Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Monday, April 10, 2000

Bush Supporter Pilloried, But May Have Had a Point

By Joel Connelly P-I National Correspondent

Sam Wyly is a brassy Texas entrepreneur whose riches have come by picking off lucrative pieces of America's shattered computer and telephone monopolies, and who is now betting his money that deregulation of electricity will push the country down the path toward clean energy.

He also invested $ 2.5 million on George W. Bush, and started a national controversy.

Wyly was the brains behind Republicans for Clean Air, a group that broadcast an anti-John McCain ad in New York and other states before the Super Tuesday primaries.

Pilloried by pundits, denounced on the editorial page of The New York Times, Wyly has retreated back to commerce. He poked wicked fun at himself during an appearance at last week's Seattle Summit on Protecting the World's Climate.

"Many of you are aware of my recent foray into presidential politics. I have already decided it is to be my last," Wyly said, to applause from an unsympathetic audience. "I thought I had a clever idea to get America to focus on the clean-air issue and to help my presidential candidate."

What Wyly did is worthy of closer scrutiny. He drove a media blitz through a gaping loophole in campaign-finance laws. He is, however, sincere about shutting down dirty power plants, and vigorously disputes the national Green Lobby's argument that Bush is a polluter's presidential candidate.

The loophole is Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, which allows front groups to blanket the airwaves with political advertising - its source of funding never disclosed - as long as ads do not bluntly tell people how to vote. In Wyly's ads, Republicans for Clean Air went after McCain for voting against a renewable energy bill.

Washington voters will be inundated with such advertising this fall. Already, a group backed by the insurance industry, Americans for Job Security, is running cable-TV ads supporting Republican Sen. Slade Gorton's education plan. In the meantime, however, an Indian-backed group called First American Education Project is raising money for a campaign against Gorton.

The 1st and 2nd congressional districts rank as premier battlegrounds in the struggle to control the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans are out to unseat Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee in the 1st District, in GOP hands for 50 of the past 54 years. Democrats are keying on the 2nd District of retiring Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf. They held it for 30 years until 1994.

Senior analysts of both parties predict that House candidates will spend more than $ 1 million apiece, and that Wyly-style "independent" organizations will shell out an additional $ 1 million in each House race.

Wyly chortled about Section 527 last week, noting that it has also been used to finance anti-Bush ads paid for by "my billionaire limousine liberal buddies who give to the Sierra Club."

The voters are certain to be perplexed, however. They'll be confronted with a welter of claims and counterclaims, often with no way of sorting out the front groups or who has what ax to grind.

If American politics had any rules, Wyly would have gone to the penalty box for slashing McCain. Alone among Western Republican senators, McCain has walked his talk on clean air. He midwifed an accord that installed scrubbers on a coal-burning power plant that threatened views from the Grand Canyon.

Apart from his unwily TV ads, Wyly's reasons for backing Bush should be heard. He credits Bush with orchestrating a bipartisan accord in Texas that produced legislation that will require old, polluting power plants to clean up their act.

"He (Bush) had the courage to stand up to the monopoly utilities," Wyly said in an interview. "It was kind of like Nixon going to China. It took a Republican to do it."

Wyly believes a repeat performance is possible in the nation's capital, where a Republican-controlled Congress has spurned proposals such as higher fuel efficiency standards for new automobiles, and worked to "reform" the Clean Air Act with broader loopholes for polluters.

"You've already got the liberal Democrats," Wyly said. "Why not put in a Republican president who can argue for clean energy and its advantages in the marketplace? He can sign up a lot of other Republicans."

Heresy? Yes. Except when you remember that most of America's basic environmental laws were proposed and passed during the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon.

The chief backstage booster was Nixon's domestic policy aide, a former Seattle zoning lawyer named John Erlichman. The Watergate villain ranks as a Republican environmental hero.P-I reporter Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or joelconnelly§