The Party Boys

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

Soft money is a big business in political circles. Up until 1988, very little emphasis was placed on soft money contributions. But with individuals held to a $1,000 cap on contributions to candidates, both parties have engaged in a no-holds-barred scramble for this unlimited supply of cash.

During the current non-presidential election year, Democrats and Republicans are expected to raise more than $200 million in soft money, more than twice the amount raised just four years ago. And while federal election laws dictate that the money can be used only for broad party campaigns, the last election included dozens of ads sharpened by attacks and promotions designed for individual candidates.

Texas plays an important role in this contributions game. "The fact is, we've got a lot of generous supporters in Texas," says Solomont, who adds that the state Democrats put up a big part of the $42 million raised for the DNC in the last half of '97.

And in the world of Houston soft money, no one works a crowd of rich Democratic fans so well, or so often, as President William Jefferson Clinton.

In the past two years, Clinton has attended at least four local fundraisers. The president had been the star attraction in 1996 at another Fertitta-hosted bash, a western-themed, $75,000 hoedown that culled the wealthiest Democrats in the state for the event.

"Anything I do, I do first class," Fertitta said in a brief telephone interview.

Just months before Fertitta rolled out the red carpet in '96, Democratic heavyweight Neil Strauss had put on the Ritz for Clinton. Like many other fundraisers, the Strauss '96 bash was orchestrated around the White House's gung-ho strategy on money-raising that election year, with Clinton quarterbacking a high-spirited group of team-playing party faithful. The Texas group set a $1.5-million goal for the trip and celebrated loudly when they broke it by half a million dollars. It was only later, with the White House under assault for a string of partisan accusations that it had effectively sold access to Clinton in its zealous efforts to bring in contributions, that the chief givers and takers grew quiet about their activities.

Not that they've stopped.
Just four weeks ago, President Clinton again found a way to mix politics with more politics, this time at a luncheon hosted by yet another Houston attorney, Richard Mithoff.

The Mithoff event was classic Clinton. By scheduling a round of very public events intended to highlight his support of changes to the U.S. Census, changes that were seen as critical by local Hispanic politicos anxious to beef up Hispanic power, Clinton was able to jet back into Houston, corral the local media, stroke the area's Hispanic voters and jump into a fundraiser -- all in the same day.

Because he combines his duties as party chief and as president, taxpayers get to pick up much of the travel tab -- no small amount for a man who jets around in his own custom-built 747. That saves the DNC money and helps tune out -- if just for a few hours -- the din over Monica Lewinsky and independent prosecutor Ken Starr.

If past performance is any indication, Clinton will be back, running through hastily prepared public appearances and headed back to the well. The Democrats have tapped into a gusher in Houston. And Clinton will have some familiar faces to look forward to again.

In addition to his role as presidential host in two consecutive years, Fertitta has been an enthusiastic financial supporter, donating $90,000 in the last 18 months to all things Democratic, most in soft money donations to the DNC.

Fertitta, when asked why he provided such financial backing, laughed briefly. "It's cheaper to support it [politics] than run." He turned serious. "We live in a great country, where everybody has a voice." But even Fertitta's donations are considered peanuts in some circles.

A regular at all of Clinton's Houston fund fests has been Arthur Schechter, name partner of the blue-chip law firm of Schechter & Marshall.

In the past five years, Schechter has taken out his checkbook 70 times for Democratic causes, giving $231,000, most in soft money contributions to the Democratic National Committee. The bulk of the DNC money arrived in fat checks ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 each. His wife, Joyce, showing a remarkably kindred political spirit, chipped in another $20,000 -- not bad for someone who often listed her occupation on federal campaign reports as a "homemaker."

But the quarter-million bucks from the Schechter home paled in comparison to the $12 million the Center for Responsive Politics credits Schechter with helping raise as the state's Democratic finance chair.

He seems to revel in the role of a close presidential confidante. After the Strauss fundraiser, Houston Chronicle society scribe Maxine Mesinger lauded "Butch" Schechter's connection to Clinton in worshipful tones: "Schechter is big in the Democratic party, and helped plan the president's day here...."

Of course, the party takes, and it gives.
Even as Fertitta was planning the presidential partying last year, Clinton had quietly put forward Schechter's name for the ambassadorship to one of the Houston lawyer's favorite vacation spots: the Bahamas.

Today, Schechter has cleared the lengthy background check and is waiting for Senate confirmation of his appointment, a move widely viewed as a mere formality. After the Senate's blessing, he'll be able to take up residence in the ambassador's house in Nassau.

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