Meet the Pioneers and Rangers, the president’s A-team for campaign cash.
Originally published in Rolling Stone.
CAROLE BIONDA DARTED THROUGH THE HALLS of the Capital Hilton, armed with a red-white-and-blue tote bag bulging with checks made out to Bush-Cheney ’04. Three hundred executives from the nation’s most influential construction firms were meeting at the hotel last June, just two blocks from the White House, and Bionda was drumming up money for the president’s re-election campaign. As the executives split up into regional caucuses, she ran from room to room, pitting South against East, West against Midwest. “The guys next door gave $20,000,” Bionda told one group, putting on her best cheerleader voice. “You’re not going to let them beat you?”
It was an easy sell. Bush has done plenty to help the construction industry: Only a few weeks after taking office, he got rid of Clinton-era regulations that would have improved working conditions on federal projects and denied government contracts to big polluters. “Our mantra is free enterprise,” says Bionda, chair of a trade group called Associated Builders and Contractors. “Most of the policies of the Bush administration are in line with our mantra.”
The executives knew their checks wouldn’t go unnoticed by the White House. Bionda had been assigned a code that would allow the Bush campaign to calculate, down to the last dime, how much money she raised. “You’re probably going to support President Bush later in the election,” she told her fellow contractors. “What I want is for you to write a check now, with a tracking number.” Out came the checkbooks. In three days, Bionda’s tote bag filled with $147,000 for the president. In return, Bush named Bionda a “Pioneer”—an honorary title he reserves for fund-raisers who personally collect at least $100,000 for his campaign.
Welcome to the most ambitious and best-organized shakedown in the history of American presidential politics. Bush is working to raise a record $200 million—and so far, at least sixty percent of his campaign donations have come from just 416 elite fund-raisers like Bionda. Never before have so few raised so much so quickly. It’s a fine-tuned operation that takes the principles of corporate America and applies them to political fund-raising: Bigger is better. Foster competition. Reward your best salesmen. Each Pioneer is assigned a tracking number, which donors write on their checks. Results are posted online, ranked by success level, and the campaign uses the list to encourage the fund-raisers to even greater heights. “We’re trying to foster a healthy amount of competition among our supporters,” says a Bush spokesman.
Bush tried out the system in 2000, but this year he has expanded it to unprecedented proportions. He has added more than 250 Pioneers to his fund-raising club and created two new categories: Rangers (those who round up more than $200,000) and Mavericks (young Republicans who lasso $50,000). In essence, these select fund-raisers serve as bagmen for the president. They hit up wealthy friends and colleagues to give the maximum legal donation of $2,000 each, then bundle up those contributions and deliver them to the campaign.
Some Pioneers rely on a sort of pyramid scheme to gather money: They enlist others to fund-raise on their behalf, in exchange for recognition from the White House. “To have a photo op with Laura Bush, you raise $10,000,” says one Ranger who asked not to be identified. “For the president, it has to be $20,000.” The multilevel fund-raising is another tactic lifted from the corporate world. “Basically, it’s an Amway sort of model,” says Kevin Rennie, a former Republican state legislator from Connecticut who has monitored Bush’s fund-raising effort. Appropriately, Betsy DeVos, whose husband heads the Amway empire, is a Bush Pioneer.
Bush’s troops know their efforts will be richly rewarded. After the 2000 elections, the president appointed thirty-eight Pioneers to his transition teams, where they helped shape White House policies to benefit their own industries. He made four of them Cabinet secretaries: Elaine Chao (Labor), Don Evans (Commerce), Tom Ridge (Homeland Security) and Alphonso Jackson (Housing and Urban Development). And he named twenty-two Pioneers to ambassadorships—including plum posts such as France, Spain, Switzerland and Austria—despite the fact that many had no diplomatic experience. John Price, a Utah shopping-mall developer, was appointed ambassador to Mauritius just a month after a jury found him guilty of swindling his partners of more than $1 million. What mattered more, it seems, was the $1.3 million he raised for Bush. “How would you know about me without those donations?” Price observed. “You wouldn’t.”
