part 2 of 2
Strickland sits in the darkness at the Trinity Grille and shakes his head almost imperceptibly when asked about the Coelho scandal. "I'm not specifically familiar with those facts," he says finally. "I don't recall ever having heard of it before."
When pressed, he loses his newly regained cool. "I'm responsible for my own conduct," he sputters, "and I'm happy to respond to issues involving it. This other"--he waves a hand at the copy of a newspaper article--"has no relevancy to my candidacy."
Voters, though, may find it relevant to Strickland's campaign that Brownstein was a boardmember of MDC [Mizel Development Corporation] Holdings, the Colorado real estate development and financing firm that in November 1992 paid a multimillion-dollar penalty to settle a government lawsuit over its role in Silverado's failure.
In 1990 and 1991, MDC was also the subject of separate investigations by the Denver Election Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation over its alleged laundering of campaign donations to a variety of local, state and national political candidates. A third investigation was conducted by Arapahoe County District Attorney Bob Gallagher in the spring of 1991. Though Gallagher's investigation took place six months after Brownstein resigned from the company's board, it targeted activities that allegedly took place during his tenure. In a report released in March 1991, Gallagher reported that MDC had paid subcontractors to make political donations to a host of candidates. Two subsidiaries of MDC Holdings paid fines for violations of federal election law, and three employees, including Gary Mandarich, the president of MDC's Richmond Homes subsidiary, pled guilty to charges of campaign-money laundering. The president of MDC, Gary's brother David Mandarich, was indicted on charges of campaign-money laundering, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.
It wasn't the first public embarrassment for MDC. In 1988 Brownstein and other MDC boardmembers were sued by MDC stockholders for allegedly trading with insider information. Brownstein and the other boardmembers settled the suit two years later for $20 million, $16 million of which was paid by MDC's insurer.
Today, the links between Brownstein Hyatt and the financial kingpins of the 1980s remain. According to documents filed with the Congressional Office of Records and Registration, Brownstein Hyatt currently lobbies for MDC Asset Investors, a real estate investment trust. The executive vice president of MDC Asset Investors and the vice president of MDC Holdings is Spencer Browne, a former law partner at Brownstein Hyatt. (All Brownstein will say about his dealings with MDC is to confirm that he served on the MDC board and was "very happy with my association with that company.")
According to the Congressional Record, MDC Asset Investors paid Brownstein Hyatt $26,654 in the last eighteen months to lobby for its interests in Washington. Among the other clients Strickland's firm lobbies for in Washington: The Liggett Corporation, a tobacco company that produces more than 10 billion cigarettes every year under the brand names of Chesterfield, Eve, Lark and L&M; Louisiana Pacific Corporation, the international lumber conglomerate; Pfizer, the $30.5 billion drug company; and Apollo Investors, an investment firm started by former Drexel Burnham executive and junk-bond trader Leon Black.
"That has nothing to do with me," Strickland says of the firm's lobbying efforts in Washington--a statement that borders on the bizarre, given that, as a partner and shareholder in Brownstein Hyatt, he presumably shares in the resulting earnings. Strickland, however, refuses to disclose what percentage of the firm he owns--ostensibly because he doesn't want people to be able to figure out the firm's overall income after his FEC income disclosure statement comes out in late October. And he says voters need not worry about conflicts of interest that might arise from Brownstein Hyatt's lobbying work should he take office. "If elected," he says, "I'm vowing not to have any lobbying contact whatsoever with the firm for as long I'm a senator."
If Norman Brownstein and other law partners such as Steve Farber have assumed high public profiles at "The Firm," handling everything from the city's contract negotiations with the Winter Park ski area to the recent Pepsi Center deal, Tom Strickland has done most of his legal and political operating behind the scenes. Achieving the kind of name recognition that both Gale Norton and Wayne Allard already enjoy will be a challenge. And the fact that many longtime Coloradans still confuse him with former state Senate president (and Republican) Ted Strickland isn't going to help much.
"People have to get to know me, know my name, recognize me," says Strickland, who, unlike his father, speaks without a hint of a Texas accent. "It's a big state, with three and a half million people. That's going to be a lot of hard work."
It's also going to cost a lot of money. But that's not a great concern to Strickland. While the other candidates scramble to raise money for what many believe will be a $3 million to $5 million race, one Democratic veteran reports Strickland recently raised $100,000 in one month "without even picking up the phone."
