Really Strange Bedfellows

With good guys like this, who needs bad guys?

The major Missouri political fundraiser last Wednesday had all the usual trappings.

Big-time speaker. Big crowd. Bigwig politicians.

And, of course, big business.

The top of the evening's program honored Diamond Level sponsors -- political givers of $10,000 -- and, as you might suspect, there were plenty of companies wanting influence over Missouri state government. They weren't there for their health.

There was the Philip Morris Cos., the tobacco giant that's a target in Missouri's biggest-ever lawsuit. There was Holnam Inc., the Swiss cement company, which is trying, against strident opposition from environmentalists, to build one of the largest kilns in the world just south of St. Louis County.

There was the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, attempting to extract the mother of all corporate-welfare handouts for a publicly funded stadium. There was Southwestern Bell, perennial consumer foe, battling cities in the past legislative session for the right to be free from paying for damage its construction work (and that of other utilities) might cause to streets.

These and other corporate big boys were there to promote their big agendas. It could only mean trouble down the road for the little guys -- the consumers, the small-business owners, the tree-huggers and so on -- as these latter-day fur-traders cavorted with their office-holding beneficiaries.

Damn the fat-cat Republicans, right?

Wrong.

Welcome to the inaugural Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, proudly presented by the Missouri Democratic Party and proudly sponsored by its good friends at Philip Morris. And Holnam. And so on.

Yes, friends, you don't have to be a Republican politician to act like one. You can have your labor-union cake and eat your big-business topping, too.

In the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, soft money spoke softly and carried a big stick last week in St. Louis. The Democrats' dinner at the Chase Park Plaza, featuring James Carville, was attended by 1,000 people and raised more than $400,000, more than double its original goal, spokesman Jim Grebing says.

Almost two-thirds of that money came from the 26 companies and individuals that had earned Diamond Level status. Each received eight tickets for the dinner and a private "Governor's Council Reception" with Carville before the show.

To me, the Big Four at the Diamond Level were Philip Morris, Holnam, the Cardinals and Southwestern Bell -- primarily because they have such mammoth current dealings with the state government run by the Democrats -- but they certainly weren't the only ones there. Besides the more predictable labor-union supporters, the Diamond Level included Coca-Cola, Bank of America, the St. Louis Blues, lobbyists and lawyers.

It isn't known whether the Philip Morris and Holnam people privately bent Carville's ear with regard to some of those nasty positions his party has taken on tobacco and the environment. Presumably no one in the Cardinals delegation stormed out when Carville attacked President George W. Bush, close friend of team owner and star GOP fundraiser William O. DeWitt Jr.

Truth be told, I can't tell you any more because I wasn't at the event, and the Post-Dispatch scarcely covered it. Fortunately, one rank-and-file guest (who prefers to remain anonymous) did find it newsworthy that Philip Morris and Holnam were honored benefactors, and she called to say so.

She felt it was "outrageous." She is not alone.

"It's awful," said Ben Senturia, the area's pre-eminent campaign-reform activist, on learning of this from me. "The Democrats, like the Republicans, are falling over themselves to solicit big, monied special interests -- and in return, the contributors are getting tax-subsidized stadiums, polluting cement plants and other goodies at our expense."

I wondered whether this wasn't time for a commercial for the Missouri Alliance for Campaign Reform. It was.

"Until the public demands that we stop the private financing of public elections, nothing will change," Senturia said.

He's right about public financing of campaigns, but because that's in no danger of happening, here's another thought: If you're the Democratic Party, act like it. It's the other guys who are supposed to be shamelessly propped up by big tobacco, polluters and corporate-welfare mothers.

The Democrats are supposed to be shamelessly propped up by big labor, the pro-choice movement, consumer advocates and environmentalists. Instead, they seem a short step away from selling "access" to the National Rifle Association.

Taking crumbs from Philip Morris -- knowing that they're giving at least five times as much to the Republicans -- seems a lot less savvy than making a campaign issue of the tobacco companies' overwhelming support of the GOP. Ditto for Holnam, the Cardinals and others.

It's one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Is there anyone from whom the Democratic Party would not take money?

Democratic Party spokesman Grebing gamely gave it his best spin.

"This is the first major Democratic Party fundraiser we've held in years," he said. "We were pleased with the response and happy to take contributions from individuals and companies who wanted to invest in the Democratic Party and its candidates.

"It was kind of an open fundraiser."

Are you saying that you'd take money from anybody?

"I really couldn't give you an answer to that," Grebing said. "We had a lot of different people raising money."

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