A business's plea for the right to be dunned

March 17, 1997|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Amid all the furor over the raising of campaign funds from foreign sources, there was a most unusual article the other day on the op-ed page of the New York Times. The head of an American subsidiary of a company based abroad complained, of all things, that it was unfair that such firms and their American employees are now barred from making contributions to the Democratic National Committee.

Most average folks would probably be all too happy to have an excuse to turn away a politician -- even Vice President Al Gore -- who was trying to dun them for a cash gift in the election season. But Richard A. Goldstein, president and chief executive of Unilever United States Inc., a subsidiary of Lever Brothers and chairman of the Organization for International Investment, complained that the DNC had adopted "a policy that implies that United States subsidiaries and their American employees are somehow second-class citizens when it comes to contributing to the Democratic Party."

A double standard

To hear Mr. Goldstein tell it, it's like going into a bar and being told by the bartender that "your money's no good here." John Gould, press spokesman for Unilever, says the DNC has set "a double standard" whereby a competitor in the soap business, such as Proctor and Gamble, and its employees can have the joy of shelling out while Unilever and its American workers are shut out.

The shunned American companies, Mr. Goldstein wrote, "are important to the economy of the United States . . . and some, like Unilever, have been doing business here for more than 100 years. Their workers are American citizens, voters and taxpayers. The companies pay American taxes. Their political contributions are just as legal as those of other American companies and their employees."

Mr. Gould says Mr. Goldstein's plea for the right to contribute doesn't necessarily reflect concern about denial of access to politicians who can help the donor get favorable treatment. Rather, he says, there is worry that American subsidiaries of companies based abroad may, as a result of such policies, be seen as "foreign" and taxed disadvantageously in the future.

"Feeling the heat of a political fight," Mr. Goldstein wrote, the DNC policy cast such subsidiaries and their American workers as "second-class citizens when it comes to the Democratic Party." He added that "fortunately" the Democratic senatorial and congressional campaign committees, and the Republican National Committee, all rejected that policy and the oppressed firms and their American employees can still give to them.

There was a time when the natural inclination when anyone was accosted for a political contribution was to run the other way as swiftly as possible. Small fry still do so, but the current concept that money to a politician can buy access and influence is so widely accepted now among large corporations (and labor unions) that the floodgates are open. It is not at all uncommon for industries and labor, as well as wealthy individuals, to give to both parties simultaneously, to cover their bets.

Lots of potential givers

Mr. Goldstein, in his plea for the right to have the Democratic Party put the arm on his business, his workers and others like them, made clear that the party is missing a great opportunity in turning them away. He cited a finding in a new report from the Organization for International Investment that 4.9 million potential givers are employed by such companies, and that their workers' average monthly wage is nearly 26 percent more than that of employees in all businesses in the United States.

In all, in this day of rising disgust with the scope and boldness of politicians squeezing fat cats, and demands that the spigot of campaign contributions be cut off, it was refreshing to encounter Mr. Goldstein's lament about discrimination in giving and his appeal for fairness. Americans working for U.S. subsidiaries based abroad no doubt are enthused by his effort to remove the shackles from their shekels.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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