Big campaign donor says he does it for the 'little people'

The News & Observer Raleigh, NC

Copyright 1997
Sunday, April 27, 1997
News

Big campaign donor says he does it for the 'little people'
BILL KRUEGER
STAFF WRITER

FAYETTEVILLE -- Wade Byrd threw around a lot of money in last year's election.

The Fayetteville lawyer gave $75,000 to the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and another $20,000 to the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He gave thousands of dollars to the state Democratic Party and to candidates such as Gov. Jim Hunt, Attorney General Mike Easley and Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell. He contributed to congressional and Senate races from North Carolina to Wyoming.

Byrd gave so much money, in fact, that he lost count before the year was over.

"I know it was a lot of money," he says.

It was about $150,000, according to state and federal campaign finance records. That easily put him in the big leagues of North Carolina's political contributors.

"I want to be a player," Byrd says. "I want to be involved. I want to be part of the process."

Byrd is a player in the soft money game, the unregulated flow of money to party committees to help individual candidates.

He gave $20,000, for example, to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to help former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt in his race against U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Under federal law, people cannot give more than $2,000 directly to an individual candidate.

"That's the way Harvey wanted it rather than it going directly to Harvey," Byrd says.

A native of Fayetteville, Byrd is one of the leading medical malpractice lawyers in the country. Working out of a restored Victorian house in the shadow of the Cumberland County Courthouse, Byrd clearly wins more than he loses.

That's why he was in a position to contribute thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and committees last year.

Byrd, the president of the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers, says his political contributions are merely an extension of what he does in his law practice.

"I represent little people," he says. "My clients are workers and injured people and brain-damaged babies, and those people don't really have a voice. They're not IBM and they're not the phone company and they're not the banks and the chambers of commerce, and they need a voice.

"And so - I can get right evangelistic about this - they need a voice and they need a level playing field."

Byrd says he doesn't like the emphasis on money in American politics, that it tilts the playing field in favor of those who have money. Specifically, Byrd worries that it gives an unfair advantage to big business and insurance companies, groups that Byrd says would like to limit people's access to the courts and "just erode the
fundamental right to a jury trial."

"Those are things that are very sacred to me, and I go nuts," he says.

So he gives money in an effort to elect candidates - mostly Democrats - who share his beliefs. The money also ensures that the same doors that are open to big business lobbyists are open to him.

"If your question is do I believe I'm buying access, the answer is no," he says. "If the question is do I expect my voice to be heard among the voices they hear, the answer is yes."

What, Byrd is asked, is the difference?

"One is a bad thing," he says, "the other is a good thing."

Byrd says there is nothing scientific about how he decides where to spend his money. Now that he is known as a major contributor, Byrd says, candidates call all the time asking for money. U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called several times.

"Once your name's out there, you're dead meat," Byrd says.

Byrd says he tries to help where he can. He contributed $1,000 to a Senate candidate in Wyoming because he got a call from someone at the American Trial Lawyers Association saying the candidate needed help.

Byrd gave another $75,000 in soft money to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Byrd had planned to give that money to President Clinton's re-election campaign, through the Democratic National Committee. But Terry McAuliffe, one of Clinton's top fund-raisers, urged Byrd to give it to the congressional committee instead.

At the time Clinton seemed assured of a victory and he wanted to make sure Democrats got elected to Congress, Byrd said.

"I said if that's what the president wants, that's what I'll do. I thought it was smart on his part. His folks knew that I was trying to help the president."

Byrd has heard all the talk about campaign finance reform, but he remains skeptical.

"If there remain ways to circumvent it, then why not just leave it alone," he says. "If all you're trying to sell is the appearance of reform to the public, then why not just have the guts to say that. Unless we can overhaul it completely, this tinkering is not doing any good."

Whether or not he likes the system, Byrd intends to continue to be a player as long as he can afford it.

"I can sit back and bitch about what's wrong with the system or I can try to be a part," he says. "I just elected to try to be a part."