Longform

BRUCE'S GENEROUS PALS

part 1 of 2
Ever since Bruce Benson began waging his campaign for the governor's office, his opponents have used his fortune against him by portraying him as a consumer shopping for an office. During the primary, Republican candidate Dick Sargent vowed, "We're going to take him out with one phrase: Colorado is not for sale." Later, Roy Romer's re-election campaign manager, Mike Stratton, sniped at Benson by labeling him a "trophy-hunter."

Yet Benson, who won last month's GOP primary handily, has not suffered noticeably by being forced to operate under the label of "millionaire oilman." To the contrary, he has even earned some political points from it. Recently, Benson offered--if elected--to serve as governor for free. He also vowed to pay for his own travel expenses as he conducted the affairs of state, promising to set up satellite offices with the savings.

He has used the subtler implications of his wealth to his advantage as well. The story line, outlined by billionaire Ross Perot during his run for the presidency two years ago, goes something like this: Sure, I'm wealthy. But that's good, because you can be damn sure I won't be bought off by anyone.

Benson said as much to the Rocky Mountain News earlier this summer: "I'm no great fan of Ross Perot. But he caught people's imagination because he was his own man. That's what I bring to this race. Nobody's going to tell me what to do." He reinforced his message of financial self-reliance this spring, when he chose to use the petition process to get on the ballot rather than navigate the party's caucuses.

Since then, the notion of Benson's being his own man has been further reinforced each time the media reports how much of his own money he is spending to win residence in the governor's mansion. Little mentioned, however, is that while Benson has written himself seven figures' worth of checks to spend on the governor's race, he has collected a lot of money from other people.

Benson and Romer each have raised about $2.6 million. In Benson's case, more than half of that has come out of his own pocket. Much of the remainder has come from a small group of unusually--for Colorado politics--generous contributors. Three people have written him checks for $50,000; seven have handed over more than $20,000 each.

Benson's campaign contributions are particularly significant because, unlike Romer, whose policies and politics can be cross-checked in a long public record, Benson is a newcomer to the voting public. Moreover, he has proven changeable: Once he supported Denver International Airport; now he doesn't. Once he supported public funding of abortions; now he doesn't.

So it makes sense to try to get a handle on Benson by the financial company he keeps. There are, after all, good reasons to give political candidates money. Donors range from "old friends," as Benson spokesman Greg Sparrow describes many of his boss's largest contributors, to people or businesses laying the groundwork for future favors.

As Pat Johnson, vice president of the League of Women Voters of Colorado, explains, "This millionaire is getting a great deal of money from very few sources. That's what gets the access and the influence." The League is one of several organizations sponsoring Amendment 15, which would cap campaign contributions at $500. Colorado is one of only seven states in the country without campaign contribution limits, Johnson says.

So who has given the Republican candidate for governor as much money as many Coloradans earn in a year, and what do their interests say about him? Below are several categories into which the men (all the major donors are men) can be grouped. Because of the way the world works--oil barons tend to lean toward the GOP, for instance--several Benson contributors appear under more than one heading.

The "Soft Money" Connection

Despite his inexperience in elected offices, it would be ridiculous for Bruce Benson to run exclusively as an outsider. As chairman of the Colorado Republican Party since 1987, he has been unavoidably in the thick of state and national politics--hosting fundraising receptions, dining with presidents and speaking out against most any Democrat.

And dishing out money with a soup ladle. In fact, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, in Washington, D.C., few people have been as generous as Benson when it comes to supporting the GOP.

Benson donated $465,000 to the Colorado Republican Party in 1992 alone, making him the largest individual contributor of soft money at the state level. "Soft money" is the term for political contributions to a party rather than to a single candidate or cause. The party uses the money as it sees fit in nonspecific ways, such as get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Still, Benson has attempted to position himself as someone who, if not an outsider, is an opponent of politics-as-usual. He has framed November's election as a choice between a career politician and a businessman looking to clean a house made messy and ineffective by, well, career politicians. His decision to obtain a place on the ballot by petition seemed calculated to distance himself from an image of playing party politics.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer