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.
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.
Schechter's arrival in the State Department may be followed quickly by that of yet another rich Houston attorney, Lee Godfrey of Susman & Godfrey, in line for the ambassadorship of Brazil. "It's still in the White House," says one State Department official in Washington, noting that the current ambassador to Brazil -- a career diplomat -- will be leaving the country's capital later this month.
Just like Schechter, Godfrey has been a generous friend to the DNC -- to the tune of $221,000. In another all-in-the-family arrangement, spouse Sandra Godfrey has given $48,500 -- $36,000 in soft money DNC donations.
Godfrey has been giving money in a steady stream over the past few years, but his biggest contributions occurred in the summer of 1996, when Clinton was going all out for soft money contributions. On August 14, 1996, Godfrey is credited with a $50,000 donation to the DNC, six weeks after sending the DNC a check for $30,000.
These contributions occurred near two memorable dates in Godfrey's career.
The day before, Godfrey had traveled to Kelly, Wyoming, with 30 other people described in press reports at the time as energy industry executives.
Aides told the press that the gathering was nonpolitical, but they may have failed to mention it to the attendees, several of whom came in wearing their " '92 Clinton Energy Team" buttons from the previous election.
The subject that day: a national energy policy, support for the Department of Energy -- a favorite Republican budget-cutting target -- and a new piece of legislation Clinton had just signed into law, with the majestic Grand Teton mountains towering in the background of the presidential podium.
The royalty reform bill was a popular piece of legislation in some energy circles. It was intended to streamline federal regulations for drilling on federal lands, making it easier to drill public land by softening some of the government's royalty rules -- such as limiting royalty dues to seven years -- while bumping the government's annual take by increasing activity.
Godfrey was just one of several Houston execs in on the meeting. Attorney Steven P. Williams was there. Williams is counsel to Houston energy giant Enron. Enron is run by Ken Lay, who helps cover the political spectrum as the area's largest single contributor in soft money to the Republican National Committee (see related story).
Ten days later, Godfrey would be back, up close and personal with the president of the United States -- this time in the White House.
The president wasn't serving the kind of sumptuous banquet he could expect in Houston. The main course was coffee, and the list of attendees was a party fundraiser's dream team.
Aside from Godfrey, Mithoff -- who would return the favor by hosting the presidential lunch here in early June -- was on the guest list. Schechter was expected to attend, but would beg off at the last minute when a trial date got in the way. (Schechter had already attended an earlier coffee, and was a White House regular, even making it to one of Clinton's Christmas get-togethers.) Mauro, in charge of the president's Texas campaign, was back at the table as the tour director, gathering Democratic IOUs for his run for governor.
The rest of the guest list amounted to a who's who of Texas Democratic contributors.
There was Lucien Flournoy, head of Flournoy Drilling, of Alice, Texas. Flournoy has contributed more than $85,000 to the Democrats since 1994. Personal injury lawyer Frank Branson, from Dallas, who contributed more than $204,000 over the past four years, sent spouse Debbie Dudley Branson. Gary Jacobs of the Laredo National Bank was on hand, weeks after giving $20,000 to the DNC. Stan McIelland, executive vice president of Valero Energy Corp. in San Antonio, had signed over $187,000 to party causes. Fort Worth was represented by Lyndon L. Olson, president and CEO of Travelers Insurance Co., who was good for $82,000, $20,000 of which arrived in DNC coffers seven weeks after his meeting with the president. And finally, there was Bernard Rapaport of the American Income Life Insurance Co. in Waco, who would give more than $230,000 in 89 contributions over four years.
Altogether, this group has given about $1.4 million to Democratic causes since 1994. But ask if their invitation could have been connected in any way to money, and they sound downright hurt by the idea.
Reached by phone, Schechter begged off an interview with the Houston Press, saying he wouldn't be available until August. But earlier, when the Republicans in Congress were in full hue and cry after dozens of videotapes of these coffees suddenly surfaced months after they had been subpoenaed by congressional investigators, Schechter defended the gatherings.
"They [the coffees] are being hypocritically addressed," he said. "Absolutely nothing transpired at those coffees that anyone should be ashamed of.... Those coffees were designed not for major donors but for major supporters."
Clinton was unique in allowing citizens access to the White House to share their ideas, says Schechter. And don't expect any apologies for his generosity to the president. As state finance chair, he was doing "everything I could" to get Clinton re-elected.
Mauro, a distant second in all polls to Governor Bush, blew up when asked earlier this year about his role organizing the trip. "You people are either stupid or misrepresenting the facts," he barked. The trip was aimed at persuading Clinton to spend more for his Texas campaign, not raise more money for the DNC, Mauro said.
Godfrey, for his part, has maintained a persistent refusal to return phone calls on his fundraising activities. Not that either he or Schechter often has to discuss his role at party fundraisers.
When the Chronicle noted that Schechter was officially nominated for the ambassadorship to the Bahamas, the daily maintained its respectful tone for Schechter's reputation as a big-time contributor. "Rewarding political donors with choice ambassadorial appointments," intoned the Chronicle without a hint of disapproval, "is a time-honored tradition in Washington."
While it may be a tradition in Washington, it's not been an honored one.
Clinton "has a lot of fat cats getting plum jobs," says Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. "For years, presidents have had a lot of deep-pocket folks that helped sponsor their careers and candidacies," he says. "And when it's over, out of the sheer boredom of their lives, they want to do something in Washington."
The primary dumping ground for contributors, says Lewis, is the foreign service.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"It's terribly demoralizing for career diplomats in the foreign service. Most presidents don't care about that nearly as much as rewarding their cronies.
"We've come to accept it as the norm. But in this age of terrorism and economic crisis in various parts of the globe, I'm one of those people that occasionally think an ambassador can do important work," Lewis says. "And the idea of some novice coming in, who can't speak the language or barely understands the culture, is disturbing. So I have a problem with it."
Whatever their motives for their Democratic gift-giving, their financial rewards will be slim pickings compared to their current incomes. Both attorneys rank high in their professions and have already given away far more than they would be paid per year as ambassadors. The Bahamas post pays $118,400 a year; Brazil slightly more at $125,900 -- a fraction of what even a senior partner would pull down at one of these Houston law firms.
But that's all business as usual in the world of political fundraising. Says Lewis with a bitter laugh: "What is slightly remarkable is that this president said he would be different and, in fact, he's not.