Evans is just one of thousands of Tar Heel tobacco farmers waiting for a federal bailout of their Depression-era price control system and paying close attention to the U.S. Senate race this summer, where Congressman Richard Burr, a five-term Republican, is expected to emerge from this month's primary to face Democrat Erskine Bowles in November.
A self-described conservative who voted for Republican Elizabeth Dole when she defeated Bowles in the Senate race two years ago, Evans says the buyout's stall in Congress--and particularly, Burr's lack of leadership in moving it forward--has convinced him to snub the GOP's Senate candidate this time around.
"I don't know who Mr. Burr is protecting, but he's not protecting me or my family or any of the other folks out here farming in eastern North Carolina," says Evans. "I don't think Richard Burr can look me straight in the eye and say, 'I'm looking out for you.'"
Analyzing his campaign war chest over the last decade, though, it's no mystery who benefits from Burr's actions--or inactions--on Capitol Hill: Big Tobacco.
Until just recently, when farmers threatened to take their frustration out at the polls this fall, Burr has been noticeably absent on the buyout, including declining to sign on to a bi-partisan bill sponsored by fellow North Carolina congressional delegates last fall, and stepping down from a leadership position on a powerful House committee from which he could have wielded influence. His lack of action dovetails with the agenda of big tobacco companies, who oppose federal Food and Drug Administration oversight of their products--a concomitant piece of legislation that's generally accepted to be necessary for the $10 billion buyout to succeed. The proposal's well-funded opponents include R.J. Reynolds in Burr's hometown of Winston-Salem, whose employees, owners and corporate attorneys have given the 5th-district congressman $200,000 in his last five races.
Reynolds and its law firm are Burr's top two donors, while collectively, U.S. tobacco manufacturers have given Burr more money than any other member of the House of Representatives, according to a campaign finance database run by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan, nonprofit watchdog group.
Tobacco farmers are just one of a litany of constituents whose interests Burr has sacrificed to corporate influence. He also has aggressively pursued the nuclear medical industry's profit agenda over national security concerns in attempting to repeal restrictions on bomb-grade uranium. Meanwhile, the early entrance of third-party advertising in the Burr-Bowles race shows that Burr's corporate backers are deeply invested in promoting him to the more powerful Senate chamber this fall.
"That's the whole purpose of private money in elections," says Craig Holman, a campaign finance reform lobbyist with Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group that monitors money in Congress. "The point is to create some sense of indebtedness, an obligation on the part of the candidate, to the donor's particular special interest or goal."
Throughout the last decade, Burr has earned financial support from insurance firms, pharmaceutical manufacturers, utility and energy providers, business and trade associations, and lobbyists. One key way for industries and other special interests to influence candidates is through PAC donations, where individuals with common business- or issue-oriented agendas combine their giving power. Burr ranks No. 1 in PAC donations among all House members, and fourth among all members of Congress, amassing $1.6 million already this campaign season, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. PAC donations make up nearly a third of Burr's total campaign treasury, with 83 percent coming from business and industry PACS and 17 percent from ideological or single-issue groups, including so-called "leadership PACS" run by fellow Republican lawmakers. When it comes to specific industries, Burr appears among the top five House recipients for 34 industries and special interest groups--33 more top-five appearances than any other North Carolina House member. (See "Burr's No. 1," below.)
Burr makes no apologies for benefiting from a political system that rewards candidates who back a business-oriented agenda. He believes in that agenda and insists it is related to his stand on issues.
"Richard is a very influential member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee" for example, says his spokesman, Doug Heye. "He's had a very clear record and is a leader on issues that are important nationwide."
Critics see Burr's rankings differently.
"Burr's record in Congress looks like a whore's bedsheet," says Forsyth County Democratic activist and retired Wake Forest University administrator Hayes McNeil.
A preacher's son with no previous political experience, Burr arrived in Washington just in time to sign on with the GOP's "Contract with America" after winning his seat in the Clinton mid-term backlash of 1994. His victory was an important gain for Republicans, who capitalized on the retirement of a long-term Democratic incumbent in the 5th district, which stretches from suburban Winston-Salem north and west to the state line.
