An Endowed Chair

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But what about more than $100,000 from US West employees and PACs?

Opinsky says the campaign pays no attention to a contributor's employer.

"The contributions are made from individuals. . . . There are no corporate contributions, they are only from individuals and they are according to the law," he says.

"What you're trying to do," Opinsky continues, "is compare soft money donations to donations made by individuals who all belong to a similar corporation. And I don't really see that there's a comparison. I mean, if a company wants to make a soft money donation, they should go ahead and make a soft money donation."

But then they couldn't donate to John McCain.

Without a confession from a politician, it would be all but impossible to prove that any particular campaign contribution influenced a public policy decision. But there are instances where McCain has taken actions that affected donors. Sometimes, the donor lost. Sometimes not.

McCain did not respond to an interview request made through Opinsky, but he was recently quoted in Business Week: "I'm influenced by the big donor who has access to my office," he says. "I know I'm influenced by people having access to me when average citizens do not."


Last month, the public interest group Common Cause released a report linking Congress' decision to gut the so-called Airline Passenger Bill of Rights with soft-money campaign contributions from major airlines.

"The reason for this timidity in Washington?" the report asked. "Because when it comes to influencing Congress with campaign cash, the airlines are always on time. At the same time the airline industry has vigorously fought recent congressional efforts to establish airline passenger rights, its political giving has taken off."

Common Cause's study revealed that during the first six months of 1999, airlines contributed almost $1 million in soft money to political parties.

No mention is made in the report of the man largely responsible for gutting the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, whose panel oversees the Federal Aviation Administration.

That is because McCain does not accept soft money. But McCain does take hard money, and the airlines are on time with that, too. New Times' analysis reveals that McCain has received at least $83,900 from major airline employees and their PACs. Add in all aviation-related industry and the number jumps to at least $182,000.

Did money buy influence in this case?

Paul Hudson, of the Aviation Consumer Action Project in Washington, D.C., says his group and other consumer advocates -- who are not among McCain's donors -- were not invited to the negotiations that led to the compromise between Congress and the airlines. Instead, Hudson watched, incredulous, as McCain announced the decision in June at a joint press conference with airline industry officials.

Hudson calls the deal a "giveaway," and says that the legislation -- which he says would have addressed perhaps 10 percent of the complaints airline customers commonly lodge -- was gutted and replaced with a study committee.

Mark Buse, staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee, sees the matter differently.

"Senator McCain has from the very beginning stated that he thinks it's better for industry to voluntarily do these sorts of plans . . . as opposed to government-imposed mandates. But if they don't do it, then he is prepared to pass out a bill," Buse says.

Of course, if and when that happens, McCain will probably not be raising money for a presidential bid.

McCain has been unabashed in his attempts to win a much-sought-after prize for America West Airlines, which is headquartered in Arizona. For years, McCain has fought to increase the number of slots at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. -- a move that would all but guarantee America West the opportunity to fly nonstop from Phoenix, instead of stopping in the Midwest. District interests strongly opposed the move, and the argument became so heated that McCain had to vow he would never personally take one of the nonstop flights.

Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University, says he doesn't care if there are more slots at National Airport. His real concern is that McCain's push on behalf of America West held up legislation that Jenkins believes is infinitely more important.

"What is really kind of irritating . . . is the fact that for two years now, the current Congress has not reauthorized FAA. They've let regional, parochial issues like this hold up important issues like improving air-traffic control, which is of concern to an awful lot of people. It's to the point now where our air-traffic system is so outdated, so overpumped that in a couple years it could become a safety issue. So I wish these people would get off these things and get onto some real, serious aviation issues, and I don't see that happening."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.