Over three decades, Gerald Cassidy and his wife have given politicians more than a million dollars in campaign contributions -- "the great equalizer."
By Robert G. Kaiser and Derek Willis
On May 24, 2001, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, a Republican all his life, announced he would vote with the Democrats in the Senate. His shift suddenly gave the Democrats a working majority of 51, making Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) the majority leader.
Two weeks later, Daschle's political action committee held a long-planned fundraising gala. Among the donations recorded that June 7 were four checks totaling $18,000 from Gerald Cassidy and his wife, Loretta.
Just a coincidence? When asked, Cassidy replied with a big laugh. Daschle, he said, was an old personal friend whom he had known for decades. "The whole time Tom was in the Senate," Cassidy said, "I only lobbied him once." The contribution was not connected to the sudden change in Daschle's political fortunes, Cassidy said.
Daschle is the politician the Cassidys have supported most generously over the years. He is in first place on a list of the top recipients of their largesse -- but only because of the $18,000 given on that June 7, the biggest contribution the Cassidys have ever given to Daschle.
The Cassidy's have long been giving liberally to their favorite politicians, overwhelmingly Democrats. According to Cassidy himself and to the records kept by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), the Cassidys have made more than a $1 million in political contributions since he became a lobbyist three decades ago. (Many lobbyists' spouses are listed as donors to politicians, probably because legal limits on contributions apply to individuals, not families.) The history of their giving reflects the history of campaign finance in America.
Cassidy became a lobbyist in 1975, but his political contributions remained modest for more than a decade. As recently as the 1981-82 election cycle, a prehistoric era in terms of campaign finance, Cassidy and his wife together gave just $3,500 to politicians. Ten years later the number had grown more than tenfold, to $38,400 in the 1991-1992 cycle. By 1999-2000, the Cassidys' contributions totaled $160,250, according to the FEC records -- an explosion that reflected the increased costs of political campaigns and the use of "soft money" in campaigns beginning in 1996.
Cassidy has always encouraged his employees to donate to political campaigns, and they, too, have given generously: at least $5.3 million since 1978, according to FEC records. (The records are not perfect; this $5.3 million number tabulates the total contributions of everyone who listed Cassidy & Associates or one of its affiliates as their employer.) The biggest recipients of this largesse are mostly members of the House and Senate appropriations committees -- no surprise, given the importance of earmarked appropriations in Cassidy's business. Members of the leadership, especially the Democratic leadership, also rank high on the list. Democrats got twice as much as Republicans from all Cassidy employees.
For Cassidy, making contributions is a fundamental aspect of his job. Contributions by themselves don't buy votes or create friends, he says, but they do help demonstrate support for the members with whom he has relationships. Giving money in the context of today's high-cost political campaigns is a meaningful expression of loyalty, he believes, and loyalty should always be part of a good relationship.
"I grew up ..... where I didn't learn to trust a lot of people, but I also grew up to learn the value of loyalty, of those people who are loyal to you, and returning that," he said in one of the many long interviews he gave for this series of articles.
"I have guys I've supported since 1974 who are friends of mine," Cassidy said on another occasion. "And I would really feel bad if they went out on a defeat. ..... Certainly you support members where you have an interest. You encourage your clients to contribute because it's part of the political process. And you support people because you believe in them."
Cassidy's contributions have given him standing in Washington's political community, and standing has always been important to Cassidy, a shy man who has always dealt with other people warily. "Money is the great equalizer for lobbyists," observed Jonathan Orloff, a former Cassidy employee, now an independent lobbyist, who came to the firm from the staff of Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1986. "Even if you are not very smart or charming, money makes up for a lot."
Former Rep. Tom DeLay's "K Street Project," intended to compel lobbyists to support Republicans more systematically, enshrined the notion that lobbyists who wanted to influence the House Republican leadership had to help it raise lots of money. As Cassidy acknowledges, the underlying idea has always been part of his approach to lobbying: When you are asking people for help, you give help in return.
But the list of his important relationships has never been long. Cassidy extends his own loyalty fiercely, but cautiously. A compilation of his and his employees' contributions demonstrates his long-term commitments to a core group of senior members, including Daschle; Daschle's successor as Democratic leader, Harry Reid (D-Nev.); Kennedy; Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority whip; Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Committee and a long-time supporter of earmarked appropriations; Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee, whose closest friend, Henry Giugni, was hired as a lobbyist by Cassidy, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa.), the Senate appropriator who came to Cassidy's defense in 1986 when Cassidy was criticized by name on the Senate floor [See Chapter 9].
Cassidy has given money to many other members. The graphics and databases below show political contributions from Gerald and Loretta Cassidy, as well as Cassidy & Associates employees. Contributions made by the Ocean Spray Cranberry PAC, which Cassidy has managed for 30 years, can be viewed at opensecrets.org. Good relationships are good for business, as Cassidy acknowledges. For example, one of his good relationships has been with Kennedy. Cassidy has always had clients among the many universities in Massachusetts, and Kennedy has always tried to help his state universities get federal dollars.
