Keywords: Bob Dole, Bob Dole, Bob Dole, Republican, Republican, Party, Election, Politics, President, Scandal, Finance, Contributions, Tobacco, Money
Tobacco Dole by Sheila Kaplan
Dole and the tobacco industry share the need to win at all costs, which has forged a mutually beneficial relationship. By March, nearly every major media outlet reported the increase in Big Tobacco's contributions to the Republican Party: from $546,224 in "soft" donations in 1993 to $2.4 million in 1995. But few have investigated Dole's current ties to the industry. As one of tobacco's top congressional allies, the powerful Kansas senator has helped the industry broaden its overseas markets and battle domestic foes, such as Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler.
Now, as Dole wages his campaign for the presidency, many of the tobacco industry's biggest hitters are whispering in his ear.
Lobbyists for businesses, trade groups, and other special interests often attach themselves to presidential campaigns, seeking future jobs and political chits. Tobacco operatives are no exception. But the sheer number of tobacco lobbyists, lawyers, and pollsters working for the Dole team sets a new standard. For example:
Others working for Dole are less well-known within the Beltway, but play important roles in the tobacco industry's emerging national strategy. Steve Merksamer, for example, joined the Dole campaign last fall as a senior adviser and California strategist. His Sacramento law firm, Nielson, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, has collected $1.9 million from the industry since 1988, more than any other California firm.
In 1994, Nielson, Merksamer was paid an additional $350,000 to write Proposition 188, called the Tobacco Control Act. The proposition promised tough statewide restrictions, but its language actually weakened state law by acting as a "pre-emption law" to kill dozens of tougher local restrictions throughout the state. When the media exposed Proposition 188 as a tobacco industry ploy, voters defeated it.
But the tobacco industry's behind-the-scenes maneuvers in California may well be the model for a national strategy under a Dole presidency and a Republican Congress: Defeat popular grassroots anti-smoking measures with secret legislative and executive overrides, pre-emptions, and subversions. For example, the tobacco industry is using California Gov. Pete Wilson and the Republican California Assembly to gut anti-smoking education efforts financed by the state's 25-cent-per-pack cigarette tax. Tobacco companies, in a convenient alliance with the California Medical Association, lobbied legislators to divert money out of California's anti-smoking efforts (which activists call the single greatest threat to the tobacco industry) and into low-income health care programs--effectively using financially needy programs as a cover to derail anti-smoking campaigns.
Other operatives link Dole to the tobacco industry's secretive grassroots campaign, specifically, Midwest strategist Tom Synhorst and Alaska campaign coordinator Frank Bickford, who were both field coordinators for RJR's "grassroots" efforts in the states.
Synhorst has particularly close ties to Dole. A star in the majority leader's 1988 presidential campaign, Synhorst masterminded Dole's primary win in Iowa. In between stints for Dole's two presidential campaigns, Synhorst has been a grassroots organizer for RJR. He co-founded his telemarketing firm, Direct Connect, with top RJR lobbyist Read deButts.
Direct Connect is the Dole campaign's telemarketing firm of choice, with monthly billings exceeding $60,000. Dole's former leadership PAC, Campaign America, also paid Direct Connect more than $20,000 a month last year.
Synhorst and Bickford illustrate an important aspect of the tobacco industry's survival plan: Create grassroots front groups to make pro-tobacco legislation handed down by state and national politicians appear to be the public's will. These groups, many posing as "anti-tax" organizations, are key to the tobacco industry's efforts to win over the anti-big government segment of the electorate. This is also a crucial audience for Dole, who writes in his campaign brochure's "personal message": "My mandate as President would be to rein in the Federal government in order to set free the spirit of the American people."
Tobacco doesn't seem an obvious benefactor for a senator from Kansas, where there are plenty of wheat fields but few tobacco farms. Still, Dole has received more than $330,000 directly from RJR, Philip Morris, and U.S. Tobacco during his career, in addition to untold tobacco soft money through the Republican National Committee. Meanwhile, Dole has consistently fought tobacco tax increases--even when proposed by fellow Republicans.
