Colorado's Romer keeps a stiff upper lip on Democratic finances


WASHINGTON -- Roy Romer likes to talk about how he is far more interested in ''substance'' than in ''process and politics.'' And those who have followed his 11-year career as governor of Colorado attest to his credentials as, among other things, a policy wonk.

Party in a box

But in his part-time role as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Romer is inevitably preoccupied by fundamental questions of process. One is how to get the Democratic Party out of the box into which it has been squeezed by the investigations of President Clinton's fund-raising excesses in 1996. The second is how to change the system so that raising money for campaigns becomes something less ridiculous than it is today.

Mr. Romer says the party's problem can be fixed, though the figures still seem staggering to an outsider. The DNC's debt is now down to about $11 million, and Mr. Romer says he expects it to be reduced to less than $5 million next year while Democrats raise enough money ''to be very active on the field of battle.''

There is no mystery about the causes of the debt. The subpoenas from the Justice Department and Republican-controlled Senate and House committees have created what might be called a full-employment program for lawyers and accountants. The DNC still has 34 people working on document production.

The problems that flow from this are obvious. Although Mr. Romer will not concede an inch right now, it is apparent that Democratic candidates are not likely to get the kind of direct help from Washington they might have expected in the past. Most candidates raise most of their own money, however, and some of them already are finding dollars for Democrats a little tough this year.

Clean-up money

Meanwhile, the DNC must raise money from contributors who may not like the idea of their money being used to clean up someone else's mess and who may be reluctant to expose themselves to the public scrutiny others have endured during the controversy. But Mr. Romer insists there is a flip side: Contributions are coming in from loyal supporters.

Mr. Romer says the party's specific problems have not been an important factor in complicating recruitment of good candidates. The problem, he said, are the huge amounts of money prospective candidates are told they will have to raise to be competitive. That problem, coupled with what the Colorado Democrat calls ''the loss of privacy'' politicians suffer, means ''there is enough pain now'' so that some prospects are being deterred.

The Democratic answer, of course, is to eliminate soft money entirely, something the Republicans have declared they will not do. The irony here, Mr. Romer says with a laugh, is that putting an end to soft money would make it extremely difficult if not impossible for his party to find its way out of debt.

Longtime pol

At 69, Mr. Romer has been in politics for almost 40 years. Back home in Colorado, he served at various times in the legislature, as a principal adviser to Gov. Richard Lamm and as state treasurer before winning three terms as governor, the last of which ends next year.

Although there has been some carping on the edges, Mr. Romer has found the press and voters ''pretty much OK'' about his holding the chairmanship during his waning days as governor. He spends two or three days in Washington and adds a weekend day to his schedule in Denver, and he makes a point of being visibly on the job back home when a crisis arises.

He once ran and lost a Senate race to Republican Gordon Allott, and there was speculation last year that he might oppose Democrat-turned-Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell in 1998. But the prospect of life in the Senate has lost its appeal after so many years making decisions in the executive branch.

Nonetheless, viewing the parlous condition of the Democratic Party today and the slim chance for campaign finance reform, you have to wonder if he's got his head on straight. Not to worry, says Roy Romer, eventually the voters are going to get so fed up something will have to be done.

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

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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