For 25 years, Kennedy has helped Cassidy help Boston University. BU has received more than $106 million in earmarked appropriations from Congress and has paid Cassidy $12-15 million in fees. The Cassidys have given Kennedy's campaigns and his leadership PAC $20,150, and Cassidy employees have given nearly $60,000. A PAC controlled by Cassidy gave $38,500 more. That's a total of nearly $120,000 over 27 years.
All of this is perfectly legal and, in today's Washington, perfectly normal. Politicians accept money from lobbyists and other special interests in large and steadily increasing quantities. The Center for Responsive Politics has calculated that lobbyists have contributed more than $100 million to politicians since 1989.
The McCain-Feingold law, passed in 2002 to reform the campaign finance system, actually allowed lobbyists to become more important sources of members' money. McCain-Feingold, now known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), raised the legal limit on one person's combined contributions to federal candidates and PACs from $25,000 per year to $101,400 per two-year election cycle. And this number will henceforth be adjusted upward for inflation every two years. Before the law was passed, contributions to political parties known as "soft money" were not covered by these limits, but BCRA banned soft money.
In notorious cases like that of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), who is now serving an eight-year prison term on corruption charges, members have actually sold their services, but this isn't typical. What is typical is members asking lobbyists for money, and the lobbyists providing it, directly or indirectly.
Members of Congress "don't legislate; they basically follow the money," said retired Rep. Leon Panetta of California in an interview last fall. "They're spending more and more time dialing for dollars. ..... The only place they have to go are the lobbyists. They carry around a whole list of names, and they just keep dialing. It has become an addiction that they can't break."
Cassidy agrees that the pressure for money comes from members of Congress, not from lobbyists' urge to curry favor with members. He has no problem succumbing to the pressure. So he gives his own money, and raises several times more than he gives from clients, friends, colleagues, whomever.
There is no reliable way to trace how much clients and friends may have given in response to Cassidy's requests. "I raise a lot of money from friends who have not a damn thing to do with what goes on here [in Washington] ..... I have friends I can call up and say look, I think this guy is somebody who has the same position you do on stem cell research or something and ought to get reelected."
Nor is there a reliable way to measure just what Cassidy, or any lobbyist, gets in return for their contributions. Gregg Hartley, a Republican whom Cassidy hired in 2003 to run the firm's day-to-day affairs, summarized the ambiguous relationship between donations and favors in an interview: "I would presume that lobbyists who participate heavily in the political process are probably more successful by and large."
Hartley describes contributing money as one form of participation, and he puts his money where his analysis is: In the 2006 cycle, Hartley and his wife, Mary, contributed $103,023 to political committees and campaigns. Cassidy acknowledged that when your contributions help produce a desired result, as Cassidy's did last November when his Democrats reclaimed control of Congress, you reap multiple benefits. The election result, Cassidy said, "was something that was really important, and I enjoyed it, and there will be a [business] benefit from it as well."
At Cassidy & Associates, the political giving was institutionalized. "Gerry saw it as a means to distinguish yourself from your competitors," said Larry Grossman, who worked with Cassidy from 1992 to 2003 "He raised money for members with the utmost professionalism." That included designating one Democratic colleague (Grossman played this role for years) and one Republican to be in charge of fundraisers sponsored by the firm. Members of Congress or their staffs would contact those individuals to ask if the firm could stage a fundraiser, or someone at Cassidy & Associates would suggest holding an event for someone they were trying to cultivate. Cassidy himself always made the final decision about whom would be supported in this way.
Breakfast at 8 a.m. was the most common fundraising event. Cassidy, colleagues said, liked to tell a member in advance that the firm would raise, say, $10,000, then produce $12,000 or more when it was over. He also made sure every seat in the firm's "medium conference room" was filled for the occasion, even if non-contributing interns had to be added to fill the chairs around the big table. Other events have been held outside the office, in Washington clubs and restaurants. From 1998 until this year, Cassidy & Associates has put on more than 150 such events, according to FEC records, which are incomplete.
Giving money "is not a requirement [to be] a successful lobbyist," Cassidy said. If Congress passed a law providing public funding for campaigns, eliminating the need for candidates to raise money to run for office, "there would still be people in Washington who were successful lobbyists ..... But I don't think I'll ever see it. Ever."
Database Editor Derek Willis collected and analyzed campaign finance records. Washington Post research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.Tomorrow: Cassidy's relationship with one of his biggest clients turns into melodrama.
Key Related Materials
An overview of Gerald Cassidy's life and career.
A "cast of characters" in the life and career of Gerald Cassidy.
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