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Candidates get more caucus contributions.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - Following the money in legislative races is getting harder to do, thanks to candidates' increasing reliance on contributions from party bosses.

It's a growing trend in Oregon's battleground races, a handful of which will determine the margin by which Democrats or Republicans will control the Legislature. In such tossup contests, local candidates often depend on their party caucus leaders for tens of thousands of dollars in contributions - sometimes cash but often "in-kind" contributions of staff, consultants, polling and advertising services.

In Sen. Floyd Prozanski's race against Republican challenger Norm Thomas, for instance, more than half of the Eugene Democrat's money - $141,775 of his $242,852 raised - came from the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund.

That's the political action committee used by Senate Democratic Leader Kate Brown of Portland to help her party's candidates in their bid to break the chamber's 15-15 deadlock with the Republicans.

And on the GOP side, Republican Al Pearn of Florence got more than one-third of his contributions - $130,045 of his $323,251 total raised - from the Senate Republican caucus' Leadership Fund PAC, which Senate Republican Leader Roger Beyer of Molalla controls.

Each of the Legislature's four caucuses have for years raised money that can be strategically doled out to those candidates whose election wins will decide the balance of power between the parties. But the role of these caucuses in running local candidates' races has expanded dramatically in the past decade.

In 1992, the four caucus PACs raised $748,426 to help their candidates. As of Oct. 17, the four PACs had raised $2.65 million - a number that's sure to grow before the Nov. 2 election.

Brown is among many lawmakers and campaign insiders who attribute the trend to the 1992 voter approval of term limits for lawmakers. As veteran lawmakers were turned out, a bevy of candidates lined up to replace them. And these were candidates who weren't well known to the lobbyists who make decisions about contributions on behalf of business, professional, labor and issue-oriented PACs.

So they started delivering more money to the caucus leaders, to let them decide how to spread around the money.

The courts ruled term limits unconstitutional. But the practice of passing contributions through caucus PACs to individual candidates persisted.

"A lot of those folks don't want to have to figure out which is the right candidate to support," said Janice Thompson, who heads the Portland-based Money in Politics Research Action Project. "They're interested in giving to the Democrats because they want a Democratic Legislature, or to the Republicans because they want the Republicans to hold the House."

Thompson said the trend for fund-raising makes it more difficult for citizens to know where an individual candidate's contributions have ultimately come from.

Figuring out who's ultimately backing the candidates on the receiving end of generous caucus-PAC contributions isn't as simple as just looking up those PACs' contributors.

Take the Senate Democrats' PAC. In its most recent fund-raising period, from mid-September to mid-October, it took in $333,741. Of that total, nearly two-thirds - $198,500 - was contributed from members of the caucus. Other major sources included labor unions, individuals, and trade, business and professional associations.

The Senate Republican caucus PAC shows a similar pattern. Of its $218,176 in contributions, $80,000 came from Republican senators and the rest was from business and professional associations and individuals.

Thompson said contributions from party leaders are part of a larger problem: donations from contributors who want the receiving candidates to demonstrate loyalty once they're in office.

"It really contributes to legislative gridlock," she said. "In this case, it's using campaign contributions to keep caucus members in line."

Not so, say those at the receiving and giving end of this caucus-to-candidate money flow.

Prozanski said he was flattered and honored that his campaign had received so much help from the Senate Democratic caucus PAC. "But does this mean I won't be independent in my voice and my vote? I don't think so," he said. "Just like Wayne Morse said, `Just because you support me, don't think that you own me.' '

Brown said she expected Democratic senators to vote similarly on issues where they are philosophically united. But she said the help she was steering to Prozanski and other Democrats didn't come with an expectation that lawmakers would vote a certain way on bills or other matters.

Rick Thomas, director of the Senate Republican caucus campaigns, said members frequently part ways from party leaders who also are their campaign-cash benefactors. He cited the split of GOP moderates and their more conservative fellow Republicans on a proposal last year to raise taxes.

Pearn, who is running in the Senate's hotly contested coastal race, said the campaign cash and in-kind services he's received from GOP leaders frees him up to spend more time at town-hall gatherings and knocking on potential supporters' doors.

"It's nice to have the support of the caucus, but I'm strictly the coastal candidate," he said.

Eugene political consultant Mike Clark, who has worked with Republicans in House and Senate candidates over the years, said the campaign help from party leadership is appreciated. But candidates who accept such help sometimes must cede local decision-making regarding their campaigns to out-of-town consultants.

"I think there's a danger that when races are run out of Salem, they can be less sensitive to the needs of local constituents," he said.

PARTY MONEY

Legislative candidates are becoming increasingly reliant on contributions from party leaders in the four legislative caucuses. Here's a comparison of how much money was raised by the four caucuses in 1992 and in the current election fund-raising cycle, which still has several weeks to go:

Senate Democrats: 1992: $41,050; 2004: $862,233

Senate Republicans: 1992: $126,649; 2004: $479,966

House Democrats: 1992: $167,565; 2004: $777,492

House Republicans: 1992: $413,162; 2004: $529,766

- Secretary of State Elections Division, www.followthemoney.org
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Title Annotation:Elections; The move toward donations disbursed by party leaders is growing in Oregon
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 26, 2004
Words:988
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