That's hardly surprising considering that Brownstein's name is synonymous with big money. National Journal magazine lists him among the "Top 20" Democratic fundraisers. Since the 1991 election cycle, Brownstein's firm has given $37,500 to the Democratic Party in what's known as "soft money"--donations made to a political party for get-out-the-vote efforts. Brownstein as an individual has contributed $48,769 since 1991 to literally dozens of Democratic candidates (and a few Republicans) across the United States.
Members of the firm have followed suit. According to FEC records, individual contributions made by people listing their place of employment as Brownstein Hyatt totaled a whopping $65,084 for the same period. Which means that in four short years, Brownstein Hyatt and its partners and employees have made more than $150,000 in political contributions. It's the kind of giving record that makes for quick access to the most exclusive corridors of power.
Besides giving money, Norman Brownstein can raise it. A prime example is the 1993 trip New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg took to Denver, where he collected a healthy $41,000 for his coffers thanks to Brownstein, who reportedly twisted arms in both local parties to come up with the take. At the time, Lautenberg was chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation--a position that allowed him to funnel $500 million in public funds to DIA. The massive project had already proven profitable for Brownstein Hyatt, which in 1990 was appointed special counsel for the issuance of $700 million in airport bonds. Brownstein now says he supported Lautenberg because of his pro-Israeli views, not as a "thank-you" for backing DIA.
"Norman Brownstein is an awesome fundraiser," says former governor Dick Lamm. "Whoever comes through town--they call ahead and he gathers the troops; that's just the way it works." Lamm, who once hired Tom Strickland as his director of policy and research, says he's given $500 to Strickland's campaign but has not yet decided who he will endorse.
"I think the issue [of Brownstein Hyatt's reputation] is a valid question that's going to have to be answered," says Lamm. The firm, he adds, has "never asked anything inappropriate of me. My take on it is that they feel very strongly about Israeli issues, and that's where 90 percent of this comes from. I think if I were in the Senate and an issue about the Middle East came up, well--you'd better wear your leaden underwear. Now, whether they operate the same way about S&Ls or real estate issues, I don't know."
When Strickland is asked how he can call himself an outsider after his firm's nearly thirty-year involvement with politics, he refuses to backpedal. "I'm no career politician," he says, the comparison to Allard and Norton implied. "I'm knowledgeable about politics, but I'm coming from the private sector." After thinking about it for a moment, he adds, "I'm more of a political outsider than Colin Powell. He spent his life making a military career inside the Beltway."
Strickland, on the other hand, grew up far from Washington, D.C., in a suburban Houston neighborhood. Tommy Strickland was a high school football star who went on to win a football scholarship to Louisiana State University (a campaign spokesman says a high draft number kept him out of the Vietnam War). He played offensive tackle for the Bengal Tigers and spent forty minutes on the field in the 1974 Orange Bowl. From there it was on to law school at the University of Texas, a clerkship with a federal judge and a position with the Denver firm of Sherman and Howard.
It was in Denver that Strickland became politically active, helping in Jimmy Carter's 1980 presidential campaign, then serving as a Democratic precinct committeeman. Two years later he signed up to work on Dick Lamm's gubernatorial campaign. After Lamm won, Strickland spent two years on the governor's staff before leaving to join Brownstein Hyatt. Though his campaign biography portrays Strickland as "working his way up" in the company, he made partner in less than a year. During the eleven years Strickland has spent at "The Firm," he has specialized in administrative and environmental law and lobbying. It's a calling that has kept him outside the courtroom and inside both the statehouse and the cramped offices of city and federal bureaucrats.
Strickland--who himself has donated more than $10,000 to various local and national political candidates since 1991--doesn't see a problem with either his firm's reputation for political giving or his own. "I care about Democratic politics," he says. "I support good candidates. There shouldn't be anything unusual about that."
But even some dyed-in-the-wool party loyalists disagree. For Ken Fusik, Boulder County Democrat Chair, Strickland's cozy relationship with scores of politicians and fellow lobbyists raises questions about his commitment to what may be a hot-button issue in the next election. "I'd want him to be stronger on the issue of campaign-finance reform," says Fusik. "And knowing where his money comes from, it makes me concerned that he wouldn't be as supportive of reform as I'd like."
Gil Reyes, chairman of the Colorado Democrats' Latino Initiative, says his reservations about Strickland have more to do with fairness. "He hasn't paid his dues," Reyes says. "I don't think you can come in and just because you have a lot of money" be a candidate. "Other people have more experience [at the grassroots level]. He's just been working with his elite circle."
