By Carl Weiser and Robert Benincasa
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - On its way to raising a record $200 million, the Bush re-election fund-raising express rolls into Cincinnati tonight - and for good reason.
This town means money for the president.
Of the top 20 most lucrative ZIP codes for Bush's 2000 campaign, three were in Cincinnati. The one that provided the most money was 45243 - Indian Hill, the verdant home of the Tristate's elite.
That's where first lady Laura Bush will be for tonight's fund-raiser at the home of Mercer Reynolds III. A friend and business associate from the president's days in the oil and baseball business in Texas, Reynolds was named ambassador to Switzerland and then, last month, finance chairman of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign. He hosted a fund-raiser for Bush on Friday at a Georgia resort he owns.
The Indian Hill soiree is one of 15 fund-raising events this month featuring either the president, the first lady or Vice President Dick Cheney, who stops in Akron on June 30 for another fund-raiser. For the first lady, the Indian Hill affair will be her second fund-raiser that day. She has one scheduled for lunchtime in Philadelphia.
The 5:30 p.m. party at Reynolds' home is expected to raise $500,000 to $1 million for the campaign. Tickets are $1,000 per person.
For that, the donors won't get dancing, a deejay, or even dinner - just cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, said Bill DeWitt, one of the event's co-chairmen.
"Nice hors d'oeuvres," he said.
Guests, who will assemble under a tent on the lawn, will get to mingle with the first lady and hear her give a short speech about the campaign, DeWitt said.
Tonight's event certainly won't be the last Tristate event for the Bush campaign. DeWitt expects the president himself to come, as he did in 2000, though no date has been set.
"There's a lot of homegrown money here, wealthy families whose business still remains in Cincinnati," said Stanley Aronoff, former Ohio State Senate president and one of the 63 members of the "host committee" for tonight's event. "They raised a ton of money out of Cincinnati in his first race."
A Gannett News Service analysis of donations to Bush's 2000 campaign showed that only a few ZIP codes in Texas and around New York City supplied more money than the three Cincinnati ZIP codes: Indian Hill, Hyde Park and downtown.
The Cincinnati metro area supplied about $13 million for campaigns during that election season - more than any other metro area in Ohio, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political contributions. In fact, the Indian Hill ZIP alone coughed up $3.7 million, more than all the Dayton metro area.
Considering Cincinnati is only the 23rd largest metro area in the nation, "it is incredible," said Judith Trent, a communications professor at the University of Cincinnati and an expert on political donations.
There are metro areas that tilt more Republican - 99 percent of the donations in Casper, Wyo., went to Republicans - and about 20 metro areas that provide more political donations overall.
But Cincinnati may be unmatched in the combination of the two, analysts said.
Cincinnati's leaders are civic-minded, politically active and, in some cases, rich, Trent said. Their activism and conservatism make them a fund-raising font for the president's campaign and the GOP in general.
"The old and the new money in Cincinnati gives," she said. "I don't think it's only to Republicans, but it's especially to Republicans."
In fact, among Hamilton County donors to 2000 federal election campaigns, 84 percent of the money went to Republicans, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The money chain starts with people like DeWitt, Cintas founder Dick Farmer and Cincinnati Reds owner Carl Lindner. Along with their wives, they are listed as the co-chairs of the fund-raiser with Laura Bush.
Relying on friends
In May, they called up their friends to ask them to be on a 63-member "host committee," made up generally of business leaders, lawyers and politicians who have donated or helped GOP causes before.
That group includes people such as Cincinnati car dealer Jeff Wyler, venture capitalist Jack Wyant, Taft Broadcasting President Dudley Taft, Rep. Rob Portman, 10 members of the Lindner family and Aronoff.
Host committee members said that, while they were given no requirements, they were asked to get five to 10 people each to attend, or at least pay the $1,000 for a ticket.
"This is the way fund raising works, whether it's for politics or the United Way," said H.C. Buck Niehoff, a member of the host committee and retired lawyer at Peck, Shaffer and Williams. Niehoff recruits his friends on some fund-raisers. They call him for others.
"You help someone on a hospital fund-raiser, they'll help you on a presidential fund-raiser," said Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio State Republican Party, who bought a ticket but won't be attending.
If you didn't get an invitation, don't feel slighted. Only about one tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. public donated $1,000 or more to political campaigns in 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The dependence on a few big donors, some of whom may be seeking to influence federal policy, "is not a good feature of the American political system," said Larry Higdon, chairman of the Cincinnati branch of Common Cause, which fights to reduce the influence of money in politics.
But even Higdon has attended political fund-raisers.
"Some are very boring," he said.
"It's a lot of standing around and talking to your friends," Niehoff said. He said he was excited about tonight's event because it would be his first chance to hear the first lady speak.
Not everyone who gets invited chooses to come. Jim Wachs, a lawyer at a downtown firm, said he got an invitation at his home in Northern Kentucky.
"I tossed it," he said. "I'm keeping the thousand bucks in my pocket."
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