Lazio calls Clinton's bluff

The New York Senate candidate makes good on a challenge to close a campaign finance loophole. Now he wants Hillary to do the same.



Jake Tapper
September 21, 2000 9:15AM (UTC)

Campaign finance reform has emerged as an unexpected political Ping-Pong ball in the New York Senate race, with Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., scheduled to deliver a resounding return serve to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday afternoon at a speech to editors from the Associated Press, Salon has learned.

In various charges and countercharges about who is the true campaign finance reformer, Lazio has asked that Clinton stop using money from accounts her campaign has set up for unregulated and unlimited soft-money campaign cash. In response, Clinton has called for an end to the myriad third-party anti-Clinton groups whose ads and activities help Lazio. Specifically, Clinton has called on Lazio to have the heads of 14 of these independent organizations sign documents in which they promise to refrain from influencing the race in any of the many ways they've tried -- through TV and radio ads, direct mail, push polls and the like.

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And, according to a source in the Lazio campaign, the scrappy Republican will "call her bluff" on this last point. On Monday and Tuesday, Lazio campaign manager Bill Dal Col was reportedly trying to secure those signatures from the 14 groups, which the campaign hopes will place Clinton in the untenable position of either putting her campaign at a financial disadvantage or looking as if she's breaking a campaign promise.

How much any of this is based on a real desire for campaign finance reform is, of course, questionable. Meridith McGehee, senior vice president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit working to overhaul the nation's campaign finance laws, dismisses much of the Lazio-Clinton debate as "political maneuvering."

Still, such maneuvering made the highlight reel of the Sept. 13 debate between the two Senate candidates. During the 60-minute show, held in Buffalo, N.Y., and hosted by NBC's Tim Russert, Lazio said that "as America looks to New York, this is an opportunity for us to be able to say, 'We don't have to rely on soft money.' And my campaign has not had one commercial nor raised $1 in soft money. My opponent has raised soft money by the bucket loads."

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Said Lazio, "I have right here a pledge that I sent over to my opponent. It's a 'ban on soft money' pledge. I am willing to say we will neither raise nor spend a dime of soft money, and ask all outside groups to stay away, if my opponent is willing to do the same."

Clinton countered that she agreed with a ban on soft money as long as "we don't have these independent expenditures ... If you will get signed agreements from all your friends who say they are raising $32 million and will not be running so-called independent ads, will not be doing push polling, will not be doing mass mailings that are filled with these outrageous personal attacks, I think we can have an agreement."

Added Clinton: "I would like to see those signed letters from all those different groups that you have counted on to flood this state. I think if we can get signed agreements from all of your allies when you wouldn't ask the one group to stop, but if you will get those signed agreements, then you know we can make a deal."

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Later in the debate, Lazio walked across the stage to Clinton's podium, brandishing a document he called the "New York Freedom From Soft Money Pledge," which he demanded that she sign. She demurred. Since then, both campaigns have made steady use of the issue in press releases and public comments.

As is frequently the case in politics, both campaigns are more or less right in what they allege about the other. Both campaigns have sought, or at least received, help through various campaign finance law loopholes.

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Clinton's campaign has reportedly raised much more cash than Lazio's using the "soft money" loophole, though how much money it's raising or spending is, of course, a complete and utter mystery.

"They're not coming clean," says Sheila Krumholz, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in politics. "The Republicans are doing a better job of disclosing," she says. "It is such a shell game being played with the money."

To wit: The New York Senate 2000 Committee, run jointly by Clinton, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the New York Democratic Party, has a soft-money account. Since the New York Senate 2000 Committee isn't a national committee, it doesn't have to file anything having to do with soft money with the Federal Election Committee other than whatever it transfers to a national committee, in this case the $1.3 million it has transferred to the DSCC.

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There's also evidence that the DSCC has another soft-money account, called "Non-federal New York No. 2," which has transferred $149,500 to the DSCC.

It takes a campaign finance expert about six tries explaining before I can understand all this. In the midst of all the numbers, I express complete confusion over the various rules and subrules and loopholes that Clinton's campaign is using. Not to worry, the expert reassures me. "If it confuses a great brain like Bob Biersack" -- chief statistician for the FEC -- "you shouldn't worry that it confuses you."

Likewise, Lazio has benefited from third-party allies -- all of which deem Clinton's defeat as priority No. 1.

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The Lazio campaign's anti-Clinton spots are often financed with soft money raised by these outside groups. Additionally, the ads themselves sometimes fall into the category of "sham" issue ads, meaning they exploit the loophole in the campaign finance laws that -- laughably, in many cases -- categorize ads that don't directly recommend the election of one candidate and the defeat of another as distinct from those that are election related.

The state GOP, for instance, ran an ad portraying Lazio as a buddy and colleague of retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., that supposedly had no electioneering intent whatsoever. When Moynihan complained that the ad spliced film together in a misleading way, Lazio responded that he had nothing to do with the ad, though it was being run by patrons of his like state Republican Party chairman Bill Powers and New York Gov. George Pataki.

