What the CEOs Say about the Candidates

It may still be 1999, but top CEOs already are thinking of the 2000 Presidential election. In fact, they're doing more than thinking: They're writing checks earlier than ever before. In the first nine months of 1999, nearly 40% of the chief executives of the top 1,000 corporations made donations to one -- or more -- candidates for the White House. Here, in their own words, are their reasons for sending checks to particular candidates:

John W. Snow of CSX is a strong backer of Arizona Senator John McCain. He has already hosted two fund-raisers for the Republican underdog. "He's a very attractive candidate," says Snow. "He brings a lot of integrity, commitment, and intelligence to the office." Snow lauds McCain's work as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. "He's a very strong, pro-business person who has terrific credentials," gushes Snow. "He's a forceful advocate of trade.... He's terrific on the role of a market economy. He's for a less-regulated, more competitive system." Snow and other pro-McCain CEOs are attracted to the candidate's maverick (and sometimes ornery) personality. "He's got that independent streak. I think some independence in our political leadership is good," says Snow. "He's going to be driven by his own set of convictions, not by some set of polls." Still, if McCain fails to topple Bush, Snow says he'll happily support the current front-runner in the general election.

Thomas F. Frist Jr. of Columbia/HCA Healthcare made an unsolicited donation of $1,000 to Texas Governor George W. Bush out of longstanding loyalty to the Bushes. "I've known him and his father for many years, and the family has great integrity and the same values that I believe are important," says Frist, whose brother is a Republican Senator from Tennessee. "I think he would bring the right balance to the office of the President. He'd provide a healing effect for our country." Bush, he says, has many of the attributes of a successful executive. "He is smart enough that he knows what he doesn't know," says Frist, "and he's smart enough to surround himself with the right people to give him the knowledge base he needs to make the right decisions."

George M. Fisher of Eastman Kodak played the field. He contributed to both Democrats, along with Republicans Bush and Dole. Campaign-finance reform advocates say such donations are often made to provide access, no matter which candidate wins. But Fisher says his motive is to promote good government. "I established a personal policy that our responsibility in the political process is to make sure the best candidates get a chance to air their views. So in the primaries, I tend to support candidates from both parties -- people I think are good people and [good] leaders, whose views I think should be heard." Why four for 2000? "I think we're lucky to have a lot of good people running." After the primaries are over, he'll adopt a different strategy. "I'll donate to one candidate" in the general election, he insists.

Stephen M. Case of America Online says he respects both George W. Bush and John McCain, so he sent each of them $1,000. "It's early in the process," Case explains. "It's important to be supportive of the process more than of any particular candidate." While he leans Republican, Case points out that top AOL execs are all over the political spectrum. AOL President Robert W. Pittman and consultant Marc Andreessen just organized a Gore fund-raiser. Senior vice-President George Vradenberg held a McCain money bash, while Ted Leonsis, president of AOL Properties and owner of the Washington Capitals hockey team, did one for Bradley. "We want to have a big tent," says Case. "What executives do should be separate from what companies do. We don't want to be picking winners, but we do want to be supportive of the political process. The best way to do this is to launch 'My Government' [an AOL Web site] to reengage people in the civic process. Someday, maybe the debate over campaign-finance reform will diminish because the Internet has developed as a political force."

Thomas Stemberg of Staples has donated to both Bradley and Bush, but his heart is with Bush. "I am strongly in the Bush camp," says Stemberg. "I intend to become a 'Pioneer' by raising over $100,000 for the Bush campaign." Stemberg and his wife are both prospecting for George W. The office-supply CEO is "already pretty close" to his $100,000 target. And Bush hasn't been a tough sell with the boardroom set. "I have been extremely gratified in how easy it has been to raise money for this guy," he notes. Stemberg says he sent a check to Bradley as a favor to a friend. "I believe he is the best Democratic candidate," says Stemberg.

Donald V. Fites, retired CEO of Caterpillar, also donated to two candidates -- Bush and former Vice-President Dan Quayle -- but he, too, is a Bush man. "George W. is really my candidate of choice," says Fites. He sent a check to Quayle, who has since dropped out of the race, "because of loyalty" to the fellow Indianan. "Bush will make a wonderful President," Fites believes.

Ralph S. Larsen of Johnson & Johnson likes Bradley and Bush. He gave to one candidate in each party because, he says, "I think the best thing is to have the best possible candidates in the race. I want to encourage that." Larsen, chairman of the elite Business Council, was impressed by Bradley's recent speech to the group. "I loved it," he said. If his two favorites win their respective nominations, he'll choose between them: "Yes, I will. But not now. Not today."

Steve Papermaster of Agillion, an Austin-based technology company, is prospecting for Bush among fellow techies. He's not surprised that Bush has nearly six times the support of Gore among top tech CEOs. "Al Gore reminds me of a lot of professors: bright, knowledgable, well-schooled, and quite articulate," says Papermaster. "And yet they have essentially no basis in the real world for what they talk about. They have never been in private-sector "do" mode in their lives." Bush's success in pushing for tort reform in Texas is a big help in techland, Papermaster reports. And execs like Bush's business experience and entrepreneurial mindset. "CEOs recognize talented CEOs, and Bush is seen as a like-minded CEO," he says. "Al Gore is viewed as a middle manager. He might be a good middle manager, but that's all he is."

Preston H. Haskell, president of the Haskell Co. in Jacksonville, Fla., normally backs Republicans, but he's on Bill Bradley's team this year. And he's a true believer, despite differences with the candidate on issues such as health care and labor law. "I don't agree with him on every single issue," says Haskell, "but I see in him a capacity for thoughtful, intellectual leadership, integrity, and the gravitas to hold the world's highest office." Like many of Bradley's business backers, there's a deep Princeton connection here. The two men have served together on the university's board of trustees for several years. Shortly after announcing his candidacy, Bradley phoned the Florida executive and asked him to come aboard. "It was kind of hard to turn down," says Haskell. He's been raising money for Bradley in the business community ever since. "Initially, I thought it was a longshot that I would do out of personal friendship and admiration," Haskell recalls. "At the beginning, we went to fellow Princetonians or leaned on friends. Now, it's [driven by] the message and the candidate and the favorable movement in the polls -- all of which reinforce each other." As Bradley has gained strength, more than a few people have jumped aboard the bandwagon. Says Haskell: "Now, the opportunistic givers are loosening up their pocketbooks."

By Richard S. Dunham, with Lorraine Woellert and Catherine Yang in Washington, William Symonds in Boston, Jennifer Reingold in Palm Beach, Fla., David Rocks in Atlanta

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Who the Corporate Bosses Are Backing

TABLES: Interesting, Strange, and Surprising Facts about CEO Giving

ONLINE ORIGINAL: What the CEOs Say about the Candidates

ONLINE ORIGINAL: Good Thing Steve Forbes Doesn't Need CEOs' Cash

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