A Wake Forest University football player and alum, Burr left his career as a sales manager at Carswell Distributing, a wholesaler and distributor of outdoor power equipment, to become a loyal foot soldier in the Republican Party. An energetic campaigner with an engaging personal demeanor, Burr has won re-election four times while working his way into positions of influence on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and earned prominent support from the Bush administration, including a campaign fund-raising stop by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Burr dismisses allegations that his financial supporters influence his policymaking--on any topic.
"I'm not one that believes that special interests play that big a role in the legislative process," Burr said during a June 4 visit to Durham, discussing a proposal from Bowles to limit third-party advertising in the Senate race. "My constituents play a much bigger role."
A buyout sell-out?
When it comes to the tobacco buyout, though, it's beginning to look like the special interests might get their way, thanks in part to Burr's help. A $9.6 billion buyout proposal--which includes $3.8 billion for farmers in North Carolina, the largest tobacco-producing state--cleared a House vote June 17, without FDA approval attached. It now faces an extremely tough battle in the Senate, where most members are expected to push for the FDA component that the House rejected.
The farmers, who had operated on the philosophy that FDA oversight was the key to the buyout's passage, now say they will take whatever they can get.
"We're in the position here that beggars can't be choosers," says farmer Keith Parrish, the executive director of the National Tobacco Growers' Association. "We're in the begging and pleading mode now."
Farmers--especially small ones--across the nation's eight tobacco-producing states have clung to threadbare safety nets while U.S. cigarette makers have substituted cheaper leaf grown overseas. Since the late 1990s, they've been waiting for the politicians to craft a buyout plan that will let them cash in their allotments to pay off debts, rebalance their family checkbooks, and maybe get out of the business at something less than a total loss.
"We have lost equity in all our assets. You can't hardly give away a piece of tobacco equipment," says Wayne County tobacco farmer Jerry West. "It costs so much to farm, you have to leverage everything except your underwear--and that's next on the list."
About a year ago, Parrish set out to counteract the industry's business-as-usual in Washington, and "put a real face of a farmer" in front of lawmakers. Using travel money set aside from a legal settlement between growers and manufacturers specifically to help the farmers lobby for a buyout, Parrish has spent the last few months alternating between tending his 500 acres of tobacco, soybeans and other crops in Angier and meeting with Congressional members and aides on frequent trips to Washington, D.C.
"No tobacco farmer I know is making money today," says Parrish, who has hung on by selling his timber a few years ago and by parting with a 53-acre parcel of land he had hoped to bequeath to his kids. "We all just continue to borrow each year, and everybody has been hanging on for this buyout for six, eight years now. Many of the farmers are unable to retire, because they know they're likely not to get paid if they get out before the buyout."
The problem, however, has been selling a costly buyout package to legislators from the 42 non-tobacco states, who have to defend the expense to their constituents. A committee under the Clinton administration recommended tying the buyout to a consumer-friendly, bipartisan-supported proposal to give the FDA authority over tobacco products. That plan, which would subject the industry to additional scrutiny and regulation, was seen as a public health benefit to consumers across the country.
Cigarette makers, however, have strongly resisted FDA oversight, and--as long as the two issues were tied together--the buyout. They can well afford to make their opinion heard: The industry spent more than $21 million to lobby lawmakers in 2003--an average of $127,000 each day Congress was in session, according to an April 2004 report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The group calculated that the 17 House members who sponsored legislation opposed by the public health community received, on average, more than 20 times more money from the tobacco industry as the 127 sponsors of a public health community-supported FDA bill--$12,707 versus $613 per legislator.
The prominent exception to the manufacturers opposing the FDA-related buyout, however, has been Richmond-based Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette maker, which controls almost 50 percent of the domestic market. Industry observers say the company sees FDA scrutiny as a boon for its bottom line, because it uses predominantly American-grown tobacco in its cigarettes, while competitors like RJR use mostly foreign-grown leaf, and disclosure about ingredients, pesticides and other details may shed more favorable light on Philip Morris' products.