During this presidential campaign, Dole has gone after FDA Commissioner David Kessler, promising an audience of pharmaceutical giants at a GOP fundraiser last September that Kessler would be out of a job if Dole were elected. Three months later, Dole was one of 32 senators who signed a letter to the FDA protesting its proposed crackdown on tobacco advertising. Dole also spoke out against Kessler's plans to limit cigarette advertising at sporting events. Before an appreciative crowd at a NASCAR auto race in Darlington, S.C., he waved a T-shirt that read, "Let Winston Cup make the rules for NASCAR, not the FDA."
In less dramatic fashion, Elizabeth Dole has also earned Big Tobacco's appreciation. In 1987, while serving as secretary of transportation, she refused to ban smoking on airplanes, ignoring recommendations from Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and the National Academy of Sciences. Perhaps coincidentally, tobacco contributions to the American Red Cross, which she heads, have escalated. Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson, and RJR gave the charity a combined $265,530 in 1995, compared to a total over the previous five years of $231,427.
But Bob Dole's friendship with the tobacco companies is not limited to the industry's domestic battles. With tobacco's popularity dying in the United States, companies must hook foreign populations. For this, the industry needs unfettered access to large global markets. Dole has been crucial in helping them get it.
In 1985, Reagan trade representatives focused their attention on Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, threatening retaliatory tariffs on their exports if they declined to open their tobacco markets. Tobacco lobbyists actually sat in on the official trade negotiations.
During talks with South Korea in 1987, Brown & Williamson's lobbyist, Thomas Humber (now the chief of Philip Morris' National Smokers Alliance), wrote the office of the U.S. trade representative corporate liaison Sandy Kristoff to inform her of a favorable meeting between South Korea's U.S. ambassador, Dole, Sen. Jesse Helms, and senators from four other tobacco states. According to the letter, the senators expressed "their support for fair market conditions in Korea" during the meeting. The ambassador, in return, thanked Dole and Helms for voting against threatened trade sanctions against Korea. Then, Humber wrote, "[The ambassador] assured the Senators of ‘best efforts' toward market expansion" for U.S. tobacco companies.
Trade agreements on tobacco have shifted under Clinton. Last year, U.S. trade representatives allowed South Korea to enact tobacco advertising restrictions after approval from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency. Officials from both agencies now sit in on trade proceedings to decide whether tobacco restrictions reflect health and environmental concerns.
Under a Dole presidency, this would probably change. Helms would play a dominant role in foreign trade policy, as would Robert Lighthizer, a former top Dole aide and Dole's rumored choice for his chief of staff or U.S. trade representative. Lighthizer, currently an attorney with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, used to work for Covington & Burling and served as deputy U.S. trade representative from 1983 to 1985. During that period, the United States began bullying countries to open their tobacco markets. Should Lighthizer have a prominent trade role, he might turn back the clock to a time when tobacco lobbyists, not health officials, sat in on trade negotiations.
The GOP convention in San Diego this August promises to be even more of a tobacco-fest than the 1992 convention. Ken Rietz, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., office of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, is a vice chairman of this year's convention host committee. Rietz oversaw the California chapter of the National Smokers Alliance, which worked against tobacco control ordinances in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Rietz candidly admits convention sponsors get opportunities for private meetings with political bigwigs. But he calls the high number of tobacco lobbyists involved with the convention and the Dole campaign pure coincidence. "If you look at Burson-Marsteller, [tobacco is] only one of thousands of clients," Rietz says. But of those thousands, Philip Morris and NSA sit comfortably among the firm's top five Washington clients.
As Mother Jones went to press, GOP convention plans were still being negotiated, but Philip Morris had already scored one coup, signing a letter of intent to rent the sought-after space at the San Diego Museum of Art, and was reportedly trying to book the San Diego Zoo for another event. The company has yet to decide on specific receptions but is likely to sponsor the high-profile reception for the GOP's Team 100 (party contributors who give $100,000 or more) and the reception for the Republican Governors Association.
But ultimately, if the tobacco industry achieves what it wants, these festivities will be only a warm-up. The real tobacco party will come in January, at Bob Dole's inauguration.
Sheila Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist.