Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Chesley helps fill Clinton treasure chest

President makes lawyer's home frequent stop

The Cincinnati Enquirer

'Republicans get enough money from this town. I even the score,' says Stan Chesley.
Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Thursday afternoon, for the third time in a year, the residents of Belkay Lane in Amberley Village will peer out their picture windows as a long motorcade clogs their usually quiet cul-de-sac.

        President Clinton is coming to Stan Chesley's house again.

        TV camera crews will run across manicured lawns; Secret Service agents will prowl back yards; bomb-sniffing dogs will poke their snouts into mailboxes and garages. It is a tableau Mr. Chesley's neighbors are almost getting used to.

        But it is still an amazing thing, that a president would choose to come to one man's house time and time again.

        Amazing, until you realize what draws Mr. Clinton there.

        Money, of course.

        Over the past eight years — since Mr. Chesley met Mr. Clinton, then the Arkansas governor, at a social event in Columbus — there are few who have raised more money for the Clinton-Gore campaigns and the Democratic National Committee than the 62-year-old Cincinnati lawyer.

        In the past year, he has hosted three major fund-raising events for the national Democratic Party's campaign committees at his home. At the last event, in September, Mr. Clinton was the featured attraction and tickets went for $10,000 per couple.

        In 1996, when Mr. Clinton was campaigning for re-election, Mr. Chesley raised at least $2 million for the Democratic Party in a series of a fund-raisers featuring the president, Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper Gore.

        In a town where Republican money and political power are dominant and where Republican campaign money flows from sources such as financier Carl Lindner and Cintas President Richard Farmer, Mr.

        Chesley has been an oasis for the national Democratic Party.

        Mr. Chesley said he also expects to have “a terrific relationship” with Mr. Gore as he runs for the White House. He will be one of the hosts for a Gore presidential campaign fund-raiser in Cincinnati on April 19.

        “I see myself as the equalizer,” Mr. Chesley said recently in his downtown law office in the Fourth and Vine Tower. “The Republicans get enough money from this town. I even the score.”

        In the process, he has built a relationship with Mr. Clinton that has put him near the center of power in Washington — traveling with the president to Israel on peace missions, front and center at Rose Garden ceremonies and East Room state dinners, and on overnighters in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Helping locally, too
        Mr. Chesley has gained the wherewithal to be a major political player through a highly successful legal career. A pioneering personal injury lawyer, he has represented victims in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, farmers trying to collect drought insurance, neighbors and workers at the Fernald uranium-processing plant, and victims of airline disasters.

        Mr. Chesley said that he has always “leaned more to Democratic candidates, because I'm with them on the issues — working people's issues.”

        The Cincinnati lawyer said that, in the beginning, he was particularly impressed with Mr. Clinton's commitment to making health care “more affordable, more universal.”

        “He was right on that issue, but the pressure on the other side was just too great for him to get anything done,” Mr. Chesley said.

        While he generally gives to Democrats and raises money for them, he also helps some Republicans. Last fall, the week after Mr. Clinton visited his home for a fund-raiser, Mr. Chesley held a fund-raiser for Cincinnati Republican Joe Deters, who was elected Ohio's treasurer in November.

        While he is considered a player in national politics, he has also had a hand in local Democratic politics in his hometown, supporting candidates such as former Cincinnati May or Dwight Tillery and Councilman Todd Portune, and the unsuccessful congressional candidacy of Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls.

        “He's a very good person to have around,” said Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke. “The national party depends on him, the Ohio Democratic Party depends on him, and he is always willing to help at the local level.”

Unwavering support
        For decades, Mr. Chesley has been involved in fund raising for various Jewish causes and is on the board of directors of the Israel Bonds organization.

        His political involvement started in earnest in the 1980s, when he became a close friend of former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste. Mr. Chesley represented Mr. Celeste in legal matters and helped raised money for his successful 1982 campaign to win the governor's office. The governor rewarded him with a seat on the board of trustees of the University of Cincinnati, where Mr. Chesley earned his undergraduate and law degrees.

        It was Mr. Celeste who, in 1991, introduced Mr. Chesley to the Arkansas governor who was then putting together a presidential campaign organization.

        “I didn't know much about him at the time, except for that speech he made at the 1988 (Democratic) convention that bored everybody to tears,” Mr. Chesley said, referring to Mr. Clinton's nominating speech for presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, which went on too long and made Mr. Clinton the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows.

        Mr. Chesley said he had been “shopping around” for a Democratic presidential candidate to support in 1992. The dinner meeting Mr. Celeste arranged for the two in Columbus occurred in the fall of 1991, and the two hit it off.

        “I liked him; the more I listened to him talk, the more I believed he could go all the way,” Mr. Chesley said. “I gave him a check on the spot.”

        Mr. Chesley said he saw Mr. Clinton as a moderate who could unite the Democratic Par ty against a Republican Party that he thought had been taken over by “the Christian right.”

        The Cincinnati lawyer quickly became part of a nationwide network of well-heeled contributors put together by the Clinton-Gore campaign. He said he would hear from Mr. Clinton from time to time during the campaign. On Election Night in 1992, he was among those celebrating with the Clintons in Little Rock.

        Fund raising is Mr. Chesley's principal role in Clinton circles, but he has also offered strategic political advice.

        In 1992, Mr. Chesley said he told Clinton-Gore strategists that in order to win Ohio's important electoral votes, they had to undercut Republican strength in the Cincinnati area.

        “I told them they couldn't win Hamilton County, but they had to do everything they could to reduce the Republicans' numbers here,” Mr. Chesley said. “They thought all they had to do was drive up the Democratic turnout in Cleveland. I told them that wasn't enough.”

        Mr. Chesley said the cam paign staff took the idea to the candidate, who liked it. The result was a high-profile trip to Cincinnati the Sunday before the election for a tailgate rally before a Bengals game.

        Four years later, Mr. Chesley said he urged the Clinton-Gore campaign to put the president on a train and do a whistlestop tour through Ohio before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

        “I saw Harry Truman do it when I was a kid,” Mr. Chesley said. The Clinton-Gore campaign ended up doing the whistlestop tour — from Kentucky, through western Ohio and into Indiana — and it generated enormous momentum for the campaign going into a convention that lacked any other kind of drama.

        “I can't take credit for all of that, but I do give them my ideas and they do listen,” Mr. Chesley said.

        Throughout the past year of scandal and impeachment surrounding Mr. Clinton, the Cincinnati lawyer has not wavered in his support of this president.

        “This stuff will fade away; the fact is, he has been a great, great president,” Mr. Chesley said. “He understands people; he understands what Americans want, what their hopes are. People believe he cares about them. And he does.”

        The president, Mr. Chesley said, “is not gloating about the fact that he wasn't convicted. He is embarrassed by the whole thing.”

Raising eyebrows
        Mr. Chesley was among those at the White House for a Christmas party on the evening of Dec. 19, the day the House approved two articles of impeachment. “What I saw that day was a man who was robust, energetic, optimistic,” Mr. Chesley said.

        Mr. Chesley has taken his share of heat for his friendship with the president. In 1995, eyebrows were raised when Mr. Chesley's wife, Susan Dlott, was appointed by Mr. Clinton to a vacant federal court judgeship. Her appointment sailed through the U.S. Senate.

        Last March, consumer advocate Ralph Nader's Public Citizen group criticized Mr. Clinton for attending a fund-raiser at Mr. Chesley's home. At the time, Mr. Chesley was a member of a committee of lawyers representing millions of smokers against the tobacco companies while the Clinton administration was involved in the debate over tobacco legislation. A number of other lawyers involved in tobacco litigation were at the March fund-raiser.

        “People think ... that there is some hidden agenda in my friendship with the president,” Mr. Chesley said. “I'm very sensitive about it. I tell you, I do this out of respect and loyalty. I believe you go home with the girl who brought you.”

        As much contact as he has had with this president over the past six years and as many times as the president has come to his house, it is clear that Mr. Chesley is still somewhat in awe of the fact that he is a friend of a president.

        In his oak-paneled office downtown, Mr. Chesley took a framed letter from the president off the wall and showed it to a visitor.

        “Look at this,” he said, pointing to the signature. “It's the first time he signed a letter to me with just "Bill.'”

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