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.

Yet many of Benson's financial supporters couldn't be more tied to traditional politics. Many have worn their affiliations on their wallets.

Take Terry Kohler. Kohler, who so far has donated $20,000 to Benson's campaign, is notable for being perhaps the only person in the country more generous than Benson when it comes time to open the checkbook for the Republican Party. Like Benson, a good chunk of Kohler's support has come through soft-money donations to the GOP. Much of it has gone to a political action committee called GOPAC.

GOPAC is headed by political conservative and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia. The committee, made up of charter members who donate at least $10,000 for the privilege, has a stated purpose of winning a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. The collected money is spent on training candidates and funding Gingrich's travel as he spreads the conservative gospel across America.

Until recently, GOPAC's membership was a closely guarded secret. That was possible because the committee claimed that since most of its programs benefited only local causes, it fell outside the strict jurisdiction of the Federal Elections Commission.

Despite that claim, GOPAC's members have enjoyed entry into the highest reaches of Republican power--and thus an opportunity to quietly influence policy. Members are invited to national meetings, which have been highlighted by visits from former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. In addition, Gingrich occasionally holds smaller gatherings featuring other national conservative leaders.

This summer, in an article in the D.C. newspaper Roll Call, GOPAC's largest contributor was revealed to be Kohler and his wife, Mary, of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Over the past several years, Terry--described in one 1993 article as a "devotee of conservative columnist Pat Buchanan"--has given the organization nearly three-quarters of a million dollars. Kohler did not return calls from Westword. But this summer he told a Florida newspaper, "I would, if I could, write a check as large as it would take to make the Republicans a majority in the House."

Kohler, a friend of former Colorado GOP chairman Howard "Bo" Callaway and Callaway's son-in-law, unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Terry Considine, is not the only GOPAC devotee who likes what he sees in Benson. Richard Gilder also belongs to GOPAC and supports Benson.

Gilder is a principal in the New York City brokerage firm of Gilder, Gagnon, Howe & Co. He is a founding trustee and chairman of the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based conservative-leaning think tank.

Gilder contributed $10,000 to Benson's primary campaign in July. He is one of GOPAC's largest supporters, donating more than $300,000 to the committee in recent years. (Calls to Gilder's New York office requesting information on his political donations were referred to GOPAC's Washington, D.C., office.)

Apart from being a strong supporter of Gingrich's GOPAC, Gilder has been active in specific local issues across the country. In 1992, for instance, he contributed $15,000 toward a term-limitation initiative in Florida. (In 1992 Colorado voters passed a term-limitation measure for many state and federal elected offices, which Benson supported. Another measure that would expand the 1992 initiative is on the ballot this fall; Benson supports it.)

Gilder's big issue, however, has been promoting educational choice. As chairman of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Education Innovation, he granted $1 million in November 1993 to five schools in New York City to develop theme-based alternative schools.

This would seem to fit in nicely with Colorado, which is finishing out its first year of dabbling in charter schools. Yet Gilder has been a generous supporter of school choice in a far more aggressive manner.

In 1992 Gilder was one of the largest supporters of California's Proposition 174. The initiative would have permitted any school with at least 25 students to declare itself a charter school. For each student enrolled, the school would then be eligible to receive from the state an amount equal to half of what public schools spend to educate each student. Gilder contributed $100,000 to the unsuccessful effort.

According to spokesman Sparrow, Benson favors a system that would permit school vouchers. This puts him at odds with the majority of Colorado voters, who in 1992 defeated an initiative that would have allowed vouchers here.

Another New York City Benson supporter is Leon Weil. Like Gilder, he recently has tried to make his mark in local issues. Weil, who wrote Benson a check for $20,000 in July, is a senior vice president of investment banking for Gruntal & Co., a New York City investment firm.

Weil earned his political stripes early on, serving in 1970 and 1976 as campaign treasurer to Conservative James Buckley's senate campaigns in New York. In 1984 he was a chief fundraiser in New York state for Ronald Reagan's re-election effort, a job for which he was rewarded by being named U.S. Ambassador to Nepal in August 1984.

In 1992 Weil co-founded an organization called PACK-UP, or Political Action Committee to Kick Out Unproductive Politicians. The group is the political arm of Change-N.Y., an antitax group that was formed by former New York GOP gubernatorial candidate Lewis Lehrman and includes Weil as a member. PACK-UP, acting as a sort of local GOPAC, intends to seek a Republican majority in New York's legislature.

Locally, former Colorado cable man Carl Williams has placed his faith in the party, choosing to act as a major padder of the GOP's soft-money war chest. Williams, a former state legislator and, like Benson, a former state Republican Party chairman, has written Benson two checks--one in June and another in July--totaling $25,000.

