Lonely Pioneers 

Bush gives the boot to two of his richest pals in Texas

Thursday, May 27 2004

Remember Ken Lay?

He’s the former Enron CEO whom state Attorney General Bill Lockyer told The Wall Street Journal he wanted locked in a prison cell with a tattooed inmate named “Spike.” He’s not there yet. At least, the lights were on last week at his 33rd-floor, $7 million condo in Houston’s River Oaks — even if he hasn’t been seen at his Galveston Bay beach house. Both places offer better accommodations than he’ll find if he ends up at the Bastrop federal detention center, where white, white-collar guys do their time in Texas. Lay’s days might be numbered. Prosecutors are working their way up the corporate food chain, and Lay’s the last big potato to be peeled.

President Bush would like to forget Ken Lay. He’s been airbrushed out of the Bush transition team, where he helped President-elect Bush shape a national energy policy. (Try to find his name on the White House Web site.) But his name can’t be stricken from the roster of Bush Pioneers. The Pioneers are the most successful fund-raising operation in the history of politics, says Craig McDonald, who runs an Austin-based nonprofit that tracks political money. Lay was an original Pioneer, one of hundreds of dedicated fund-raisers who pledge to raise $100,000 for the Bush presidential campaign. In fact, Lay was a pioneer among the Pioneers. He raised more than $750,000 for Bush’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.

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The Pioneers came into being in 1999. Bush was governor of Texas. Condi Rice and former Secretary of State George Schultz were at the Governor’s Mansion home-schooling Bush on foreign-policy issues — an evident failure considering what he has done in Iraq and failed to do in Israel and the Palestinian territories. (One spring afternoon I bumped into a dyspeptic Schultz leaving a tutoring session with the governor, and the man looked like he carried the weight of the entire world on his stomach.) While the foreign-policy wonks were tutoring the candidate, Karl Rove and Donnie Evans (a Midland oil-patch buddy with whom Bush had found Jesus in a men’s Bible study group) directed the fund-raising operation. Rove has always said the first race to be won is “the money primary,” which he decided to wrap up early so Bush would look like the inevitable winner of the Republican nomination. Evans, the chair of the fund-raising committee and now secretary of commerce, called a meeting of three other Bush associates in Midland. Together they came up with the idea of the Pioneers. The group might have been more accurately named “the Deputies,” because what Bush fund-raising chair Evans did was deputize hundreds of individuals, giving each of them the authority to raise money in the name of the Bush campaign.

Each pioneer would raise $100,000, for which they would get in return a modest reward: the right to purchase a pair of special Lone Star cuff links. (And perhaps an ambassadorship, a change in a specific public policy or, as in Ken Lay’s particular case, the authority to fire the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, name his replacement and a commissioner to fill another seat, and secure a promise that energy prices would not be capped in states such as California. Much of this is laid out in a Washington Post investigative series.) The Pioneers increased fund-raising exponentially, fostering the sky-is-the-limit approach that brought in $41 million for Bush’s two campaigns for governor. Here in Texas, any individual can give any amount as long as it is disclosed to the Texas Ethics Commission. In elections for federal office, individuals were limited to $1,000 per person per candidate. (The maximum has since been raised to $2,000.) The plan Evans and company put together in Midland was the perfect mechanism to beat the $1,000 contribution limit. The big guys with the big Rolodexes are no longer limited to bundling $1,000 contributions of a few family members and friends. They get on the phone, raise 100 $1,000 contributions, and mail in the checks.

The program was spectacularly successful, helping Bush raise $98.3 million for the 2000 primary (compared to $49.5 million Al Gore raised in the same period). This year the Bush funding operation is breaking its own records. The 208 Rangers and 303 Pioneers identified by McDonald at Texans for Public Justice have accounted for at least $72.4 million of the $200 million already raised by Bush. There’s more to come as others sign on at about 50 a month. And there’s more than can be detected by reading contribution-disclosure forms. According to McDonald, some donors have raised $350,000 to $400,000. You won’t find that information at the Federal Election Commission. McDonald obtained it because as director of Texans for Public Justice, he was an expert witness in the McCain-Feingold lawsuit the Supreme Court decided last year. Nor are the contributions of the Pioneers who don’t make their quota counted, so donors who raise $90,000 do not appear.

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