Ohio: Ground Zero For Bush Fundraising

Election '04

On Thursday, March 4, President Bush's campaign begins advertising with a $4.5 million television buy on national cable networks. He has already raised $153 million toward what will likely be a quarter of a billion dollar campaign.

Bush, however, will be too busy to watch his new ads. He is scheduled to appear at six fundraisers over the course of this week alone.

But as the President attempts to persuade NASCAR dads that he feels their pain, we should be paying attention to what the President does for, not with, the money he raises from wealthy special interests.

Ironically, in about the same amount of time it takes a pit crew to change a tire, Bush can raise enough money at one of these fundraisers to put two NASCAR dads back to work. The double irony is that Bush is extremely vulnerable among these swing voters to charges that he is too close to big business.

Examples of special interests holding the Bush White House captive are everywhere -- Halliburton's no bid contract in Iraq, environmental policies that favor polluters, tax breaks for corporations that have moved overseas, etc. But some examples in the critical battleground state of Ohio may end up being the most consequential.

Ohio is one of the two or three most critical states in November's presidential election, and for good reason. In the last century, no Republican candidate has ever won the White House without winning Ohio. Only two Democrats -- John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- won without the Buckeye state in their column. President Bush's campaign is keenly aware of history; he has visited the state 13 times since the 2000 election. Only Florida surpasses Ohio as a state that is critical from both a fundraising and electoral standpoint.

This year, Ohio has another distinction. The state has become one of the President's most trustworthy sources of campaign contributions. Bush-Cheney Inc. currently has 10 "Rangers" (those who raise $200,000) and 15 "Pioneers" (those who raise $100,000) from Ohio. Compare that to other comparable battleground states -- Michigan has just three Rangers and 13 Pioneers, and Pennsylvania has only five of each.

Bush's campaign has already held five major fundraisers in all of Ohio's major cities, raising approximately $5.25 million. Surprisingly, Cincinnati ZIP-code 45243 ranks second only to New York City's 10021 as the most lucrative fundraising neighborhood for Bush, surpassing wealthy communities in Houston, Dallas and even Beverly Hills. (For a full analysis of all $200 and up federal contributors by zip codes correlated with race and ethnicity, see Public Campaign's Color of Money report.

But when you look at three Ohio mega-fundraisers for Bush -- W.R. Timken, CEO of Timken Company; Anthony Alexander, president of FirstEnergy Corporation; and Walden O'Dell, CEO of Diebold Corporation -- a delicious microcosm emerges: In these three examples of special interest fundraising, we have three of the recurring themes of Bush's administration.

1) Tax cuts for the wealthy (Timken) that have produced job stagnation and cuts for the common folks; 2) Paybacks to corporate polluters (Alexander); and 3) Support from well-positioned, powerful players (O'Dell), which has created the appearance of rigging the game to aid his success.

Tax Breaks for the Wealthy, Layoffs for Workers

On April 24, 2003, President Bush traveled to Timken Company's Canton plant to promote his tax plan. In a speech to workers, he promised that the tax cut plan "means more money for investments, more money for growth and more money for jobs." Numerous studies have refuted that claim, showing that while the President's tax cuts rewarded wealthy Americans like Timken's CEO, W.R. "Tim" Timken with tens of thousands of dollars in tax windfalls, the rest of America actually received relatively little.

Two months later, Tim Timken co-hosted a fundraiser for Bush's campaign in Akron which raised $600,000, and earned Timken "Ranger" status.

Then, in September, Timken Company announced it was laying off 700 workers, adding more pain to one of the jobless recovery's most hardest-hit states. In fact, since Bush was elected, Ohio has lost 270,000 jobs. So much for "more money for jobs."

Paybacks for Polluters

Also co-hosting the Akron fundraiser was Anthony Alexander, president of FirstEnergy Corporation. Alexander, who raised at least $100,000 in 2000, has met that threshold again in the 2004 election, earning him repeat "Pioneer" honors.

When Vice President Dick Cheney put together a secret task force to develop a national energy plan in 2001, coal-fired utilities like FirstEnergy urged the Administration to gut the Clean Air Act. FirstEnergy had a major conflict of interest: In 1999, the US Department of Justice had sued it and 10 other corporations for violating the Clean Air Act. As the Akron fundraiser was being held, FirstEnergy's case was finally nearing a decision point in the courts.

On Aug. 7, a federal judge found that FirstEnergy had violated the Clean Air Act 11 times. But later that month, the Bush Administration rolled back the very provision in the Clean Air Act that FirstEnergy had repeatedly violated. The timing couldn't have been better. Since FirstEnergy's trial has not yet entered the penalty phase, this stroke of a pen could spare the company literally hundreds of millions in fines.

Help From Powerful Friends?

The story of Walden O'Dell's fundraising for Bush and Republicans adds a shadier dimension to the already simmering debate around voting machines. O'Dell is the CEO of Diebold Corporation, the maker of ATMs, touch-screen voting machines, and other products. O'Dell's company is one of a few to have reaped a large number of state contracts to upgrade the nation's voting apparatus.

Conspiracy theories about the touch-screen voting machines are prevalent on the internet, and questions about their accuracy have made their way into the mainstream media.

Fanning the flames is the fact that O'Dell has been actively fundraising for Bush. In an invitation for a Bush fundraiser at his Columbus mansion last year, O'Dell wrote that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." The words set off alarm bells in the voting rights community and newsrooms alike because the letter was sent after Diebold had secured a contract from Ohio's Republican Secretary of State to provide the state's new voting machines.

O'Dell later issued a non-apology telling the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, "I'm not doing anything wrong or complicated, but it obviously did leave me open to the criticism I've received." The fundraising invitation had its desired effect, however, and O'Dell raised at least $100,000. He was added to the campaign's list of Pioneers on Sept. 30.

Protecting the Investment

"The Democrats have no choice but to try to make money Bush's liability," a prominent Republican fundraiser told the Times last June. "They have to try to tie the money to special interests, tie the special interests to unpopular issues and then tie it all around Bush's neck...."

But as the presidential race has tightened, the rhetoric surrounding fundraising seems to be getting balder all the time. According to the Jan. 9 Miami Herald, one Bush "Ranger," developer Mark Guzzetta, implored donors to make a contribution to Bush during a fundraising event in order to "[p]rotect your investment."

If the maxim that all politics is local is true, progressives concerned about the Administration's agenda have a lot of material to work with in tying the President's Ohio fundraising "around Bush's neck."

David Donnelly is the director of Public Campaign Action Fund's Campaign Money Watch.

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