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Newcomers Quickly Join the PAC Pursuit

With a catchy campaign slogan--"This woman will clean House"--and a vow to shake up Congress, Democrat Jane Harman was elected by a healthy margin last fall to represent the 36th District, which hugs the southern coastline of Los Angeles County.

Among the promises made by Harman the candidate was a commitment to clean up the current campaign finance system by placing new limits on money donated by special-interest political action committees.

Now Harman the congresswoman is raking in contributions from special-interest groups. In the first six months of 1993--a non-election year--Harman received $93,207 from PACs, ranking her sixth among the 110 new House members, according to a recent Common Cause study.

Much of Harman’s PAC money comes from General Electric, General Dynamics, Grumman, GTE and other large government contractors with more than a passing interest in business before her two committees--Armed Services and Science, Space and Technology.

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Two other Californians who also campaigned on the theme of shattering the status quo--Reps. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) and Lynn Schenk (D-San Diego)--made the top 25 list of PAC money collectors among House newcomers.

Overall, nearly half of the $8.1 million raised by the freshman class through July 1 came straight from PACs. By comparison, the same group received only one-fourth of their campaign funds from PACs when they ran as challengers in 1992 election.

Historically, PACs contribute to incumbents over challengers by an overwhelming margin. This pattern is easily explained: Corporate interests are more inclined to spread their dollars among lawmakers who have the ability to influence legislation, rather than candidates who someday hope to do so.

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The PAC donations solicited by freshmen demonstrate that the chase for special-interest money has developed into a “round-the-clock business” for incumbents, said Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer.

“The freshman members of the House ran in 1992 on a platform of change,” Wertheimer said. “To date, freshman House members have done a far better job in raising special-interest PAC money than they have in reforming the campaign finance system.”

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Like many House freshmen, Harman supports President Clinton’s campaign-finance reform proposal and favors reducing the influence of special-interest money. But as a Democrat representing a socially moderate, fiscally conservative district that stretches between Marina del Rey and San Pedro, Harman also is considered politically vulnerable.

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“You do what you’ve got to do,” said Bill Black, Harman’s chief of staff, explaining why the congresswoman has found it necessary to solicit PAC funds. “I don’t think sacrificing yourself (by not taking PAC money) represents a wise strategy.”

Most of the money Harman has raised will go toward retiring a $150,000 campaign debt to vendors, Black said. Harman, whose husband made a fortune manufacturing audio equipment, spent $1.6 million--or $12 per vote--in winning her House seat last year. About $750,000 came from her own pocket.

Unlike Harman, Woolsey does not have the wealth to cover her campaign expenses. A former welfare mother, Woolsey went $100,000 in debt to win the 6th District seat. To repay the money, Woolsey said, she has raised most of her $64,400 in PAC donations from special-interest groups--representing education, labor, the environment, women and nurses--that share her agenda.

“It is pretty obscene that we have to raise this kind of money in order to stay in office,” Woolsey said.

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Schenk, who collected $55,450 from PACs, said she is abiding by current fund-raising laws for the moment, but hopes to see sweeping reforms enacted soon. “Unfortunately, these are the rules of the game right now,” she said.

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Ten House freshmen did not accept any PAC contributions during the first six months of 1993. These include Reps. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara) and Steve Horn (R-Long Beach). Both have pledged not to take a nickel of PAC money.

Huffington, a multimillionaire who spent a record $5.2 million of his own money to get elected, can easily afford to shun PAC dollars.

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But Horn, a former college political science instructor, raised $440,000 from small donors to finance his campaign. By doing so, he proved it is possible to win a seat in Congress without relying on personal wealth or special interest money.

Asked why he refuses to accept PAC contributions, Horn said simply: “I don’t want to be labeled as a tool of any economic interest.”


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