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POPULISTS IN PINSTRIPES
A year ago, a political greenhorn named Richard W. Fisher stiffly faced the television cameras and urged Texas voters to send him to the U.S. Senate to replace Lloyd M. Bentsen. Fisher--who owns a Dallas money-management firm--may be a whiz at business, but he turned out to be a dud at the polls. On Election Day, he finished a distant fifth, and Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison went on to win the seat in a runoff.
This year, Fisher was back, minus the pinstripes and B-school jargon. Commercials showed the shirtsleeved candidate chatting up folks at a small-town cafe. And it worked: Recast as a "small businessman," Fisher rolled to a convincing win over former Attorney General Jim Mattox in an Apr. 12 Democratic runoff. Now, he's a threat to unseat Hutchison in the general election next fall.
Fisher's transformation took money--and he had plenty. The 45-year-old executive spent $4 million out of his own pocket in a year-long effort to convince Democrats that a millionaire investor can make government work for average citizens. "He went from `successful businessman' to `man of the people,' and it was totally believable," explains Jerry L. Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas Pan American.
Fisher is typical of a new crop of business executives who are willing to spend big to gain office (table). Inspired by Ross Perot's 1992 Presidential bid, they paint themselves as untainted outsiders who can't be bought by special interests. Many of them are winning, too. In a Mar. 8 Republican primary, Eugene Fontenot Jr., a Houston physician, upset the party's handpicked congressional candidate after spending more than $850,000 of his own money. And in California, GOP Representative Michael Huffington, who spent some $3 million to oust a Republican incumbent two years ago, could spend more than $10 million this year as he pursues Democrat Dianne Feinstein's U.S. Senate seat.
Fisher and the other free-spending candidates, of course, deny that they're buying seats. On the stump, Fisher earnestly stresses his support for a balanced budget, term limits, and government reform. Hutchison's retort: Once in office, Fisher would quickly be co-opted by liberal Democrats.
SHIFTING ALLIANCES. But Fisher is not the political naf some critics take him for. His political roots go way back. Fisher's mentor, Democratic financier Robert V. Roosa, helped him find a job in the Carter Administration as an aide to Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal. After leaving government, Fisher opened an office for investment bank Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in Dallas--the hometown of his wife, Nancy, daughter of Representative Jim Collins (R-Tex.). Seven years later, he struck out nn his own, founding a company that now manages about $400 million for wealthy investors.
Fisher's foes portray him as a dilettante who believes in little but winning public office. Says Texas Republican Chairman Fred Meyer: "His decisions are based on expediency. He puts his finger up to see which way the wind is blowing."
And, indeed, Fisher has flopped around a bit in his allegiances. In 1985, he helped then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton launch the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Later, he sought a position in the Bush White House. And in 1992, he served as an adviser to Perot. But he denies any inconsistencies in all this. "If I were an opportunist, I'd run as a Republican," Fisher asserts. "I'm running in a party that has real problems in this state."
The candidate, who trails Hutchison by nine points according to a recent poll, faces an uphill battle. But he won't lack for money or bravado. When Ann W. Richards, the Democratic governor of Texas, first warned him of the perils of running for office, Fisher shot back: "Have you ever dealt with bond traders at Salomon?"
RICH AND RUNNING
More wealthy candidates are spending their own money to win congressional nominations this year. Among them:
The former Perot adviser will battle Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.
The millionaire son of a Texas oilman spent $3 million to win the 1992 GOP primary. Now, he wants the Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein.
A Houston doctor and real estate investor, he put more than $850,000 into the GOP primary. Fontenot now faces Ken Bentsen, nephew of Lloyd Bentsen.
The L.A. attorney has invested $400,000 to challenge Democratic Representative Anthony C. Beilenson.Richard S. Dunham in Washington and Wendy Zellner in Dallas