The Party Boys

Politics pulls out the hard "soft" cash, Houston-style

Tilman Fertitta's carport was a riot of blooming colors. Fabrics were draped over tables and chairs. Roses, daisies and hydrangeas blossomed from the center of each table. The rich floral harvest included more flowers cascading from overhead beams and chandeliers.

On that night last September, Fertitta's ten-car garage would have put a five-star dining room to shame. Tents had expanded the area; carpets hid the concrete floor. Ficus trees had been brought in to circle the guests, who were dining on Gulf red snapper and crab.

The piece de resistance: a 900-pound ice sculpture designed as a replica of the White House.

The head of Landry's was taking no chances. He brought in his two top chefs to prepare the banquet, which would be served in a fashion that would make his own restaurants look shabby by comparison. Of course, this was no family dinner special from the impresario of Joe's Crab Shack. This was for the creme de la creme of River Oaks society, each of whom had put up at least $10,000 to rub shoulders with the leader of the free world, President Bill Clinton.

Clinton, for his part, wanted rich guests but a lean meal: no creams or chocolates, please. The president was sticking to his diet. Early arrivals that night gathered for cocktails by the pool.

"It was typically Texan; in good taste, lavish, hardly low key," reminisces Alan Solomont, who was then finance chair of the Democratic National Committee. "The people were extraordinarily generous."

According to guests, Clinton was in his element, meeting and greeting the 70 or so dinner guests with a handshake and photo op. He smiled easily; his remarks that night focused on the guests' generosity.

That was the private Bill Clinton. No newspaper photographers were allowed inside for the society event of the season, and the guest list stayed secret. The press was kept across the street, chowing down on barbecue.

Of course, the reporters had already been fed their story for the day. Just hours before, at San Jacinto Community College, Clinton had been serving up a big helping of crow for the Republican party, and pounding the drumbeat of campaign-finance reform.

In a true give-'em-hell performance, Clinton skewered those in Congress who would stand in the way of his righteous battle to reform campaign-finance laws.

"We desperately need to reform the way we finance our campaigns," declared Clinton to the San Jac students. Clinton went on to applaud the new McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill then under discussion, adding, "You hide and watch. There will be a lot of efforts to make it look like we're going to do something, and nothing will happen unless we all work and demand that something happen."

Clinton's people had astounded the college just days before when they called to arrange the appearance. No one there was even asking for the president. But they were ecstatic to get him, and on he came, in a whirlwind of Secret Service agents, reporters and sleek black sedans. Clinton appeared ready to do public business, wearing his trademark dark business suit, with a splash of yellow in his silk tie. The man of the people had arrived.

But for dinner that evening, the president had come to get down to the real business of the day, and had suited up in full black-tie regalia for his venture into the heart of big-money country.

In contrast to the relatively small amount of preparation for his public speech, Clinton and officials at the DNC had been working on this private event for months. Advance staff was in town weeks before the event, and Solomont took a swing through Texas as early as the previous July to lay the groundwork for the trip.

Hours after Clinton praised McCain-Feingold, a bill that would have limited soft money contributions to party groups like the DNC, he was hot on the trail of the same soft money that would have been prohibited by that piece of legislation.

The press would list a handful of high-profile guests for the evening. Solomont sat next to Olympic hero Carl Lewis, one of Fertitta's neighbors and the sole minority on hand who was not clearing plates. Former governor Ann Richards was there. So was Democratic governor hopeful Garry Mauro, a loyal Democratic fundraiser who had put in years of hard labor digging into Texas pockets for money for the Democratic party. But the party wannabes were there with freebie invitations. It was lesser-known individuals with bigger bank accounts who were the true focus.

One guest who fit the bill was John Eddie Williams, a prominent attorney and mover and shaker in local party circles who has given almost $400,000 to the Democrats in the past few years. Altogether that night, Williams and the rest of the guests gave about $700,000, the lion's share of it soft money contributions to a Democratic National Committee that was $15 million in debt.

The Fertitta party was one of about 20 set up around the country in the last half of 1997, and was "one of the most successful," says Solomont.

While Texas and its 29 electoral votes would remain beyond the president's grasp, Houston has been a rich hunting ground for soft money contributions.

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