These are the 14 dogs Clinton has asked Lazio to call off: American Conservative Union, American Political Action Committee, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Coalition for a Better America, Conservative Campaign Fund, Conservative Leadership Political Action Committee, Conservatives for Effective Leadership, ConserveAmerica, National Conservative Campaign Fund, Republican Jewish Coalition, Republican Leadership Council, Republican National Committee and RuffPAC.

Thus, both Clinton and Lazio have demanded that the other pledge to take the campaign finance reform step that would hurt the most.

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In "hard" dollars, there is rough equity. Clinton has outraised Lazio $21.7 million to $17.8 million as of the end of August, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, though Lazio has $3 million more than Clinton in cash on hand, roughly $10 million to her $7 million.

Common Cause's McGehee sees no real winner so far in the Lazio-Clinton debates over who should renounce what when. "What does any of this measure?" asked McGehee. "I have a hard time coming up with this as a measure of who is or who is not 'the reformer.'" Both Clinton and Lazio could end their uses of various campaign finance loopholes just as Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., did during his 1998 reelection campaign, she says -- though it's worth pointing out that, unilaterally disarmed against then Rep. Mark Newman, R-Wis., Feingold came close to losing.

"I don't care about signing pledges; I care about what you do," McGehee says.

When it comes to the campaign finance issue, McGehee says, Clinton has no voting record while Lazio's has been "fine. He's been among those moderate Republicans who, when we go to look for votes, is always on the list. And often he comes through, though he's nowhere near in same camp" as Republican Reps. Zach Wamp of Tennessee, Tom Campbell of California, Chris Shays of Connecticut, Mike Castle of Delaware or Marge Roukema of New Jersey, she says, who "are on a whole different level. Lazio's kind of a rank-and-file guy who's always on the target list, and we got him sometimes -- which is good."

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Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson disagrees, however, saying that Lazio's few votes in favor of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform measure were mere posturing. "He was one of the chief soft-money fundraisers for the House Republicans, and he has his own soft-money state committee," Wolfson says.

Claims by the Lazio campaign that Friends of Rick Lazio hasn't spent "one nickel" on his race "just aren't true," Wolfson says, since Lazio used money from that committee "to travel around the state as he was thinking of running." Additionally, Wolfson points out, Friends of Rick Lazio, which has existed since 1995, has raised almost half a million dollars, and Lazio has spent more than $100,000 of that this year, including a transfer of $72,500 from the committee to each of the state's 62 Republican county committees.

Some of these third-party groups are so obsessed with stopping Clinton, it is somewhat doubtful that Lazio could get them to sign what Clinton has called a "Pledge of Non-Activity." The New York Daily News reported on Saturday that representatives from the American Conservative Union said they saw no reason to "heed" Lazio's request that they cease what they've promised will amount to a $7 million barrage. Thus, Clinton's campaign has been able to counter Lazio's claim of hypocrisy with a counterclaim of its own.

Even as Lazio was shaking his finger at Clinton, Wolfson points out, the American Conservative Union over the weekend unveiled an anti-Clinton TV ad funded by -- you guessed it -- soft money. Slamming Clinton for an array of details and accusations surrounding her unsuccessful foray into healthcare legislation, the ad concludes, "If you trust Hillary Clinton, maybe you should see your doctor. While you still can." "The whole thing is a joke," Wolfson says of the ad's running while Lazio berates Clinton for her stance on soft money. "I don't even take it seriously anymore."

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Lazio spokesman Dan McLagan counters that no matter what step his candidate takes, Clinton "keeps coming up with more and more excuses as to why she can't sign the pledge." The bottom line, McLagan says, is that "a majority of her campaign is being funded by a big-Hollywood soft-money slush fund" that she will never shut down. But one way or another, it may all be for naught. A source on the Lazio campaign acknowledged that the campaign would never be able to completely end the conduct of other third-party fringe direct-mail organizations that raise money by bashing Clinton, but said that "we never see a nickel of that money anyway; it just goes to those groups."

Is either side sincere? Over the summer, Common Cause sent out a "Contract for Reform" to all House and Senate candidates, asking each to pledge support for "a complete ban on soft money," for "all broadcast advertisements meant to influence the outcome of federal elections [being] treated the same under the law" and for "an elections system that provides meaningful public resources, like television time, for candidates who agree to limit their spending."

Twenty-five Senate and 177 House candidates signed the pledge. Neither Lazio nor Clinton was among them.

For proponents of campaign finance reform, however, there is one bit of silver lining in this political gray cloud, says McGehee.

"The real news here is that candidates for very high-profile office are saying that this is a very salient campaign issue, and that is a sea change," McGehee says. "Rick Lazio thinks that a way he can score political points is on a campaign finance reform issue; to me, that's good news."


Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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