democrats and the national party that year.

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Buttenweiser said he seeks nothing in return. "I try very hard not to ask for favors. I think that is obscene," he said.

A lengthy article on Buttenweiser in Philadelphia Magazine two years ago made much of the fact that candidates who seek his donations never hear from him again.

Despite several requests to his office, Conrad would not comment last week on his associations with or donations from Rapoport, Buttenweiser or any of the other major party donors.

"Kent is taking his first day off since the farm bill conference started and he's not going to make any calls today,' his spokeswoman, Laurie Boeder, said Friday. "He and Lucy (Calautti, his wife) are taking some personal time. He's fine with your story running without his remarks."

Conrad and Angelos are known to hang out together at least in the baseball parks. In April 1999, a columnist for Washington, D.C., political publication Roll Call said Conrad and Calautti were seen sitting next to Angelos in the owner's luxury box at Camden Yards.

Conrad, a renowned baseball buff, later offered several cheerful comments to Roll Call about the game. He also said he and Calautti had paid for their own tickets to the game. Calautti has since become a Capitol Hill lobbyist for Major League Baseball.

Peter Angelos also did not return phone calls seeking comment about his donations.

Friendly ties

For attorney Jack McConnell Jr. of Providence, R.I., his $40,000 to the Democratic-NPL in four years is based on a friendship formed with former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp during work on the multi-state tobacco settlement several years ago.

Four lawyers from his Ness Motley firm are among large donors to the state party, and McConnell also donated $25,000 to Heitkamp's campaign for governor.

"We got to see what a fine public servant she was," McConnell said. "It was very clearly out of the friendship and respect we had for Heidi."

Heitkamp's former chief litigator, Laurie Loveland, eventually went to work for Ness Motley at McConnell's Rhode Island office. McConnell, Heitkamp and Loveland's sister were the primary caretakers of Loveland in the last few months before her death from cancer, he said. She died about three weeks ago. Now, he hopes to visit the state at the invitation of Loveland's family.

PAC donations

The Democratic-NPL also takes in hefty sums from out-of-state political action committees. During 1998-2001, the party received:

- $115,000 from the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees' PAC.

- $60,000 from the Association of Trial Lawyers.

- $25,000 from the AFL-CIO.

- $25,000 from the Communication Workers of America.

- $15,000 from the Sheet Metal Workers.

- $10,000 from the United Auto Workers.

Smaller amounts come from the National Education Association, the UPSPAC and others.

To critics of those donations, Thompson says, "There are about 360,000 North Dakota workers who contribute to a variety of these PACs. That's a lot of people."

As for the hefty individual donations by Angelos and the others, Thompson said, "One thing about our party contributions is they're individuals, and you have a track record (reported) to show who it is and how much it is.

"Republicans bundle their donations. The Republicans have a practice of bundling their money -- big oil, big tobacco -- and it's really not traceable. The way we do fund-raising is individuals."

State GOP Chairman Dan Traynor of Devils Lake said the charge is not true. "We do not engage in that practice."

"Bundling" is when individual donors are solicited to give to a fund-raising group that then sends a large donation to a candidate that they endorsed. The individuals' names don't show up on government disclosure forms. An example is the EMILY's List organization that raised money for Heitkamp in 2000.

Dorgan said, "The story about party fund raising in the state probably by necessity, focuses on one party versus the other, because the other party provides no disclosure about it."

Traynor said, "It would seem to me he is comparing apples to oranges. I assume what the senator is talking about is soft money, which the Democratic Party is renowned for. "

Soft money refers to contributions not regulated by federal election laws, an exception created years ago to encourage party building, such as get-out-the-vote drives. Critics say it has become instead a way for parties to raise millions of dollars for campaigns. Under the new campaign finance laws, the parties can't raise soft money after this fall's elections or spend it after Dec. 31.

The Center for Responsive Politics' analysis of money received by both national parties shows that for the 2000 and 2002 election cycles, the Republicans took in $596.8 million in hard money and $350 million in soft; the Democrats took in $275 million in hard dollars and $313.6 million in soft.

GOP 'grassroots'

Neither state party is hurting for money. For instance, the lists of reportable cash donations each turned in to the Federal Election Commission and secretary of state for 2000, an election year, total $875,000 for the Democrats and $754,000 for the GOP.

North Dakota Republicans say they're proud that donations to their state party include so few from out of state. Of the approximately 1,600 reportable donations listed by the party on state disclosure forms for 1998-2001, all but 55 are from individuals. And of the individuals, only 12 are from out-of-state. And most of them, such as Sen. Milt Young's widow, Patricia, are former residents.

Reportable donations on state reports were amounts of $100 and over in 1998 and $200 or more in 1999-2001.

Of the 55 non-individual donors listed in the four years, most are other Republican party groups, including district parties in the state. One $5,000 lump came from Americans for a Republican Majority, which is U.S. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's group. Thirteen are from PACs, and two of the PACs, Philip Morris ($500) and AT&T ($850), have out-of-state addresses.

These reports represent a grassroots buy-in by huge numbers of North Dakotans, said Traynor. And that kind of local commitment is largely responsible for the party's election successes, which have brought it to a supermajority in the Legislature and takeover of most of the Capitol tower offices, he said.

To the state's Republican party, Traynor said, a $5,000 check from an individual is a big deal. Last year, when two $5,000 checks arrived at the office in one day, "we peeled Breezy (Kohls, the office manager) off the ceiling, because we don't get checks like that very often."

The Republicans frequently criticize Democrats' out-of-state contributions, such as a recent press release that took a swipe at the most recent campaign contribution report from Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. "Pomeroy attracts only nine North Dakota contributors," it crowed, adding it signified "lack of support from his home state." And throughout the 2000 Senate campaign, Conrad's opponent, Duane Sand, took pokes at the largely out-of-state sources of the senator's campaign fund.

But former state Democratic chairman Dan Hannaher of Fargo says the Republicans are probably just jealous because the state's congressional delegation is all Democrats.

"If people want to contribute to the Democratic Party, so much the better," he said. "Obviously, Kent and Byron and Earl are all national government leaders. I would be surprised -- if the Republicans had two senators and a House member -- they might have to rethink their strategies on criticizing donations."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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