Who are the Pioneers and Rangers? Almost half hail from five key states: Texas, California, Florida, New York and Ohio. More than 100 come from the world of high finance, including the nation’s biggest brokers, investment banks, insurance companies and real estate firms. At least fifty are corporate lobbyists and politicians, such as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and New York Gov. George Pataki, eager to curry favor with the president. The rest are drawn mainly from six major industries: energy, construction, health, transportation, communications and electronics. These aren’t exactly the kind of people you’d want teaching Sunday school: An alarming number of Pioneers have fleeced investors, polluted the environment and fought against the interests of workers. Some are self-described political operatives with long histories of scandal; others have lobbied for a variety of shady causes, from ephedra to sweatshops.
Regardless of their motives, never has there been such a fervent clamor to raise political money as there is for President Bush this year. “Now that he’s in office,” says David Miner, a North Carolina state legislator and former Pioneer, “everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon.”
A crowded bandwagon it is. Here are some of the passengers onboard:
The Lord’s Trustee
Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim, a multimillionaire poultry magnate from Texas, hails from a time when buying influence was much simpler. Back in 1989, during a crucial vote that would make it harder for injured employees to collect insurance benefits, Pilgrim walked onto the floor of the Texas Senate and started handing out $10,000 checks to legislators. “It’s primarily just for the name identification with the politicians,” he said. “They will answer your calls and give you an appointment and listen to you.” Pilgrim, who calls himself a “trustee of the Lord” appointed by God to be a “Christian businessman,” hasn’t exactly followed the Gospels. Pilgrim’s Pride, inventor of boneless chicken and the nation’s second-largest poultry company, was fined $325,000 in 1995 for illegal wastewater discharges and was responsible for a deadly listeria outbreak in 2002 that killed eight people and prompted the biggest meat recall in American history.
The Golden Fleecer
Last June, a group of Wall Street executives threw a cocktail party in a Manhattan hotel, served finger food such as coconut shrimp—and raked in $4 million for Bush. Among the sponsors was Stanley O’Neal, CEO of Merrill Lynch, which has become the leading corporate source of Bush campaign funds. In 2002, an investigation by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer forced the firm to fork over $100 million in penalties for fleecing investors with junk stocks. O’Neal and others on Wall Street want Bush to take state lawyers such as Spitzer off the case, giving federal regulators sole authority over such investigations. The CEO has certainly profited from the president’s tax cuts: According to one study, Bush saved O’Neal more than $300,000 last year alone—on a personal income of $14.3 million.
The Elephant Hunter
One of those who joined O’Neal in hosting the $4 million bash for Bush was Robert Wood Johnson IV, owner of the New York Jets. Johnson gives generously to environmental groups and hangs out with liberal pals such as Paul Newman and Michael Douglas—but when it comes to politics, the heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune is all Republican. In 1998, Johnson was one of a handful of wealthy business moguls who agreed to bankroll Bush’s campaign after they donned camouflage and went hunting with the candidate at a 10,000-acre ranch in Texas. (Johnson showed off his elephant gun, which delighted the party.) As a Pioneer in 2000, Johnson raised $700,000 for Bush at his apartment in a single evening. “I’d like him to balance the budget,” Johnson said. He has signed on again as a Bush Ranger—even though the administration is expected to run up a deficit of $477 billion this year alone.
The Repo Man
In 1999, Charles Cawley threw a cocktail party at his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, inviting 200 people to greet the town’s most famous part-time resident, George W. Bush. The oceanfront soiree raised $200,000 for the candidate—but Cawley wasn’t acting purely out of neighborly good will. As the head of MBNA America Bank, the nation’s biggest independent issuer of credit cards, Cawley wanted Bush to push for a new law making it harder for families hit by unemployment or huge medical bills to declare bankruptcy. Sure enough, not long after taking office, Bush backed the measure—which would add $75 million a year to MBNA’s bottom line. Last November, Cawley returned the favor by inviting Laura Bush to his Delaware home to greet 120 supporters—raising $150,000 for her husband’s re-election.
