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Cantwell becomes a money machine
Seattle Times staff reporter
One of a series of articles exploring the lives and careers of Washington state's candidates for U.S. Senate.
Maria Cantwell promised to take the money out of politics when she announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate six years ago.
A vice president for RealNetworks worth about $35 million, Cantwell vowed to spend more time with voters than with big-time donors, rejecting political-action-committee (PAC) contributions and the Potomac cocktail-party circuit.
Now seeking re-election, Cantwell retains her no-PAC pledge, but instead of remaining aloof from the hunt for campaign dollars, she has become one of the most prodigious fundraisers in the U.S. Senate.
RealNetworks stock tanked before the 2000 election, and she found herself in a precarious financial position from the day she arrived on Capitol Hill.
Embarking on an aggressive effort to fill her campaign coffers and repay bank loans, Cantwell has, so far, brought in $16.8 million — a sum that her staff proudly boasts puts her in league with New York's Hillary Clinton.
From Bel Air to Martha's Vineyard, Cantwell has attended receptions and dinners in her honor. She's courted the Seattle music scene and flown by corporate jet to meet the people who write checks big and small.
Maria Cantwell's top contributors
Baron & Budd, a Dallas law firm: $60,500
Preston Gates & Ellis, a Seattle law firm: $55,611
University of Washington: $32,250
Source: Center for Responsive Politics
In just the past 18 months, Cantwell has attended 300 fundraisers, and her daily calendar almost always includes a pitch for cash.
It hasn't been easy. Cantwell has weathered complaints to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), a grueling travel schedule and criticism that special-interest money still finds a way into her campaign.
She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Funding the 2000 race
After losing her House seat in 1994, Cantwell, then 36, hooked up with RealNetworks, a Seattle Internet company founded by Rob Glaser, a longtime supporter of Democratic causes and candidates.
As vice president of marketing, she was awarded stock as part of her compensation — about 455,600 shares worth about $27 million as of December 1999, according to reports filed by RealNetworks with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The day after she announced her candidacy Jan. 19, 2000, RealNetworks issued a news release stating that Cantwell would be taking a leave of absence. "We wish her the best in her new endeavors," Glaser said.
But financial documents filed by RealNetworks indicate Cantwell didn't begin her leave until April 1, 2000. On April 18, the company noted that Cantwell had 16,800 more options than she did in the beginning of 2000, the result of older stock grants vesting. She also owned 280,000 more shares outright.
Cantwell spent $10 million to unseat incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton, using $6.5 million of her own money plus bank loans with RealNetworks stock as collateral. Four months before the election, she also established a $600,000 line of credit with U.S. Bank secured by her personal home, which was valued at only $375,000.
The National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group in Falls Church, Va., filed a complaint with the FEC in April 2001 contending that Cantwell violated election law by securing a loan worth more than the collateral, and that she had received preferential terms from U.S. Bank.
The FEC ruled neither complaint had merit, though it chastised the Cantwell campaign for failing to timely report financial information.
Money problems surface
Determining Cantwell's net worth is difficult, but it's safe to say she arrived in D.C. with big money problems. RealNetworks stock was worth about $10 a share — down from $78 a share the day she announced her candidacy — and she had $3.2 million in bank loans coming due.
Unlike other candidates who had established a network of supporters, Cantwell's decision to self-finance meant she had no fundraising team, no fat Rolodex of donors. Her e-mail list had 2,000 addresses.
Between the debt and the lack of contributors, Cantwell was "in a double hole," said her aide Michael Meehan.
In office just a few months, the freshman got a big lift from Clinton, who debuted her new Washington, D.C., home in a Cantwell fundraiser. And that was just the beginning.
Flight logs from BellSouth's corporate jet provide a glimpse into her schedule.
Leaked to reporters, the logs show dozens of lawmakers were shuttled across the country by private plane. Cantwell took five fundraising trips to Atlanta, Boston, Nantucket Island, Charlottesville and Stanford, Fla., from 2002 to 2004.
Most of the travel was reimbursed — at the cost of first-class commercial airfare — by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which raises money for Senate candidates.
According to flight manifests, a BellSouth lobbyist accompanied Cantwell on all the trips.
Meehan said Cantwell traveled by corporate jet on only a handful of occasions for DSCC functions. She once used a private plane to attend an event that raised money for her campaign, but Meehan doesn't recall who owned the aircraft.
As for spending time with lobbyists during the flights, Meehan said: "Senators tend to sleep. There isn't a lot of chit chat."
Today, Cantwell has an e-mail list of 100,000 names.
Beating Gorton by 2,229 votes in 2000 meant Cantwell was considered instantly vulnerable, and national Democratic leaders worried about her financial situation. Early on, Minority Leader Tom Daschle and others urged Cantwell to break her no-PAC pledge to raise more money, but she refused.
PACs, formed by corporations, labor unions and interest groups to make political contributions, are allowed to give federal candidates $5,000 for the primary and an another $5,000 for the general election. By contrast, individual donors are allowed to give only $2,100 per election.
While Cantwell has pledged not to accept PAC money, much of the same money finds a way to her campaign account.
Cantwell has refused checks from PACs created by politicians, but she has accepted $45,968 from other candidates' personal campaign funds. For example, Sen. Patty Murray gave Cantwell $1,750, but Murray's PAC, M-PAC, gave nothing.
According to Political MoneyLine, a nonpartisan database of campaign-finance reports, the United Association Political Education Committee, a PAC created by the plumbers and pipe-fitters union, gave Cantwell $10,000 this year. Other labor PACs gave an additional $10,500, the database shows.
Meehan said Political MoneyLine got it wrong: Cantwell routinely returns unsolicited checks, and sometimes they don't get counted correctly by watchdog groups.
But Cantwell did change her mind about accepting money from the Democratic Party.
After Congress enacted campaign-finance rules in November 2002 that banned unlimited contributions to the DSCC and other groups affiliated with the parties, Cantwell began accepting their help. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on her behalf by the state Democratic Party and DSCC. Both accept PAC money.
Last year, she created a joint fundraising committee with the DSCC called Washington Senate 2006. Proceeds are split exclusively between Cantwell and the effort to elect Democrats to the U.S. Senate.
Disclosure reports indicate the Tulalip Tribes of Washington wrote a $26,700 check to Washington Senate 2006. Other contributors include Jim Sinegal, president and CEO of Costco ($10,000), and software entrepreneur Paul Brainerd ($5,000). Both men are well-known supporters of Democratic candidates.
The vast majority of money raised by Cantwell — about 90 percent — comes from individuals, most of whom don't live in Washington state.
Some of them are registered federal lobbyists; others work for the same special-interest PACs that Cantwell disavows.
When asked about his contribution, Ladd Gibke of Plano, Texas, who gave Cantwell $1,000, took a few seconds to place her name.
"Maria Cantwell is running for U.S. Senate, right?" he asked when contacted earlier this month.
An attorney, Gibke formerly worked for Baron & Budd, a Dallas law firm that donates heavily to Democrats. The Center for Responsive Politics lists employees of Baron & Budd as Cantwell's second biggest contributors, followed only by Microsoft employees.
Baron & Budd specializes in cases involving injuries caused by exposure to asbestos, benzene and other environmental hazards.
The firm's senior partners are ardent Democrats, Gibke said. And that explains why he's a financial supporter of Cantwell, whom he can't recall meeting and, besides her party affiliation, he knows almost nothing about.
"It wasn't that much to give to help Fred [Baron] and to help what everybody there believed in," Gibke said. "When the senior partner asks you to help, unfortunately the checkbook comes out."
Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company