Riding the Late-Money Campaign Train
Last-minute campaign contributions come under fire
In the nine days leading up to the Nov. 2 election, large campaign contributions totaling nearly $300,000 flew into local coffers under the wire and radar in a frenetic rush to help determine the outcome of two of the state's hottest House races playing out in Travis Co.
In the end, the last-minute generosity of wealthy individuals and political action committees may have been the clincher for incumbent GOP Rep. Todd Baxter, whose struggling campaign almost cost him his District 48 seat to Democrat Kelly White. But late contributors didn't get the same return on their investment in the District 50 race, despite dumping nearly $100,000 into Rep. Jack Stick's lap over a period of just two days Oct. 27 and Oct. 29. Stick, a Republican, lost to Democrat Mark Strama, who himself took in $35,000 in the last days before Nov. 2.
By design, late contributions generally go undetected by the press and public interest watchdogs until the votes are tallied and the postmortem process begins. But now there's an effort under way in the Texas House to shed more light on how candidates report these late-arriving campaign dollars. Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, whose GOP opponent received $50,000 from a Michigan PAC in the five days before the election, plans to sponsor legislation that would require candidates to file their "telegram reports" electronically, a spokeswoman from Hochberg's office said Monday.
In the complex world of state campaign finance laws, telegram reports cover those contributions received after the final pre-election report is filed but before Election Day. This year, that left nine whole days for big donors to throw money around without public scrutiny or scorn that could hurt their candidates' chances. Candidates are required to report these late contributions within 24 hours after their receipt, but those filings are usually faxed in piecemeal. Without electronic filing to allow the public ready access to the reports online, the money game remains under wraps until after the votes are tallied.
"This is a microcosm of everything that's wrong with the campaign finance system," said Fred Lewis, executive director of Campaigns for People. "It's a microcosm of the problem of having no contribution limits." At the very least, he said, electronic filing requirements would expose, and therefore limit, the "unbelievably large" contributions made by a few wealthy individuals, including those who run the PACs, Lewis said.
Large amounts of late money filled the war chests of candidates in both contested Travis Co. House races. Baxter took in the greatest share of late contributions, followed by Stick, Strama, and White, whose late contributions totaled $25,000 from the trial lawyers' group Texans for Insurance Reform; $5,000 of that paid for a poll of District 48 voters. The group provided the same amount, including a poll, for Strama, but the District 50 Democrat also picked up a late $1,000 check from his uncle Dick Trabulsi a leader of TIR's mortal foe, the GOP-friendly Texans for Lawsuit Reform.
Both the Baxter and Stick campaigns featured some financial newcomers to Texas political races. All Children Matter, the same Michigan-based pro-voucher PAC that funded Hochberg's opponent Ann Witt, gave $10,000 to Stick on Oct. 29. As the Houston Chronicle reported last month, the PAC a fairly new project of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos dropped $320,000 in Texas legislative races this year, mostly in the final days before the election. (The import of the group's $50,000 contribution to Witt was not lost on Hochberg, a leading proponent of public school funding and nemesis of the voucher crowd.)
Another little-known PAC is Big City Capital LLC, which gave a $10,000 late contribution to Baxter. According to Texans for Public Justice's Craig McDonald, the mystery group incorporated in Nevada and is controlled by Billy Bob Barnett, former owner of the famed Billy Bob's Texas Honky Tonk in Fort Worth. "This entity has just surfaced on our radar," McDonald said of Billy Bob's PAC. "We think they want something particular but we don't know exactly what yet."