This year Williams donated $60,000 to the GOP National Committee. It wasn't his first large contribution to the Republican cause. His name has also shown up on the GOP's Team 100, soft-money donors of at least $100,000 who have enjoyed good access to top elected Republicans. (Benson is on the list. So is local oilman--and Benson contributor--Frederic Hamilton. Cable magnate Bill Daniels made Team 100, too; he has not donated to Benson.)

Last year Williams, a former pilot, showed his support of the new airport by donating to the city of Denver a vintage 1920s biplane that he salvaged from Long Island and had flown out to Colorado. The plane, worth an estimated $2 million, will stand in Denver International's Concourse B. What is not clear is how Williams's contribution to DIA will dovetail with Benson's contributing-to-but-not-actually-supporting-it stance.

Also uncertain is how longtime Denver politician Don Friedman's contribution will affect Benson. Friedman was in the Colorado Legislature for seven terms and unsuccessfully challenged Pat Schroeder for her congressional seat in 1976. He has donated $8,000 to Benson's campaign. Friedman's primary preoccupation in politics recently has been abortion rights; he has been an active member of Colorado Republicans for Choice.

In 1985 Friedman testified in favor of a law that would have allowed Coloradans to donate money on their state income-tax forms to be used to pay for state-funded abortions (the law never passed). This angered people who saw it as an end-run around the intent of a state initiative passed the previous year that prohibited state funding of abortion.

For Benson, of course, abortion is a sticky issue. Once a supporter of publicly funded abortions for poor women, he reversed his position a few years back. He says he still supports a woman's right to choose whether she wants an abortion, but he does not agree that taxpayers should pay for it.

Another place to keep an eye on Benson, should he become governor, is Stapleton International Airport. One of Benson's biggest financial supporters is Richard Gooding, Denver's Pepsi tycoon, who donated $50,000 to the Republican's campaign.

Gooding, who did not return phone calls from Westword, is a heavy investor in the Stapleton Redevelopment Foundation. He gave $150,000 to the nonprofit group, which has proposed buying the old airport from the city and then directing its redevelopment.

The foundation has since received about $750,000 from the city of Denver to do long-term planning. It's far too early to tell what the foundation's role will be in Stapleton's future, but if it does gain control of the airport, it could conceivably end up in front of the state requesting assistance for anything from tax breaks to environmental clean-up efforts.

The Prodigal Son Connection

Benson has made much of the fact that he is a self-made man, someone who began his education as a roughneck out on the oil fields of the West and pulled himself up to the heady company of millionaires. It is not necessarily a trait he shares with his more generous campaign contributors, many of whom had the ante prepaid before they even entered the game.

Wisconsin saw its share of Kohlers long before Benson supporter Terry came along. Terry's father was Walter Kohler Jr., governor of Wisconsin from 1951-57. And Terry's grandfather was Walter Kohler Sr., governor of Wisconsin from 1929 to 1931.

Terry Kohler hasn't enjoyed his relatives' electoral success. He was defeated in the 1982 Wisconsin governor's race. Kohler was particularly disliked by labor: When he tried to crash the state's AFL-CIO convention to solicit support, he wasn't even allowed in. "Get the hell out of here," the chairman said. "This isn't a right-to-work meeting."

Kohler didn't fare any better with political appointments. Three years ago he was nominated to serve on the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin. The state senate rejected him, the first senate rejection of the position in nearly two decades. A possible reason: Kohler had angered people by referring to gays as "queers" and by saying in 1991 that giving blacks the vote in South Africa would be "a disaster."

Other Benson supporters have had their professional paths nicely paved, too. Peter Kellogg donated a whopping $50,000 to Benson's campaign in June. ("I'm a Democrat," says Kellogg, reached at his New York offices. "I support him because I think Bruce is a terrific guy." Memo to Roy Romer: "I'd probably support him, too, if he asked.")

Kellogg is a principal of the Wall Street firm of Spear, Leeds and Kellogg, one of the most successful specialist firms on the New York Stock Exchange. But that's not Peter's name on the door. Rather, it's the name of his father, James, who served on the Port Authority of New York, joined the firm in 1941 and was added as a name partner in 1958.

Several significant local contributors to Benson, while successful, have started out with a good-size lead from the rest of the pack. Timothy Travis, who owns Eaton Metal Products Co., has given Benson a total of $8,000 in three installments this spring and summer. Travis joined Eaton Metal in 1963 immediately after he graduated from George Washington High School. He is the grandson of the man who bought a controlling interest in the metal manufacturing company in the mid-1940s.

No one doubts that Bo Callaway is a rich and successful businessman. But he was never handicapped by poverty--or even middle income--at the beginning. Callaway, former Secretary of the Army, recently returned to his home in Pine Mountain, Georgia, where he oversees Callaway Gardens, a 350-room resort created by his parents.

end of part 1

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer