Despite talk, politics is still a money game

October 03, 2003|By Michael Olesker

THEY ALL SAY the system is contaminated, and they all bathe in its muddy waters anyway. In politics, money moves everything. In a day's campaigning this week, President Bush attended two events and raised $5.3 million. That is not a misprint. In Towson yesterday, Bill Meyer had his own money to wave around, on behalf of Democrat Howard Dean. It was nearly $3,600. That is not a misprint, and not much of a comparison, either.

But it is part of an accumulation, and it crossed the country this week when Dean, a Democratic Party front-runner and probably its biggest fund-raiser, held simultaneous house parties in all 50 states via telephone conference call - billed, for the former physician, as "Dr. Dean's House Call."

Meyer - a former federal prosecutor who runs USA Stats, a baseball and basketball rotisserie service in Towson, "because it's more fun" than prosecuting criminals - organized 40 house parties across Maryland, part of a network of about 1,400 Dean house parties across the country.

Standing in an overflowing dining room in Northwest Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood Monday night, Meyer seemed to be having even more fun than rotisserie baseball.

"If you're thinking of giving $25," he cheerfully told those assembled, "give $50. If you're thinking of giving $50, give $100." The atmosphere seemed like a kind of civilian government-in-exile, hiding out in the hills while waiting for somebody to issue marching instructions.

As time drew near for the 8 o'clock nationwide hookup, Meyer laughed. "This is the largest conference call in the history of Earth - and one very large phone bill. ... Hopefully, Ma Bell doesn't roll over in her grave," he said.

Moments later, Dean, sitting at a house party in Los Angeles, was to begin speaking. Meyer held up a telephone so everyone gathered in Baltimore could hear clearly. But no sound came out of the telephone.

"Dr. Dean seems to have joined the Silent Majority," someone cracked.

Meyer pushed a few buttons, and frantically pushed a few more. Then the voice of singer Melissa Etheridge was heard, gushing effusively for a moment, and Dean followed. He took questions for half an hour - from Medford, Mass.; from Memphis, Tenn.; from Columbus, Ga.; from about half a dozen locations in all. It was pretty standard platform stuff - the environment, health care - with flashes of the Dean combativeness.

Asked about the investigation into whether anyone in the White House might have leaked the name of a CIA officer as punishment for her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, minimizing Iraq's nuclear threat, Dean answered, "It's time to have a foreign policy that isn't based on the petulance of the president."

That drew the loudest applause of the evening. It's also the kind of feistiness that has helped make Dean probably the biggest Democratic fund-raiser among 10 contenders. He has raised about $25 million this year. But President Bush's forays into Chicago and Cincinnati the other day raised his total to $84 million. Republican officials say Bush's goal is $170 million.

All this while politicians decry the chokehold that money has on their business - and while they continue to raise ever-larger amounts merely to stay competitive.

Yesterday, Dean spokesman David Salie said Monday night's nationwide house parties raised "over $300,000." He said contributions have come "from more than 450,000 different supporters."

"Our 40 parties in Maryland," Bill Meyer said, "raised close to $10,000," including $3,600 from the party in Mount Washington. Yesterday, Meyer repeated a line he used at the house party: While other politicians hold fund-raisers for thousands of dollars a head, the average Dean contribution "is $81."

Thus, an image is invoked: of the Democrats as the party of working people, and the Republicans, as Dean put it Monday night, "the party of Ken Lay and Enron and Rush Limbaugh." Also, it reinforces Dean's mantra about representing "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

In that sense, Meyer said yesterday, "These house parties weren't just about money. It's about mobilizing people. The Republican right wing has been doing this for years, and the Democrats have been overwhelmed. We've been putting these meetings together for Dean, and we ask, `How many people here are new to politics?' Time after time, you hear, `This is the first time I did anything like this.'

"We're trying to get a sense of community going. And we're trying to say, `You don't have to go to a $2,000 dinner to help out.'"

It's the Dean variation on the money game. Everybody decries it, and everybody plays it anyway. Or else finds another profession.

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