Maria's debts

Is Sen. Maria Cantwell an easy mark for lobbyists?

UH-OH! Washington, D.C., has corrupted Maria Cantwell.

That's what her political enemies would have you believe after the junior senator from Washington was cited by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) as the top recipient of lobbyist donations. The CRP's list covers the first six months of 2001, during which Cantwell, who was scrambling for money to pay off the debts from her massive (and largely self-funded) $12.2 million campaign, received $50,000 from lobbyists.

Washington State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance took time from his visit to the Republican National Committee meeting in Austin, Texas, to fume via cell phone about "Maria the hypocrite. The whole premise of who she was and what her campaign was about was phony," he says. By linking her opponent, incumbent Republican Slade Gorton, to special-interest contributions and stressing her ability to pay her own campaign bills, Cantwell sold herself as being above the D.C. money chase, Vance continues. "Maria's entire campaign was just a pile of self-serving, hypocritical falsehoods."

Nonsense, says political consultant Christian Sinderman, the former communications director for Cantwell's Senate run. The theme of Cantwell's campaign was to cut political action committee (PAC) cash and soft money out of the equation and to only accept donations from individuals, he says. "Lobbyists are individuals; individuals contribute to campaigns. Maria's pledge was to not take PAC money and not take soft money, and Maria's kept that pledge—some would say to her own detriment."

A word of explanation: Individuals can contribute up to $1,000 to a candidate under federal campaign law, while PACs (political funding groups often associated with labor unions and industry associations) can give $5,000. Soft money is cash funneled through political parties that is often used for quasi-campaign purposes.

In swearing off both PAC money and soft money, Cantwell has deprived herself of some dependable funding sources. The average victorious Senate candidate gets one-quarter of their campaign funding from PAC money (soft money expenditures by political parties aren't included in disclosure tallies). Of the top 10 PACs ranked by total donations, seven gave at least 75 percent of their contributions to Democratic candidates. Washington's junior senator has already returned thousands of dollars in unrequested PAC donations, says Cantwell spokesperson Jennifer Crider. "She has maintained her pledge to accept money only from individuals."

Given the competition from the rapidly expanding Enron scandal and the War on Terrorism, the Cantwell flap hasn't exactly torn Washington, D.C., apart, says the CRP's Steven Weiss. But given the Cantwell back story, Weiss says he isn't surprised that she's at the head of the lobbyist list. A precampaign multimillionaire based on her then-valuable shares of RealNetworks stock, Cantwell made the classic dot-com financial blunder of taking out bank loans using her stock as collateral. After the Nasdaq exchange tanked, she was left with the killer combo of paper wealth and real debts. "Lobbyists understand better than just about anybody the value of political contributions," says Weiss. "Like any seasoned set of contributors, they will give very quickly to any elected official who needs it, such as one who's retiring a debt."

After winning a close race, a new member of Congress also gains an expanded donor base, as companies and individuals who contributed to their opponent scramble to mend fences. And there's no better way to say "I'm sorry" in politics than writing a check.

Democratic political consultant Cathy Allen notes that Cantwell's election secured a tie between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate (Vermont Sen. James Jeffords later tipped the balance when he switched from Republican to Independent status in June). "Does it stand to reason that she would be the number one choice as to where the money would go?" says Allen. "It's a no-brainer."

Republican consultant Brett Bader admits to little outrage, but much amusement, at Cantwell's bumpy trip through the campaign finance briar patch. With the cost of the average winning U.S. Senate campaign at $8,201,810, all senators must raise money on a continuing basis, so building your stump message around campaign finance reform virtually guarantees criticism down the road, he says.

And Cantwell can't be accused of playing favorites with the $50,000 she received from D.C. lobbyists. During the first six months of 2001, her campaign coffers also took in $141,135 from lawyers and law firms, $51,015 from real-estate interests, and $64,700 from people employed in the computer and Internet industries (she was the top recipient in that category).

Cantwell is a model for her fellow Internet millionaires (and former millionaires), jokes Bader. "One thing she has is great timing," he says. "She not only managed to run when her fortune was still intact, she managed to be one of just a few people to find employment following the dot-com crash."

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