Bruschetta, sushi or a few tasty votes?

The Star-Ledger | June 25, 2002



Fund-raisers are a never-ending reminder of a fact of political life in Trenton: The next election is always around the corner.

But when lawmakers solicit contributions at the same time they’re rewriting the corporation business tax, considering a Newark arena and preparing to vote on a $23.7 billion budget, a political fund-raiser can take on new meaning.

Especially for the donors.

“We get more bang for the buck now when they’re in the throes of the process,” said Pete Lillo, a lobbyist for The Stewart Agency. “We’re going to support them anyway if they’ve been helpful in the past. What’s the difference?”

Consider yesterday: Morning found Sen. Robert Littell – the GOP co- chair of the Senate Budget Committee and a possible decisive vote for Gov. James E. McGreevey’s tax and budget proposals – in the Statehouse for a committee meeting, where business lobbyists had the chance to buttonhole him.

Late afternoon found Littell at the Trenton Marriott hosting his own fund-raiser, where some of those same lobbyists dropped off checks for Littell’s next campaign.

Over drinks, coconut shrimp and bruschetta, the lobbyists from the Business and Industry Association, the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, the state Retail Merchants Association and other business groups fighting McGreevey’s business tax came to pay their respects, and their $500.

Even McGreevey, who is anxiously courting Littell’s vote, showed up.

But Littell said he sees no connection between the donations and his crucial votes this week.

“I don’t think it’s related,” Littell said. He said he is not trying to use the pending votes to stir up campaign cash. He said he held the event this week in Trenton to make it easier for donors. “The folks that attend by and large are around this week,” he said.

An e-mail sent by a Chamber of Commerce lobbyist to business officials suggested at least some connection, though.

“As you know, Senator Littell is forwarding the alternative to the Corporate Business Tax. Those who support the alternative should consider attending (the fund-raiser),” Jim Leonard, a Chamber vice president, wrote.

Asked about the e-mail, Leonard said, “From my perspective, there’s no relationship between legislative action and fund-raising. But we try to make all of our members aware of all the fund-raisers out there.”

Littell is by no means the only lawmaker working to stockpile cash this month for the 2003 races. All 120 seats in the Legislature will be up for election.

After last Thursday’s committee meetings, Trenton’s lobbyists could have feasted on steak at Lorenzo’s at a fund-raiser for the Assembly Budget Committee chairman, Louis Greenwald, or eaten sushi at another event for the Assembly Appropriations Committee chairwoman, Bonnie Watson Coleman.

Some lobbyists hit both.

Yesterday morning, they could have had breakfast at Trenton’s historic barracks, right next door to the Statehouse, with Bergen County Democratic Assembly members Loretta Weinberg and Gordon Johnson.

Today, they can shell out $500 to go to Assembly Minority Leader Paul DiGaetano’s restaurant in Totowa.

Thursday, they can help the state Republican Party at an event with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. That is, if the voting sessions end soon enough.

Privately, some lobbyists and at least one lawmaker said scheduling the fund-raisers at the same time that the Legislature hammers out the budget can create the impression that contributions and votes are connected.

“It’s unseemly,” one lobbyist said privately. Several states, including Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee, bar lawmakers from raising money while the legislature is in session.

But others say lawmakers are constantly holding fund-raisers, and that donations do not help win a lawmaker’s vote on an issue as complex and politically charged as the budget and the corporate tax question.

“The ideal time to have these events is when the people are around to come to them. It would make no sense to have an event in Trenton in July,” said Greenwald, a Camden County Democrat.

Two dozen people attended his fund-raising event, including representatives of labor, business, health care, colleges and other interests. But the timing of the event showed the danger of the strategy: He nearly had to cancel it because his committee hearing ran late.

“I don’t think anything’s happening now that hasn’t happened in the past and won’t happen in the future,” said Coleman (D-Mercer). “Legislators have to get funding in order to get their message out to the people. It’s nothing more, nothing less than that.”