In addition to its support of the buyout, Philip Morris is unique among big tobacco manufacturers in one other way: Its employees and political action committee do not appear on Burr's recent contributors list.
The delay in the buyout legislation rallied more and more impatient farmers as the Senate campaign shaped up. As they began to examine the candidates, they noticed that despite a lot of talk during stump speeches, Burr wasn't exactly making haste to make the buyout happen.
"Farmers are pretty miffed at Congressman Burr for his lack of support," says Parrish, particularly for his hands-off approach to an earlier draft of a bill by fellow North Carolina legislators that never got off the ground.
Citing his seat as vice-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee--a seat that should have enabled him to take a leadership role--supporters of the buyout began labeling Burr their largest obstacle last fall and winter. In February, just as pickup trucks across Tobacco Road began sprouting "No buyout? No Burr!" bumper stickers, the candidate sought to check such criticism by resigning the vice-chairmanship, saying he didn't want to be seen as the stumbling block. Democrats contrasted Bowles' frequent public pledges to accomplish the buyout with Burr's resignation, using it to accuse him of abdicating his responsibility on the issue.
Burr insisted he was smoothing the way.
"There's one candidate in this race who's been working on the buyout, and there's one candidate who talks about it a lot but is not in a position to do anything," says Burr spokesman Doug Heye. "Anyone who says Richard hasn't been working on the buyout hasn't been paying attention."
Burr has stated publicly that he has his own reasons for opposing FDA oversight of tobacco. Having played a large role in retooling the FDA during the 1990s as part of his modernizing health care initiative, Burr believes that the FDA is not the appropriate federal agency to oversee cigarette contents.
"I don't believe the FDA should regulate tobacco products--that's outside their mission statement," Burr said during a June 4 interview in Durham. Instead, he suggested that perhaps the Centers for Disease Control should play that role.
In the past, though, Burr has stated that he opposes any regulation of tobacco. Last June, after U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona supported banning tobacco products during testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Burr serves on, Burr vowed to continue to fight the efforts of "anti-tobacco crusaders."
"For those in the tobacco community who think they can live with 'some additional form of regulation' on tobacco, remember the Surgeon General's comments, and be careful what you ask for," Burr said in a public statement on June 4, 2003 after the hearing. "After all, in certain circles 'regulate' actually means 'ban.' Never forget that some in Washington have fought--and will continue to fight--to 'regulate' tobacco right out of existence."
All along, Burr vowed to vote for any buyout bill that made it to the House floor without FDA regulations attached--a promise that rang hollow to North Carolina farmers who thought he should be pushing one to fruition on their behalf, rather than waiting for it to arrive on his desk.
"Burr said he would support it if it ever got to the floor," says Parrish. "Lots of farmers didn't like that, because they felt like he was dancing to the tune of Reynolds."
Then, in May, President Bush stepped into the debate. Asked about the issue during a campaign stop, a clearly unprepared Bush answered that the quota system was working just fine. Incensed by the comments, farmers began to rally to the Democrats' camp, energized by promises from Bowles, Clinton's White House chief of staff, and presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, who publicly committed to moving the buyout forward during a campaign stop in Kentucky, another big tobacco state.
West, the Wayne County farmer, hosted a meeting at his farm near Fremont on May 22, drawing several hundred farmers and personal appearances by Bowles and U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-Lillington), another buyout supporter.
"Tobacco farmers don't have any money, but we vote," says West, who calls Burr "all talk and no do" on the buyout. "I believe Mr. Burr is being directed by a tobacco company that does not want this buyout to come with FDA regulations, so he's done his best to get it done without the FDA regulations."
With several key Republican representatives and senators in tight races in tobacco states, the party leadership scrambled to repair the damage Bush's comments wreaked and show they were making some progress. On June 4, a plan without FDA oversight began to gather steam.
On a local tour of homelessness prevention programs that day, Burr was quick to celebrate the news as it came over his Blackberry in the basement of a Durham church at lunchtime.
"Here's an e-mail from Wolf Blitzer--he wanted me at noon," Burr said with a grin, noting that he'd had 15 electronic messages in the last five minutes, all of them on the same topic.
