Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — If Congress ever heeds calls to limit or outlaw political “soft money” contributions, then the likes of Leonard Lauder, Donald Fisher, Leslie Wexner and Calvin Klein will have to find other ways to bestow their largess during elections.
Among fashion industry executives, broadly including retail, apparel and cosmetics fields, these political benefactors are among the top givers of soft money — donations to political parties or causes, and not directly to candidates, for which the Federal Election Commission has no limits.
These executives are also part of a contingent of industry officials, companies and trade associations who have contributed to races that, as of the Nov. 7 election, will determine which party controls the White House and Congress in the coming years.
During this election cycle, Lauder, chairman of The Estee Lauder Cos., has given $256,000 in soft money to Democratic party organizations, according to FEC records. Gap chairman Fisher has written $55,000 in checks to Republican committees and $30,000 to similar Democratic entities. Wexner, The Limited’s chairman and chief executive officer, has given $100,000 to the Republicans and Klein’s soft money contributions to Democrats amount to $30,000.
Their soft money finds its way into party activities, like television and radio commercials, designed to aid federal and state candidates. Since Jan. 1, 1999, through June of this year, Republicans have raised $130.2 million in soft money and Democrats have collected $124.2 million.
Soft money and whether it influences elections more than ideas about governing is a hot campaign issue, such as in the New York Senate race, where Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and rival Republican Rep. Rick Lazio have agreed — with much controversy — to not run radio or TV ads underwritten by the unregulated cash.
But even without soft money, Clinton and Lazio still have ample arsenals in their war chests, including donations from the fashion crowd. FEC rules allow individuals to give up to $2,000 per candidate and $10,000 per political action committee. As of June 30, the latest FEC PAC records available report Clinton raised $8 million and Lazio $5.1 million, with considerable contributions from industry executives.
Designer Vera Wang has given the maximum $2,000 to Clinton’s campaign, in addition to $5,000 to a PAC supporting the First Lady’s bid and the maximum allowable $10,000 toward a committee raising money for Democratic senatorial campaigns in general. Clinton has also received $2,000 from Oscar de la Renta and $1,000 each from Klein, Paul Charron, chairman and ceo of Liz Claiborne, and designer Elie Tahari.
Sara Lee Corp. chairman and ceo John Bryan is another $1,000 Clinton donor, and he’s also written $1,000 to New Jersey Democrat Jon Corzine, who is running against Republican Rep. Bob Franks with mostly his own funds gathered from the millions he made on Wall Street.
Additionally, Lauren and de la Renta each sent $10,000 to the Clinton PAC, New York Senate 2000 and $9,000 apiece to the committee contributing to Democratic Senate races in general.
Contributions to Lazio’s campaign by fashion executives has been less evident, compared to money received by Lazio’s predecessor in the race, Republican New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who called it quits after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Lauder, previously a Giuliani donor, has so far given $1,000 to Lazio. Leslie Fay Co. chairman John J. Pomerantz, who in 1998 gave Giuliani $2,000 when he first began his Senate bid, has since given Clinton’s campaign $2,000. Other Giuliani backers, including Bill Blass, Warnaco Group chairman and ceo Linda Wachner, and Nicole Miller ceo Bud Konheim, haven’t donated anything to Lazio’s campaign, according to FEC records. However, designer Nicole Miller gave Clinton $1,000.
Konheim said he and business partner Miller, key Giuliani fund-raisers, “are burned out politically.” They actively backed the mayor in his short-lived Senate race and his previous mayoral campaigns because of his allegiance to the city’s fashion industry and his clean-up New York City verve.
“The Lazio-Clinton race has become uninteresting. I’ll suffer through Hillary or Lazio, whomever’s elected,” said Konheim, arguing no national candidate would have much of an effect on the fashion industry. “Candidates can talk about free trade, but unless you’re Wal-Mart or Liz Claiborne, where you have a large business and a competitive advantage [from importing], it means nothing. The industry’s crisis now is selling clothing and I don’t know what they can do for that.”
Nevertheless, it’s precisely a candidate’s views on issues like free trade, health care reform, minimum wage and workplace conditions that drive much of the political campaign contributions. That’s in evidence with PACs run by companies and industry associations related to retailing, apparel and textile manufacturing and importing, most of which have lobbyists in Washington.
“If you look at our contributions, they clearly are directed at the candidates who support the industry on free trade, labor management and other issues,” said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation.
The NRF’s PAC, as of the last reporting period ending June 30, has raised about $85,000 this election cycle in contributions from retail executives and employees, and disbursed $39,500 to candidates. Pfister said he expects that by election day, the NRF PAC will have raised about $150,000.
Among recipients of NRF money is free-trader Sen. William Roth (R., Del.), who’s received $4,000, and as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee was key in shepherding bills granting permanent normal trade relations status to China and dropping duties on certain apparel imports from the Caribbean Basin and sub-Saharan Africa.
A Democratic ally on most trade issues in the House, Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), also has received $2,000 in NRF money. If Democrats regain control of the House this election, Rangel is in line to be chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where all tax and trade legislation originates.
The NRF and other retail PACs, as well as PACs from other industries, have rallied behind several Senate and House races in which the Republican incumbent is endangered. These races include the fight in Minnesota between Republican Sen. Rod Grams and his Democratic challenger, former state auditor Mark Dayton, an heir to the Target Corp. (formerly Dayton Hudson Corp.) department store fortune. The NRF, the International Mass Retail Association, the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, and the American Apparel and Footwear Association each have given Grams $1,000.
According to recent voter polls, Grams, considered one of the most conservative lawmakers in Congress with a pro-business, free-trade agenda, is behind the liberal Dayton. This election cycle, Grams’s PAC has raised $2.5 million, including a $5,000 donation from the Dayton Hudson PAC, called the Target Citizens’ Federal Forum.
Dayton, who lost 1982 Senate and 1988 gubernatorial bids, is refusing PAC and soft money contributions and has largely underwritten his $3.3 million campaign himself. If elected, he would join Minnesota’s other senator, Democrat Paul Wellstone, in advocating that labor and environmental standards be part of all trade agreements, which is anathema to the true free-trade ideologies of most retail and other companies dependent on imports.
“Mark would have voted with Senator Wellstone against China’s permanent normal trade relations status,” said Dayton’s deputy campaign manager, Sharon Ruhland. “He often speaks out against his own financial interests and larger corporations.”
Ruhland said Dayton’s personal fortune comes from his ties to the department store chain, but that he and others in his family aren’t involved in the running of the company.
Of the PAC and individual campaign donations from the fashion industry, most are focused on congressional races. However, of the FEC records surveyed, there’s been a smattering of giving to presidential races.
Blass has given $1,000 to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, as has The Limited’s Wexner. Gap’s Fisher has given $2,000 to Bush and also gave $1,000 to Sen. John McCain’s failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
Lauder has given $1,000 to Bush, but also $2,000 to Democratic opponent Al Gore’s campaign and, earlier, $2,000 to former Sen. Bill Bradley’s race to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Pomerantz has backed Gore with $1,000, and also gave the same to Bradley.
Tommy Hilfiger, although not contributing to a presidential campaign, has given $1,000 to Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman in his parallel bid to be reelected to the Senate. Should he prevail in his vice president candidacy, he would have to relinquish his Senate seat, although many feel he will formally drop out of that race in time for another Democratic candidate to be named.

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