Big donors fuel campaign fundraising surge
COLUMBUS — There’s the guy who became a billionaire selling dog food, a couple of sports-team owners and the developer of an international spy museum.
They are among an esoteric baker’s dozen of individuals and families who have led the way in bankrolling Ohio political campaigns during the past decade. Together, those 13 deep-pocketed donors poured more than $25 million into state races since 2000.
Despite limits placed on campaign contributions in the mid1990s, Ohioans just witnessed the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in state history. In fact, every statewide nonjudicial race this year broke spending records, some of which had stood for 20 years.
When he signed legislation capping donations to candidates, parties and political-action committees in May 1995, Gov. George V. Voinovich said, “I’m confident there’ll be a substantial reduction in the amount of money spent on campaigns.” Others readily agreed.
Instead, the price tag for statewide campaigns in the past decade leaped almost 73 percent from the total for the 1990s, most of which had no limits on political contributions, according to a Dispatch computer analysis of more than 4.3 million state campaign-finance records involving more than $1.7 billion in transactions.
Outgoing Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, whose office enforces Ohio campaign-finance laws, said, “No matter how well-intentioned a candidate is, if they’re taking large amounts from donors who are not giving for ideological purposes, there will be tacitly that pressure that they need to give access to those donors, if not actively work to please them.”
But what motivates people to fork over large amounts of cash to a political candidate?
The family of Cincinnati’s Carl Lindner — listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s 582nd-richest man — gives almost exclusively the decade’s top contributor to Ohio state races.
Robert T. Bennett, former longtime chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, often benefited from Carl Lindner’s largess.
“He used to say ‘only in America could a guy start out with a UDF store and grow it into the American Financial (Group),’ ” Bennett recalled. “They’re looking for leadership, so they put their money there, because they have the money to give.”
At the other end of the state, David Maltz and his father, Milton Maltz, of Cleveland, a former media magnate who developed the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., finance not only Ohio Democrats but also such causes as supporting gay marriage on the California ballot.
The families of Larry Dolan, owner of the Cleveland Indians, and Clay Mathile of the Dayton area, who made his fortune when he sold dog-food maker Iams to Procter & Gamble, both are faithful GOP supporters.
“I don’t think money is evil, and I don’t fault candidates for looking for as much support as they possibly can,” said Catherine Turcer, director of Ohio Citizen Action’s money in politics project. “They’re as caught in the system as much as we are. They need that money to buy those 30-second spots, to go on television.”
Like Brunner, Turcer says the problem comes when candidates feel beholden to people who support them.
“I’m not talking about direct bribery, exactly, but undue influence is pretty easy: I’m gonna dance with the guy who brung me.
“The other thing is, these top families would not continue to give, decade after decade, unless they had really specific reasons. The economy has been in this downward spiral, and yet campaign spending is off the charts. There was no recession for campaign spending.”