Two weeks later, the proposal passed a House vote attached to an unrelated corporate tax breaks bill, a campaign-season move clearly aimed at shoring up Southern Republicans by winning back farmers' confidence. Instead, it raised some ire across the aisle.
"It's infuriating that tobacco farmers struggling to make a living were held for ransom," said U.S. Rep. Brad Miller (D-Raleigh). "I hope tobacco farmers know the difference between the folks up here who really cared about them, and the folks who just saw them as bargaining chips."
The buyout plan is still pending. Farmers and health advocates who have lobbied legislators for years say it has almost zero chance of approval in the Senate without the FDA component.
The structure of the current proposal is also beginning to draw public criticism.
A June 25 editorial in The Washington Post called the pending bill a "disaster... paid for out of the public till and without any public health benefit." This version of the buyout "would not even protect the struggling small tobacco farmers in whose name it is being pushed," the Post argued. The paper cited an analysis by the Environmental Working Group that showed 67 percent of the $9.6 billion price tag would go to less than 10 percent of the farmers, at an average of $144,414 a year over five years, while the bottom 80 percent would average just $1,000 a year.
A battle over uranium
While Burr has been accused of delaying the tobacco buyout, he has shown remarkable efficacy in moving another piece of legislation through Congress--one that supports the interests of the nuclear medical industry while raising national security concerns.
The Burr-Bond Amendment, co-sponsored by Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond, seeks to overturn a 1992 law that limited the availability and exportation of high-enriched uranium, a radioactive substance that can be used to make nuclear bombs. That law, sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), imposed restrictions on companies that make and sell medical isotopes, which are used predominantly in diagnostics and in treatments for diseases such as cancer. To obtain high-enriched uranium that serves as their raw material, the companies have to prove they are moving toward converting their factories to eventually substitute low-enriched uranium--which works just as well for medical applications but not at all for making bombs.
The aim of the 1992 law was to reduce the amount of the dangerous substance being circulated within the United States and exported abroad.
"Under the current law, these companies have two choices: they have to convert, which costs money, or they have to stop producing medical isotopes," says Alan Kuperman, a senior policy analyst at the Nuclear Control Institute and a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University. "Or, I suppose, choice number three is: change the law."
Industry leaders, complaining about the impact of the conversion on their profit margins and hinting that supply to needy patients might be interrupted, have chosen the latter. Ottawa-based MDS Nordion and Mallinckrodt Inc., headquartered in Sen. Bond's home territory of St. Louis, Mo., together account for about 60 percent of the global supply of medical isotopes. The two companies joined forces with medical providers and hospitals and several industry trade groups, including the Council on Radionuclides and Radiopharmaceuticals, which is represented on Capitol Hill by The Alpine Group, a lobbying firm.
The two companies and related industry trade groups and PACs have flooded their supporters with individual and soft-money campaign contributions and organized a front group of industry officials. They also rallied doctors and administrators at local hospitals--including Burr's hometown medical center at Wake Forest University, where employees have contributed more than $30,000 to his campaign since 1997--in a corporate-driven simulation of grassroots organizing, known as "Astroturf" lobbying.
Mallinckrodt's PAC has given Burr $4,500 since 1998, and Alpine Group principals have given him nearly $10,000 since 2000, according to campaign records.
In general, the nuclear energy industry and various health-related fields are two of Burr's most lucrative support centers. In its 2003 report "Hot Waste, Cold Cash," Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program ranked Burr seventh among current House members receiving nuclear energy PAC money, with a total of $66,500 in the last election cycle. In 2001 and 2002, Burr was treated to trips to France and Spain by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade organization. (See "Traveling On the Company Dime," Page 26.) Health care providers fall first on Burr's overall list of donors, while pharmaceutical and health products manufacturers come in fourth--together accounting for nearly $400,000 in his current campaign alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics database.
