Buying Congress

From 1987-1992, while on sabbatical from journalism, I ran the political money operation of the National Association of Realtors which – with more than 800,000 members – billed itself as the largest trade association in the world.

As vice-president for political programs administration, I controlled what was then the biggest political action committee (PAC) in Washington – a multi-million dollar behemoth that lavished maximum contributions on Congressional races, spent millions on “independent expenditure campaigns” and invested heavily in ballot initiatives on issues that favored the real estate industry.

After six years on Capitol Hill as a press secretary, chief of staff and committee staffer, the gig at the Realtors seemed a perfect cap to my education on the seamy world of politics in Washington.  It turned out to be that and more.

The Realtors lobbying and political operation employed more than 70 people – the largest such office in Washington at the time. Rival lobbyists often referred to the organization’s senior vice president and chief lobbyist – my boss – as the “101st Senator” because the money and resources we could dump into the political system gave him considerable clout on Capitol Hill.

Having the largest PAC in town meant leaders on the Hill took your calls. Our lobbyists enjoyed easy access to the inner sanctums of power on both sides of the political spectrum. In lobbying, access is the name of the game and our checkbook guaranteed that access.

In 1988, at a reception for newly-elected members of Congress, George Sangmeister, an Illinois Democrat, sought me out.  We had supported the incumbent in that Congressional race – the incumbent Sangmeister beat.

“Look,” he said. “I know you guys have a friendly incumbent policy and had to support my opponent. That’s politics. But I’m the incumbent now and I can tell you that I will be friendly.”

“Glad to hear that Congressman,” I said. “Do you by chance have a campaign debt?”

He did. A few days later, we cut a $5,000 check (the maximum allowed) and sent it to his campaign to help retire its debt. That was on top of the $10,000 we had spent on his opponent’s losing campaign. Just a little insurance to make sure our lobbyists got a welcome reception when they dropped by his office.

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” said Jesse Unruh, Speaker of the California Assembly from 1961 to 1968. Jesse was right. Money was, is, and remains the fuel that drives the American political system. Political Action Committees, like the one I ran for the Realtors, spent $310.5 million on federal office candidates in 2004 — up from just over $100 million a cycle during my days as a PAC man.

The competition for that money is intense, with leaders of both sides of the political fence alternately currying favor or issuing threats to continue the flow of PAC money into their coffers.

In 1988, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole discovered I was spending several hundred thousand dollars of Realtor PAC money in Montana in an “independent expenditure” effort to support incumbent Democratic Senator John Melcher.  He called me in for a face-to-face.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing up there? You should be helping our candidate (a former auctioneer named Conrad Burns).” Dole shook with anger.

I explained that Melcher had helped the real estate industry in the last budget bill while many Republicans looked the other way.

“I don’t give a damn about that,” Dole said. “You can’t spend that money on Melcher. He’s an asshole.”

“Senator,” I replied, “if we took the assholes out of the Senate we’d have a lot of empty seats on both sides of the aisle.”

Dole yelled at me to get out of his office and, for a while, banned our lobbyists. But we continued to contribute to his campaign and bought back our access to his office. Melcher lost the race to Burns (the only independent expenditure campaign I lost that year). Burns is now a central figure in the bribery and corruption probe of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

In 1990, shortly after the midterm elections, I met with Texas Congressman Tom DeLay, an up-and-comer in GOP circles who was one of several members meeting with PAC executives to try and get us to spend more money on Republican candidates.  I had heard about DeLay from our lobbyists. He was always hitting them up for honorariums or invites to our conventions when they were held in places like Hawaii where he could bring his family at our expense.

“We’ve been taking a look at your contribution patterns,” DeLay said. “You spent 55 percent of your money on Democrats last year. That’s unacceptable.”

I explained that the Democrats we supported voted right on our issues and, at the moment, controlled Congress.  DeLay’s face turned red.

“Listen you cocksucker,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “I’m tired of mealy-mouthed assholes like you kowtowing to the Democrats. We’re keeping a list and you’re on it. Either start supporting Republicans or you’ll find yourself out in the cold.”

The meeting with DeLay signaled a new aggressiveness among Republicans. Other PAC execs told me of similar meetings with other GOP members of Congress along with threats to “play ball or else.”

The next year, at the annual Presidential Dinner where the Realtors paid $25,000 for a table, Newt Gingrich, who would become Speaker of the House in two years when Republicans took control of Congress, sat as one of our guests.

“Changes are coming,” he told me. “We will remember who helped us and who didn’t. Those who didn’t won’t have a seat at the table.”

Truth was, I no longer wanted a seat at the table. My enchantment with the political world was over. The six-figure income, lavish expense account and access to the power circles of Washington no longer offset the revulsion I felt being around these people and over what I had become.  I’d come home from a political event sick to my stomach. I drank heavily both to deal with the people I encountered in Washington and to forget that I had become part of such a system.

Later that year a new President of the Realtors ordered cuts in the Association because the real estate industry itself had fallen on hard times. I wrote a reorganization plan for my area that eliminated my job and moved the political money operations into another division and I walked away from the Realtors in early 1992 with a healthy severance package.

I would need it because it took more than two years to come to terms with my alcoholism, restore my sense of balance and wash away the stench of too many years in the cesspool of politics.