The Warden for Profit
George Zoley makes no secret of what he wants from Bush: big-dollar contracts for his security firm, the GEO Group, to guard federal prisons. “We don’t want to provide guards at the local shopping center,” he says. “We are looking at a single government payer for our services.” Zoley’s company, formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections, is the world’s largest operator of private prisons, earning more than $600 million a year incarcerating inmates. Its facilities are notorious: In Louisiana, where guards routinely beat and tear-gassed teenage offenders, a Republican judge lambasted GEO for treating children “as if they walked on all fours.” In Texas, where male guards molested female inmates, a fourteen-year-old named Sara Lowe committed suicide after her release. Asked by CBS whether Lowe deserved an apology, Zoley said, “Not that I’m aware of. I don’t know what you meant by that.”
The Smoking Gun
Dr. Edward Floyd, a vascular surgeon who treats patients with cancer, applauds Bush for making prescription drugs available to citizens on Medicare. “Every day I walk into my office, I see patients who can’t afford their medicine,” he says. But Floyd also plays a part in making patients sick in the first place. As one of the biggest tobacco growers in South Carolina, the doctor raises enough leaf to produce tens of millions of packs of cigarettes a year. In September, Floyd threw a $1,000-a-plate luncheon for the Bush campaign at his home in Florence, featuring an appearance by Laura Bush, and hauled in a staggering $530,000. Floyd’s fund-raising skills have won him two invitations to the White House, including a dinner with the president and the first lady.
Insurance titan Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, whose $3 billion makes him the fifty-sixth-richest man in America, knows the Bush family takes care of its own. A financial contributor to President Bush’s father, Greenberg was invited to accompany the elder Bush on a trade mission to Asia in 1992, enabling his American International Group to dramatically expand its business in Japan. Now a Ranger, Greenberg once again has direct access to the president. Ten days after the September 11th attacks, George W. convened a meeting of top insurance executives, including Greenberg, who asked for a taxpayer bailout of insurance companies in the event of a similar attack. A few days later, the executives met with Bush again, this time to ask for tax cuts. Both issues moved to the top of the president’s agenda.
The Power Player
Anthony Alexander is president of FirstEnergy, a company that has violated the Clean Air Act by failing to curb pollution at its coal-fired plant in Ohio. Its illegal emissions, say federal regulators, “have been significant contributors to some of the most severe environmental problems facing the nation today.” After Alexander raised $100,000 for Bush in 2000—and then kicked in another $100,000 for Bush’s inauguration—the president named him to the energy transition team, where he helped shape federal policy to benefit electric utilities. Then, in 2002, Bush issued a regulation relaxing the exact portion of the Clean Air Act that FirstEnergy violated. Bush also crafted an energy bill packed with giveaways to the industry, including more than $19 billion in tax breaks and the deregulation of $1 trillion worth of electric facilities. Alexander is back this year as a Pioneer.
The Mall Rat
Real estate mogul Robert Congel is developing the world’s largest shopping mall—and despite his personal wealth of $700 million, he wants taxpayers to foot the bill. Destiny USA, his $2.2 billion project, will be bigger than the Mall of America and feature the world’s largest aquarium. The city of Syracuse, New York, granted Congel a thirty-year exemption from local property taxes, but he wanted more. On November 17th, Congel served up $1,000 plates of crepes and eggs at a fund-raiser for Bush, raising $200,000 for the campaign. “The president’s a decisionmaker,” Congel told reporters at the bash, “and that’s what we need.” The next day, the House passed Bush’s energy bill—which included a provision that would supply Congel with tax incentives worth $100 million for alternative-energy projects at his mall.
The Tendinitis Team
William and Bobbie Kilberg share more than a marriage—as Bush Rangers, they have led a tag-team assault on workplace safety. In 2000, when the Clinton administration issued a regulation that would have prevented 460,000 annual on-the-job injuries such as tendinitis, William Kilberg filed suit on behalf of an industry coalition to block the measure. Bobbie, a college classmate of Bush in the 1960s, lobbied to exempt home offices from the rule—even though many telecommuters face serious workplace hazards. This is “bureaucracy run amok,” she told Congress, warning that protecting workers at home would reduce telecommuting and increase rush-hour gridlock. After Bush took office, he pushed to overturn the regulation—replacing it with voluntary guidelines for reducing workplace injuries.
