Cash is King

by Jeremy Alford

With the governor's race still several months away, policy and platforms are taking a back seat to what really fuels campaigns: money.

Besides triggering an endless parade of polls, the new year was the first real benchmark for the upcoming gubernatorial primary ' it marked the cutoff date for reporting contributions collected during 2006. Campaign finance reports had to be postmarked, faxed, filed electronically or hand-delivered to the state Ethics Board by Feb. 15. The reports collectively contain a dizzying array of figures.

The question of who has the most money on hand is foremost in many people's minds, but lots of other interesting tidbits in the reports frequently go unreported. For instance, candidates can use their campaign money to give to charities and churches; such donations offer a glimpse into their character or beliefs. The reports also show how they're spending contributions and who is getting the money, whether it's buying advertisements or Sunday brunch for supporters.

Despite her low standing in the polls, Gov. Kathleen Blanco reported more than $3 million in the bank, more than any other candidate. It's a dubious achievement when one considers that Blanco, a Democrat, has been running for re-election since she was first elected in 2003. Then again, she shut down her fundraising efforts for almost a year after Hurricane Katrina.

Lafayette residents and businesses gave Blanco $143,000 last year. New Orleans residents and businesses gave Blanco $130,550 last year, but she doesn't hold the tiara for most cash collected from the Crescent City. That honor belongs to Bobby Jindal, the Republican wunderkind she beat in 2003 ' mostly because of the huge vote she got in â?¦ New Orleans.

Among Blanco's donors is former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, who coughed up $5,000. Also a Democrat, Breaux reportedly has been considering a run for governor himself ' if Blanco does not run ' a dichotomy that is making for serious political gossip and speculation in closed-door party meetings. Breaux flirted with a run for governor before, but demurred. This time he is rumored to be genuinely interested in the race, provided Blanco does not run.

Blanco spent more than $370,000 in 2006, dropping $11,000 on public opinion polls and $82,000 on radio advertisements. She is known to oppose any expansion of legalized gambling in Louisiana, but she nonetheless shelled out $130.83 for "accommodations" at Sam's Town in Shreveport and the Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City.

In the political realm, Blanco made only one contribution of $5,000 ' to Dale Atkins, clerk of Orleans Parish Civil District Court and a longtime close friend of the governor. As for her favorite charities, Blanco, an Acadiana native, donated to the following causes: 100 Black Men of Metro Baton Rouge, $1,500; NAACP Baton Rouge, $1,000; Louisiana Governor's Mansion Foundation, $3,750; Lafayette Bishops' Charity Gala, $200; Cerebral Palsy of Louisiana, $100; Plantation Elementary in Lafayette, $100.

Congressman Bobby Jindal of Kenner, a Republican, isn't far behind Blanco with $2.6 million in his campaign war chest, far exceeding the $1 million goal he had set for himself. Nearly all of individual contributors came from Louisiana, and donors from New Orleans sent more money to him than any other candidate ' $244,090. Only $7,000 raised by Jindal last year came from political action committees, which is a meager sum for a Beltway star like Jindal. If he needs them, PACS will be a source that Jindal can tap at any time.

Jindal spent only $22,000 last year, including $12,000 for a mailout in late December. His federal campaign finance report, however, shows that he spent more than $2.3 million on his congressional re-election, even though he was facing only token opposition. Jindal toured every area of the state and advertised in markets that barely touch his congressional district. It was a convenient ' and cost-efficient ' way to spend federal campaign dollars keeping his mug in front of voters in the most populous parts of the state.

One distinction of Jindal's gubernatorial report is a $9,000 payment to the Washington-based Aristotle International Inc., a company that compiles and sells voter information lists, for handling his online donations. Raising money through the Internet is still a novelty in Louisiana, but Jindal may break the mold. His 2006 donations report is littered with hundreds of $10 and $25 donations, the nominal amounts suggested on his Web site.

When it comes to in-kind contributions, Jindal leads the pack. Former Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican who helped Jindal cut his teeth in politics, gave $800 worth of food and beverages for a fundraiser on Pecan Island. Murphy J. Foster III, the former governor's son, gave Jindal use of his private jet at a fair market value of $1,200.

But it's the free rooms that Jindal seems to like the most. He lists more than any other candidate. From the Marriott Courtyard in Monroe to the Super 8 in Lake Charles, Jindal reported at least 19 individual-night stays for a value of roughly $3,542.

W. Gilbert Stroud, Jr., of Metairie is the most important donor to the campaign of New Orleans businessman John Georges, a Republican. Maybe that's because Stroud is the only one who gave in 2006. However, his $250 donation did bring Georges' campaign fund to slightly above $2 million. No, it's not funny math. Georges, the longtime owner of Imperial Trading Company in Harahan, has already dumped $2 million of his own cash into the campaign. He could easily come up with more. Imperial did $500 million in sales last year, and Georges owns interests in a number of companies, including a business that distributes video poker machines.

Sen. Walter Boasso, a Republican from Arabi, is in the same boat, financially speaking. He has only 22 contributions listed in his most recent report ' nearly $16,000 ' and almost all of it from special interests. But Boasso is also independently wealthy and admittedly hasn't even started fundraising yet. He did formally announce, however.

Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a Shreveport native and former member of the state Senate, is the Democratic dark horse in the race. His populist message might resonate among voters long fatigued from the state's slow recovery, but he'll have to raise more money than the $577,000 he reported last month to get his message out. Recently, he told reporters his total is nearly $750,000 now. Shreveport gave the bulk of Campbell's individual donations ($82,700).

Expenditures show that Campbell has been seriously exploring the race since July, when he paid the Florida-based Kitchens Group $15,000 for polling. The next month he donated $1,700 to Congressman Charlie Melancon, a fellow Democrat from Napoleonville, as well as $500 to Gonzales state Sen. Jody Amedee and $250 to Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman's campaign. And, in an effort possibly to ward off conflicts between tailgating and campaigning, Campbell's campaign committee paid $1,112 for LSU season football tickets.

No reports were filed by announced independent candidates Anthony "Tony G" Gentile and T. Lee Horn.