In the case of relaxing the rules about bomb-grade uranium, the industry's agenda--and Burr's willingness to champion it--have met with some high-profile opposition. Schumer has threatened a filibuster in the Senate, while civilian opponents have written Congress and published passionate op-ed arguments citing potential terrorist activity in the post-Sept. 11 world and labeling the provision an obvious industry pleaser.
Kuperman, of the Nuclear Control Institute, last spring attended a meeting with Senate staffers to discuss the proposal. He was the only non-industry representative in the room.
"I watched it happen in real time, and it was a well-orchestrated effort," he says. "At the last minute, Schumer got wind of the meeting and sent me; I was like the skunk at the picnic. It was so brazen. I said to them, 'It's so obvious that you are putting your bottom line ahead of national security.'"
Burr's spokesman Heye says the Burr-Bond amendment is "something the health care community really wanted, for a product that's being used for cancer treatments."
But critics of the plan include two former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chiefs, prominent scientists and professors at Harvard and MIT, members of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
"Contrary to its stated intent, the Burr Amendment would do nothing to ensure the supply of medical isotopes to the United States because that supply is not currently endangered," the group wrote last summer to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M), the chair of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "Rather than ensuring the supply of medical isotopes, the main effect of the Burr and Bond amendments would be to perpetuate dangerous commerce in bomb-grade uranium and increase the risk that this material will find its way into terrorist hands."
The proposal passed the House as part of a sweeping energy bill and now heads to the Senate, where it may find favor.
"They're very close to being successful," Kuperman says. "It's amazing the amount of power the nuclear industry can have when they get two legislators willing to carry their water for them."
Taking it to the airwaves At the beginning of June, with a long five months to go before the November election and Bowles ahead by double-digit leads in the polls, the special interests that have supported Burr for a decade in the House showed they plan to help him move up to the Senate this fall.
A group called Americans for Job Security launched a $600,000 ad campaign on Triangle and Charlotte television stations, praising the Republican's commitment to his constituents while flashing feel-good video of the casuallydressed congressman shaking a lot of hands.
Critics say this is yet another example of how Burr benefits from the existing political system.
"Money plays a critical role in big Senate races, particularly this one," says Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "It's going to attract a lot of money from out of state and from special interest groups, and Burr's in a good position to say, 'Well, I can't tell them what to do, I'm not associated with them in any way.'"
Bowles objected to the ads the day they debuted, asking Burr to join him in a pledge to "send a clear signal to the special interests: stay out of this election."
Bowles' letter launched a volley of negotiations. Burr's campaign responded by equating the third-party funds with Bowles' personal fortune, a questionable comparison, given the issue at hand was outside influence on the race. Burr's spokesman also pointed out that the Bowles campaign didn't complain when a group called Campaign for America's Future ran negative ads about Bowles' opponent--and current Burr campaign chairwoman--Elizabeth Dole in 2002.
Nonetheless, Burr agreed to the pledge, on one condition: that Bowles--who spent $7 million of his own money two years ago--would promise not to tap into his personal bank account. Bowles acquiesced, with one exception: that it was fair game to spend up to $600,000 of his own money, since the Americans for Job Security ads were already airing. Burr said no deal, and the talks fell apart.
Americans for Job Security can probably afford to buy a lot of influential airtime on Burr's behalf. A conservative group founded by the insurance industry's largest trade organization, the American Insurance Association, AJS has been active in federal races since 1998, spending nearly $12 million in select races during the last presidential cycle in 2000. With close ties to the current president and his father, as well as other key GOP leaders, the group has earned a reputation for anti-Democrat attack ads, including slamming Sen. John Edwards in billboard and newspaper ads during his presidential run. Because it is a so-called "issue group" rather than a political action committee, AJS is not required under campaign finance laws to disclose its donors or its expenses, though various media have reported it was initially seeded with $1 million from the insurance association, took in another $2 million from that group and the American Forest and Paper Association in 2000, and has received financial support from pharmaceutical companies--all corporate interests that have contributed to Burr and received his support in Congress. In the insurance field, Burr's critics point to specific industry-friendly votes such as his support for last year's Class Action Fairness Act, a bill the AIA sought for more than four years. The bill, according to The Washington Post, increases the obstacles for plaintiffs in class action lawsuits.