The Computer Giant
Richard Egan, who made $1.3 billion as founder of EMC Corp., knows how to spend money on politicians: In Massachusetts, he made contributions to officials who awarded lucrative contracts to EMC and widened a road to its headquarters. In 2000, Egan became a Pioneer and was rewarded with a seat on Bush’s commerce transition team. Bush also named him ambassador to Ireland—despite Egan’s lack of experience with Irish affairs and a temper that once led him to plunge a knife into a photo of a business rival. Egan lasted only fifteen months as ambassador, embarrassing the administration by meeting publicly with a convicted murderer linked to Libyan leader Muammar Al-Qaddafi. Egan, who ranks 179th on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, hosted a fund-raiser at his home in June attended by Vice President Dick Cheney, raising $1.2 million for the re-election campaign.
The Dance Partner
Until he resigned in January from the Texas Senate, oilman Teel Bivins championed some of the GOP’s most controversial causes. He brokered the deal that opened Texas to pollution from industrial hog farms, pressed for school vouchers backed by Christian conservatives and supported then-Gov. Bush’s proposal to limit jury awards for workers and consumers injured by corporations. Now, after Bivins raised more than $100,000 for Bush, the president has named him ambassador to Sweden. Bivins told the BBC that his financial support entitles him to special entree at the White House. “You wouldn’t have direct access if you had spent two years of your life working hard to get this guy elected president, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars?” he said. “You dance with them what brung ya.”
The Speed Freak
As a lobbyist for Metabolife International, a leading manufacturer of ephedra, Thomas Loeffler counted on Bush to keep the dangerous diet supplement on the market for years, until it was finally banned in January. When Bush was governor of Texas, his health commissioner twice tried to limit sales of ephedra—but backed down after Loeffler’s firm complained. In 2001, when Texas health officials wanted to slap a toll-free number on ephedra bottles so consumers could report health problems, the Bush administration pressured them to delay the rule. In October, Loeffler threw a gala fund-raiser at a posh San Antonio hotel that brought in $1.25 million for Bush. “It seems like old home week here,” the president said as the assembled donors cheered and waved cowboy hats.
As former head of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed mobilized 2 million conservatives to seize control of local GOP precincts during the 1990s and steer the party to the right. Known on Capitol Hill as “God’s legislative assistant,” Reed is now an Atlanta lobbyist who preaches on behalf of big business. Among his best-known clients was Enron, an account he landed with the help of Bush political strategist Karl Rove. (Reed told the company he could organize pro-family groups to lobby for utility deregulation—for a fee of $380,000.) This year he has raised $200,000 for Bush, whom he touts as a role model for Christians: “President Bush has enabled us once again to point to the occupant of the highest office in the land and say to our children and grandchildren, Be like him. Be like him.”
The Muslim Patriot
Dr. Malik Hasan, former chief executive of one of the nation’s largest health-maintenance organizations, has joined a select handful of Muslims working to raise big money for Bush. Hasan, a close friend who has met personally with the president several times in recent months, says he “adores” Bush for ousting Saddam Hussein. To show his patriotism, Hasan even sponsored a series of TV commercials designed to convince Muslims around the world that “there is no discrimination against the Muslims in the United States.” In one spot broadcast overseas, an American declares, “I’ve never gotten disrespected because I’m a Muslim,” while another insists, “We’re all brothers and sisters.” Hasan’s own son, meanwhile, was recently detained by police at an airport because of his Pakistani ancestry.
Peter Secchia, a timber executive and self-described “political operative,” helped Bush’s father defeat televangelist Pat Robertson during the 1988 primaries. He was rewarded with the ambassadorship to Italy—despite an astounding lack of diplomatic skills. Secchia calls women “bitches” and “big-breasted devils,” and in one speech he announced, “I saw the new Italian Navy. Its boats have glass bottoms, so they can see the old Italian Navy.” This time around, Secchia says he’s a Pioneer out of affection for the younger Bush. “I love the guy,” he says. “He and Laura are models of what the presidency is about.” Secchia, who says he’s not interested in another ambassadorship, certainly hasn’t matured as a diplomat. He abruptly ended an interview with Rolling Stone with a mock threat: “If you do a bad story,” he said with a laugh, “I have some friends in Palermo who can take care of your knees.”