Strickland counts his chief campaign issues off on his fingers. "I want to concentrate on education, the environment and sensible deficit reduction," he says. He's especially excited about the environment, an issue he can reasonably claim to know more about than any other candidate in the race. "I've dedicated both thousands of hours of my time and thousands of dollars of my personal income to the issue of the environment," says Strickland, warming to the subject. "It's so important."
For voters who get nervous thinking about Colorado's environmental future in the hands of Gale Norton (who mentored under the infamous James Watt) and Wayne Allard (in favor of closing national parks and weakening the endangered-species act), Strickland seems--at least on the surface--to be a breath of fresh air. This is the guy who spearheaded the Amendment 8 campaign in 1992 to dedicate all state lottery funds to park, trail, wildlife and conservation uses. He's a founding member of the Rocky Mountain Advisory Board for the Environmental Defense Fund and a board member of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute. He even helped create, during his tenure as chairman of the Colorado Highway Commission, the nation's first oxygenated-fuels program. On paper at least, there's no better tree-hugger in the race.
But for Strickland, "The Firm" looms upon the environmental horizon like a black cloud over a factory smokestack. "Any opponent is going to look for ammunition on this issue," says political consultant Eric Sondermann. Just as former Denver mayor Federico Pena's campaign labeled his opponent Don Bain as the "polluters' lawyer" in 1987, says Sondermann, "someone's going to bring up who Brownstein Hyatt has been batting for."
And it's a bench that's pretty deep. The Brownstein Hyatt client list included in the 1995 Martindale-Hubbell law directory reads like a who's who of real estate developers: The Taubman Company (developers of the Cherry Creek Shopping Mall and similar malls across the country); The Franklin Haney Company (developers of Tennessee real estate); Mission Viejo (developers of Highlands Ranch); U.S. Home Corporation (one of the biggest builders of residential real estate in the nation); MDC Holdings (the largest homebuilder in Colorado); Vail Associates (developers of the Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts); Interstate Highway Construction (a concrete-paving specialist); and the Yarmouth Group (the developer of the Tabor Center).
Strickland himself personally worked in the last two years for the Lake Catamount Joint Venture, a consortium put together to construct a proposed ski resort and condominium complex seven miles south of Steamboat Springs. One of his jobs was pushing through permits allowing the group to fill and build on federally protected wetlands. The Sierra Club fought the development for years, eventually filing a lawsuit on the issue that was settled for an undisclosed amount. Paul Zogg, an environmental attorney who represented the Sierra Club, says the Lake Catamount project raised concerns on a number of environmental planes, including "wildlife, the wetlands and water quality." One of the main partners in the development has since pulled out, and the project is now considered dead.
But Jim Martin, senior attorney for the Colorado Environmental Defense Fund, says he believes Strickland is dedicated to the environment despite his personal involvement in Lake Catamount. "I know the Sierra Club worked very hard against Catamount--but I believe you have to separate what someone does from 8 to 5 earning a living in a law firm and what they would do personally in the Senate," Martin says. "You just can't judge them by what they do at work."
Carmi McLean, the Colorado director of Clean Water Action, seconds Martin's support for Strickland. "Maybe his firm hasn't been in the right place," she says, "but [Tom's] heart certainly is."
Strickland himself, however, doesn't try to separate his work and his personal dealings. Instead, he bristles at the implication that his representation of Lake Catamount and other proposed developments conflicts with his self-described status as an environmentalist.
"I've always represented responsible developers," he says, visibly irritated with the question. And, contends Strickland, responsible developers should be embraced by environmentalists. "There's no need to polarize things so much," he says.
W.C. Strickland isn't so sure his son is doing the right thing by running for Senate. "I think he's crazy," says the recently retired engineer. "But, you know, he feels like it's something he has to do."
Allen Schwartz, an old law school buddy of Strickland's at the University of Texas, echoes the sentiment. "A lot of Tom's friends think he's crazy to do this, you know," he says. "They want to know why he's putting himself out there like that. I mean look at him--he's got a great job, a great family, he's at a great time in his life. Why do this?"
Schwartz thinks it may have something to do with Strickland's love for Thomas Jefferson. "He has this pocket Jefferson that he's always carrying around with him," says Schwartz. "He quotes from it. He's totally into this idea of being a citizen legislator. He's determined to make a difference."
Jim Martin of the Environmental Defense Fund agrees. "I've worked with Tom for a long time now," he says, "and I have no doubt what he feels at the bottom of his heart." Martin pauses before adding, "If it were `The Firm' running for Senate, that would be a different story."
end of part 2
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