Back at home in Forsyth County, though, it's a lot harder for some of Burr's constituents to garner his support. Leaders of the Winston-Salem chapter of the Sierra Club, a public interest environmental group, have met with Burr many times over his congressional tenure, says Ed Engle, the group's conservation co-chairman. While the congressman is always polite and even empathetic, Engle says, he never changes his mind. Asking their representative to act on local and national environmental concerns such as road-building in the Smoky Mountains National Park near Fontana Lake in Bryson City, N.C., and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has been "futile," Engle says.
"There's always a sense that we're spinning our wheels," Engle says. "Burr has been against us every time, and we haven't been able to educate him at all."
Out among his larger audience of potential constituents across the state, Burr doesn't hesitate to say that "campaigns cost too much and have too much outside influence." But he doesn't talk about his pro-industry votes. Instead, in 39 towns over eight days in a February kickoff tour, Burr preached his campaign themes of "integrity, security and jobs."
In the Best Foods Cafeteria in Siler City, he addressed a faithful crowd of 17 mostly elderly supporters sipping sweet tea with lemon among the plastic flower arrangements in a back room.
He talked about his long marriage to wife Brooke, a real estate broker, and their two boys, who provide his favorite hobby--watching high school sports. In a stump speech he would give again two hours later on the Durham courthouse steps, Burr asserted that the war in Iraq has made Americans safer and it doesn't matter that President Bush didn't find weapons of mass destruction because the war on terror is much bigger than that. He quoted Ronald Reagan's appeal to "trust your values."
"Integrity is going to be a big issue in this election," Burr said. "As a North Carolina senator, you have an obligation to represent North Carolina in a moral and ethical way. As we get closer and closer to November, I believe candidates will be increasingly judged on that basis."
Burr's No. 1--and 2, 3, 4 and 5
Among the 434 current members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Richard Burr ranks in the top five for the most dollars received from each of numerous influential industries on Capitol Hill. Thirty-four industries--either industry-related PACs or individuals making their living from that field--have given Burr enough money this campaign cycle to make him their first, second, third, fourth or fifth most popular House recipient, as of April 26, 2004. Here's a breakdown of Burr's rankings, along with total dollars he received from each industry during the 2004 cycle.
Burr's top 20 contributors
Traveling on the company dime
|June 30-July 4, 2002||$8,624||Barcelona and Seville, Spain||Nuclear Energy Institute|
|April 6-8, 2002||$3,415||Las Vegas||National Association of Broadcasters|
|March 8-10, 2002||$2,469||Augusta, Ga.||Corning, Inc.|
|June 29-July 6, 2001||$10,410||Marseilles and Paris, France||Nuclear Energy Institute|
|Feb. 24-26, 2000||$577||Amelia Island, Fla.||Outdoor Power Equipment Dist. Assn.|
|May 28-29, 2000||$1,047||White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.||Universal Corp., Tobacco Assn. of U.S.|
|Jan. 5, 2000||$819||Wilmington, N.C.||Corning, Inc.|
|March 22, 1999||$850||Richmond, Va.||Wachovia Bank|
|Aug. 14-21, 1999||$9,229||Sweden||The Ripon Educational Fund|
|Oct. 29-31, 1999||$1,688||Augusta, Ga.||Corning, Inc.|
|Dec. 17-23, 1999||$16,270||Paris, France||Instinct/Time Warner|
|Jan. 8-14, 1998||$1,682||Las Vegas||Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Assn.|
|June 4, 1998||$743||Charlotte||Carolina's 2000|
|Oct. 21, 1998||$4,723||Asheville, N.C.||BellSouth|
|Nov. 7-14, 1998||$12,000||Madrid, Spain||The Ripon Educational Fund|
|Feb. 13-16, 1997||$2,719||Scottsdale, Ariz.||Tobacco Institute|
|Feb. 24, 1997||$632||Austin||College of Pharmacy, University of Texas|
|Aug. 9-16, 1997||$4,802||Prague, Czech Republic||The Ripon Educational Fund|