Ten days ago South Dakota senator Larry Pressler blew into Denver for a short overnight trip. When he left he was $25,000 richer, thanks to a fundraiser held in his honor by Tele-Communications, Inc. The Denver cable giant's timing couldn't have been better. Exactly a week later, the biggest telecommunications bill this country has seen in sixty years hit the floor of the U.S. Senate, where Pressler just happens to chair the committee that spawned it.
The tidy deal was accomplished with little hoopla and, indeed, seemed to be couched in an unusual amount of secrecy. Bob Thompson, senior vice president at TCI, confirms that a fundraiser took place at the home of Peter Barton (president of TCI subsidiary Liberty Media), that fifty people attended and that it netted about $25,000. But he doesn't want to talk about who attended or how much money TCI gave. "I'm not going to get into that," he says, taking issue with the question in the first place. "Why ask questions about this fundraiser when this town has one like this every week?"
That kind of comment makes Faye Diamond, executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party, laugh. "I wish we had fundraisers like that every week around here," she says. "But Denver isn't what I'd consider to be a big money-raising city. I mean, periodically we hit one, like when former president Bush came to town, or when a charity has a big event...but those are all well-publicized, and certainly they don't happen on a weekly basis." She estimates that when she was deputy campaign manager for Dick Lamm's run for the U.S. Senate, they had "maybe two" $500-a-head events, with about "ten to fifteen" people showing up. And that was for an in-state candidate.
The secrecy may have something to do with the growing criticism surrounding Pressler's increased fundraising activities. The senator has always liked to talk about how he doesn't approve of out-of-state, special-interest money, but he has never been as puritanical as his rhetoric. In the twelve months preceding his last election race, he took in $889,747 just from PACs--organizations like the American Bankers Association, MetLife and the Association of Airline Pilots, most with headquarters in places other than South Dakota. What's different now is the speed and aggression with which he is pursuing even more cash.
Ever since the South Dakota Republican took over as chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in January 1995, he has, as his hometown paper put it, been using his "newfound clout" to fill his campaign coffers. In fact, Pressler started raising money from the telecommunications industry even before he took his seat as chair. Last November and December, after the Republicans gained control of the Senate and Pressler's upcoming committee assignment was popular knowledge, cable and telephone businesses nationwide contributed some $25,000 to Pressler in that two-month period alone. Since becoming chair, Pressler's been cleaning up across the country, with a Hollywood fundraiser sponsored by the Motion Picture Association of America and three fundraisers in the past few months in New York--one sponsored by Time Warner, one by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., and one by former media magnate John Kluge. And then, of course, there's Denver. Because Federal Election Commission reporting guidelines don't require disclosure of contributions this year until the end of July, it's difficult to ascertain just how much cash has flowed from Denver's telecommunications industry to Pressler since the beginning of 1995.
But it is safe to say that Pressler has had his share of cocktail quiches on Denver soil in the past few months. Back on April 19 Pressler's campaign committee held a fundraiser at the downtown Broker restaurant. US West attended and gave $2,250, Comsat $3,000, and TCI an undisclosed amount. Pressler's office will not discuss the amount raised at fundraisers and indeed has astounded some members of the press with its refusal to disclose any information. Ken Auletta, a New Yorker writer who recently published a piece discussing Pressler's "whistlestop" fundraising tour, says, "[Pressler's] been breathtaking in his audacity" in taking money from special-interest groups. "One can make a reasonable intellectual argument that what he's doing is a bribe." And Auletta says the refusal by Pressler or his staff to answer even the simplest of the press's questions is astounding. "I can't remember a time in my life as a journalist that anyone's been this arrogant in refusing to answer to the public."
That attitude apparently is catching. Bob Thompson, when asked how much TCI gave to Pressler during the most recent fundraiser, says, "That's publicly disclosable information. You can get that from the FEC [Federal Election Commission]." But not until the end of July, after work--and attention--on the telecommunications bill is a thing of the past.
The May 31 fundraiser appears to have been populated purely by cable industry representatives. Jones Intercable chairman Glenn Jones and Greg Liptak, the firm's group president, attended the event after they received a letter from TCI asking the Jones PAC to make a donation. Liptak says he can't remember exactly how much TCI was asking for, but the Jones PAC decided to give $1,000 to Pressler. Monroe Rifkin, chairman of the cable company Rifkin and Associates, also was there. (He did not return repeated calls.) Who else participated is a mystery. Liptak, who was the most open about his participation in the soiree (and who was watching C-SPAN coverage of the telecommunications bill when reached for comment), says, "I think there were some cable supplier companies there, but I can't remember anyone in specific." And, he adds, "there were a lot of people there I didn't know." Liberty president Peter Barton could not be reached for comment. TCI refuses to name names, Thompson allowing only that "a number of industries were represented." And both Pressler's personal Senate office and the Commerce Committee press office have refused repeated requests for a guest list or fundraising amount, or even to reveal the number of times Pressler has been in Denver since taking the chairman's seat.
The cable industry has a lot riding on Pressler. In 1992 he became its public enemy No. 1 when he supported additional regulation of cable TV and the telephone industry. (Back in 1990, before Pressler's rise to power, US West supported his challenger, Ted Muenster.) Pressler has since changed his mind on the issue and is now point person for passing Senate Bill 652, which would, in effect, deregulate the cable, telephone and broadcasting industries. Experts say successful passage of the bill is worth billions to the cable industry. And at least some of that profit is expected to come from higher prices passed to consumers after rate caps in current regulations are removed. Opposition will most likely come from the consumer lobby, and President Clinton is on record as wanting to conduct the deregulation at a slower pace. Still, the White House isn't expected to cause too much of a fuss over this one. It's got bigger fish to veto.
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Strangely enough, it doesn't appear that the cable industry is hedging its bets with contributions on both sides of the aisle. At least not since Pressler took over. Last year the ranking minority member of the House Commerce telecommunications subcommittee, Jack Fields, received $190,000 from communications PACs. So far this year, the only cable PAC to have disclosed its contributions is the National Cable Television Association, of which TCI is a member. NCTA has given $5,000 to Pressler (the FEC limit per election), but nothing to Ernest Hollings, the ranking minority member of Pressler's committee (and nothing to Fields, for that matter).
Pressler, regardless of his chairman status, is still a risky choice to bet big money on in this game of politics. His flip-flop on cable regulation is nothing new. Just last week Time characterized the senator as "the Forrest Gump of legislators." He has assailed the Public Broadcasting System in ways that have caused even staunch opponents of publicly funded television to distance themselves from him, and back home in South Dakota, his opposition party characterizes him as "a waffling boob." Even Broadcasting & Cable, a weekly industry magazine, has reported that chaos and confusion reigned over Commerce's work on the telecommunications bill--quoting one lobbyist as saying that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole "hit the ceiling when he learned of the concessions Pressler had made to the Democrats."
Pressler also may not have the staying power to justify the investment. The three-term incumbent is facing what most experts predict will be a tough challenge in 1996 from Democratic congressman Tim Johnson. Despite all this, Pressler could be (and we'll know on July 31) the most successful fundraiser in the Senate since federal election contribution laws took effect. And it would be due in part to a handful of Denver-based corporations.