Smoke and Beers

Senator John McCain may have turned his back on tobacco, but alcohol still gets a free ride

He didn't get around to mentioning John McCain by name until five pages into his speech, but it was clear Steven Goldstone came to Phoenix last week to embarrass the United States senator on his home turf.

The CEO of RJR Nabisco certainly didn't come all the way from Ridgefield, Connecticut, to the southwestern edge of middle America--namely, the Valley of the Sun Kiwanis Club's weekly luncheon--for the chewy roast beef or the club president's joke about an old woman's droopy breasts or to talk about Oreos, though Goldstone did mention Nabisco's softer side in an obvious attempt to sweeten the crowd.

Goldstone was all dressed up in a double-breasted suit and Hamptons-esque tan, suffering bad food and worse jokes on behalf of Joe Camel. RJR Nabisco holds a significant hunk of the world's $60 billion tobacco business; the company is the second largest cigarette manufacturer, next to Phillip Morris. John McCain's legislation, which would increase the tax per pack of cigarettes by $1.10, is a significant threat. Goldstone criticized Congress for not listening to tobacco companies on the legislation and challenged elected leaders to outlaw cigarettes, if that's what they really want to do.

Steven Goldstone came to Phoenix on business, part of a multimillion-dollar campaign to lobby the American public directly--since the tobacco industry's multimillion-dollar campaign to lobby politicians like John McCain isn't working so well these days. Over the years, McCain has taken tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from tobacco companies, and has obligingly cast his pro-tobacco votes.

That stopped this year, now that he's gotten religion on smoke and money. The anti-tobacco bill Goldstone and company hate so much is the latest holy tablet McCain has delivered unto the American people. The first, campaign-finance-reform legislation that would curb soft-money contributions from big companies like RJR Nabisco, died earlier this year. (Simply put, "soft money" is a way of dodging campaign contribution limits by giving the money to a political party or committee and letting that entity disburse the money to candidates via "get out the vote" efforts.)

McCain, who wouldn't comment for this story, can afford to stand on the high ground in these cases, because, like Steven Goldstone, he is connected to a multibillion-dollar corporation: Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewing company. In McCain's case, the connection is by marriage, but it's still lucrative.

John McCain's financial interest in Anheuser-Busch goes beyond his father-in-law's distributorship, Hensley and Company. McCain's 1997 financial disclosure reveals that the senator owns more than $1 million in Anheuser-Busch stock. His wife Cindy is listed as an employee of Hensley and Company, with an annual salary listed mysteriously as "more than $1,000"; she also has a company car.

Between 1991 and 1996, McCain received almost $50,000 in contributions from alcohol-related political action committees, including $4,000 from Anheuser-Busch. The company has donated $2,000 to McCain's current reelection campaign. And because of that connection, you can be assured that McCain probably will never take out after the alcohol industry.

The liquor business scored a victory last March when Congress failed to pass standards to toughen drunk-driving laws. The three measures would have:

* Withheld federal highway funds from states that did not set a blood-alcohol limit for drunken driving of .08 percent by 2001.

* Barred sales of alcohol from drive-through liquor stores.
* Banned driving with an open alcoholic-beverage container in the car, even if it was not obvious the drink was being consumed by the driver.

Last week, the Washington, D.C.-based campaign-finance watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics noted that the alcohol industry's win was followed in April by Anheuser Busch's $50,000 contribution to the Republican National Committee. This "soft money" can be used to finance Republican campaigns nationwide--including John McCain's reelection effort--even as McCain continues to preach about the evils of soft-money influences.

McCain didn't stand with the gods on the drunk-driving votes, although, to his credit, he didn't blatantly serve himself, either. He took to the sidelines, abstaining from the three votes.

This all said, it's unlikely that McCain's next populist stand will send alcohol company CEOs out to his home turf to smile through tacky Kiwanis Club luncheons.

Contact Amy Silverman at her online address: asilverman@newtimes.com

 
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