WASHINGTON—In the early 1970s, Addison Mitchell McConnell, a young and intense Republican lawyer, strode into the political science class he taught at the University of Louisville.
He didn't introduce himself to his students. He went straight to the chalkboard and scribbled.
"I am going to teach you the three things you need to build a political party," he said.
He backed away to reveal the words: "Money, money, money."
Three decades later, the teacher has mastered the lesson like few in history.
An extraordinary political fund-raiser, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has used his skill to put himself on the brink of a remarkable career achievement. If Republicans hold the Senate in the Nov. 7 elections, he is expected to succeed retiring Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee as majority leader.
McConnell's rise to the top of Congress is testament to the power of money in modern politics. He has raised nearly $220 million over his Senate career. He spent the majority not on his own campaigns but on those of his GOP colleagues, who have rewarded him with power.
"He's completely dogged in his pursuit of money. That's his great love, above everything else," said Marshall Whitman, who watched McConnell as an aide to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and as a Christian Coalition lobbyist.
A leader in the field of tapping the wealthy for campaign cash, McConnell also led the opposition against efforts to rein in such donations through campaign-finance reform—a fight that has taken him to the U.S. Supreme Court and put him toe-to-toe against another emerging Republican leader, presidential hopeful McCain.
A six-month examination of McConnell's career, based on thousands of documents and scores of interviews, shows the nexus between his actions and his donors' agendas. He pushes the government to help cigarette makers, Las Vegas casinos, the pharmaceutical industry, credit card lenders, coal mine owners and others.
Critics, including anti-poverty groups and labor unions, complain that McConnell has come to represent his affluent donors at the expense of Kentucky, the relatively poor state he is supposed to represent. They point, for example, to his support last year for a tough bankruptcy law, backed by New York banks that support him.
McConnell, 64, recently denied that he is influenced by donations, or that he's more interested in fundraising than anyone else "in my line of work."
"Building up your finances so you can amplify your voice is critical to any successful political activity," McConnell said. "It's a central part of the process."
McConnell is hardly alone in his quest for cash. Money cascades into politics. Senate races burned through $543 million in 2004, up nearly 50 percent from the previous election cycle. And although some argue that the power of political money can be corrupting—witness this year's imprisonment of former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., for bribery—McConnell has raised his millions without any evidence of improper personal benefit.
And someone who can raise more than $90 million for his allies—as McConnell did twice, as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee—is golden when it comes time for GOP senators to elect a majority leader. That's not counting the millions McConnell sends to GOP colleagues from his own political-action committee and campaign fund.
In 1998, McConnell helped defeat a bill to curb youth smoking. A few months later, he called lobbyists at the R.J. Reynolds Co. and asked for $200,000 to pass to other Senate Republicans facing elections. One lobbyist e-mailed another: "Do you feel a choking sensation?" Not to be outdone, rival Philip Morris Cos. gave him $150,000 for GOP campaigns and $100,000 for his pet nonprofit, the McConnell Center for Political Leadership in Louisville.
"His fundraising is like a corporation, a booming, full-time business," Whitman said. "He has people in charge of reaching out to new donors, people in charge of massaging the old donors and staying in contact with them, and people in charge of collecting."
Although McConnell's attendance is poor at the Senate hearings where the nation's business is discussed, colleagues say he's a tiger at the donor receptions he schedules around the country. He eschews mass fundraising, like direct mail. He intimately greets small groups of millionaires, offering them—in the words of one of his invitations—exclusive access to "the men who are shaping the Senate agenda."
Some politicians feel uneasy about the favor-trading required while seeking campaign cash from special interests, but McConnell never blinks, said retired Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.
"When he asked for money, his eyes would shine like diamonds," Simpson said. "He obviously loved it."
McConnell came to the Senate as a campaign-finance reformer—sort of—in 1985.
As chief executive of Jefferson County, Ky., he challenged two-term Sen. Walter "Dee" Huddleston, D-Ky. After the political action committees backed the incumbent and refused to give McConnell money, he attacked Huddleston for selling out to "the highest bidder."
For his first decade in Washington, as Democrats dominated Congress and took the most donations, McConnell pushed campaign-finance reform to neutralize their edge.
Everything changed in 1994. Republicans took the House and Senate. Donations shifted their way. From that day on, McConnell's signature issue was fighting reform, particularly bills sponsored by McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a version of which finally passed in 2002.
Even under McCain-Feingold limits, McConnell has unique revenue streams.
His wife is Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, herself a major GOP cash collector who raised more than $100,000 for President Bush's 2000 campaign.
Chao seeded the Labor Department with McConnell aides and executives from GOP corporate donors in mining and other industries she regulates. They cut staffing and enforcement at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. This year, mining deaths had soared to 55 by August, the highest number in years.
In 2002, the Labor Department transferred a mine inspector whose job was threatened at a meeting with coal magnate Bob Murray, a major GOP Senate donor. The inspector cited safety problems at Murray's Appalachian mines. According to a meeting transcript, Murray said: "Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and the last I checked, he was sleeping with your boss!"
Chao uses the Labor Department to achieve donor-related tasks her husband fails to pass in the Senate, such as temporarily freezing farmworker wages, or requiring unions to open their finances for public review.
Signifying his emergence as a true power in Congress, McConnell has spawned a lobbying firm.
Gordon Hunter Bates, McConnell's previous chief of staff and campaign manager, stocked his small lobbying shop, Bates Capitol Group, with other former McConnell aides and the wife of McConnell's current chief of staff.
Bates has reported more than $3 million in lobbying fees since 2003, half from clients for whom McConnell provided key assistance.
McConnell has recommended about $45 million for four Bates clients, and written or changed legislation for four others, starting with his prime role two years ago organizing the $10-billion buyout of government tobacco quotas. Bates represented the tobacco farmers, his first clients, having met them as McConnell's aide.
Clients of Bates have given McConnell more than $100,000, usually starting after they hired Bates. They declined to say if the lobbyist urged their donations.
Clients say Bates is worth his fees because he gets into the room with McConnell.
"He has Mitch McConnell's cell phone number. I know I don't," said Roger Quarles, president of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, based in Lexington, Ky.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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