The Versatile Bill Thomas: Mentor, Fundraiser, Party Man

Posted May 16, 2003 at 6:24pm

In recent weeks, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) has been a ubiquitous figure in the news as the author of the $550 billion tax-cut bill that the House passed. Soon, he will be back in the papers as one of the lead architects of a sweeping Medicare reform measure.

Thomas the policy wonk is a well-known, sometimes feared public presence on the Hill. But in the Golden State and on the fundraising circuit, the 13-term House Member more quietly plays another role — the political junkie.

In the two and a half years since he captured the Ways and Means gavel, Thomas has put his fundraising into overdrive and has nearly doubled his contributions to his fellow GOP candidates. At the same time, the Bakersfield lawmaker has strengthened an already formidable California political operation, helping former aides win elected office while actively influencing the state Republican Party.

Those close to Thomas say he doesn’t just dabble in both policy and politics; he actually seems to enjoy the two sides of being a Member.

“I just think he likes both,” said a lobbyist who knows Thomas well, “and you can’t do one without the other.”

The Fundraiser

While he is knowledgeable about the mechanics of campaigning and has plenty of friends in high places, the largest source of Thomas’ political influence is his ability to rake in cash.

In the previous cycle, Thomas’ re-election committee raised a total of $1.2 million. According to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, $275,000 of that came from health care industry PACs and another $180,000 came from the finance and insurance industries.

Also during the 2002 cycle, Thomas’ political action committee, the Congressional Majority Committee, handed out $361,000 to Republican candidates, nearly double the $185,000 he doled out in the 2000 cycle.

The biggest beneficiary of Thomas’ largess was the National Republican Congressional Committee. All told, Thomas gave about $1 million to the NRCC in the 2002 cycle, putting him in the top tier of donors.

“Bill Thomas each and every year has helped [Republican] Members and has brought to bear huge resources to help win campaigns,” said NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.).

Thomas’ activity stands in contrast to that of his predecessor as Ways and Means Chairman, ex-Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas), who was not known as a champion fundraiser.

While his tallies have grown more impressive since he won the gavel, Thomas hasn’t changed his longtime practice of allowing trusted underlings to do the bulk of the fundraising work. Former aides said the lawmaker rarely picks up the phone himself to solicit contributions; unlike some Members, Thomas is not known for running over to the NRCC at lunch to dial for dollars. But when his presence at an event is required, Thomas is ready to go at a moment’s notice.

“I would see him fly back from D.C., get off the plane at night, go to an event and come back at 6 a.m.” to return to Washington, said California state Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy (R), a former Thomas aide.

Thomas’ long donor list has paid dividends for his allies. Rep. Devin Nunes (R), a 29-year-old Thomas protege who won California’s new 21st district last year, has been particularly fortunate.

One Republican strategist recalled attending a Thomas-hosted fundraiser for Nunes in Washington after Election Day and marvelling at the number of health care, trade and finance industry lobbyists who had turned out for a freshman who was at least a few years away from a shot at a Ways and Means seat.

“There’s no question they were there to see Thomas,” said the strategist.

The Mentor

Nunes is perhaps the best-known of several former Thomas aides whom the chairman has helped guide into power.

“The results of [Thomas’] activities certainly have manifested themselves in the last couple years, Devin Nunes being the most dramatic example,” said a California Republican.

Nunes, a dairy farmer and former Department of Agriculture official, previously served as Thomas’ campaign chairman in Tulare County and was also the lawmaker’s delegate to the state Republican Party.

Initially, Nunes looked to be an underdog in the 21st district Republican primary, as he faced two better-known candidates — state Assemblyman Mike Briggs and former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson.

But with Thomas’ help — he was vocal in his support and co-hosted two fundraising events during the primary — Nunes was able to out-raise his two opponents by a wide margin and eke out a primary victory.

Thomas certainly wasn’t the only House Member or prominent Republican who helped Nunes to victory. But GOP observers said the Ways and Means chairman’s early support clearly gave Nunes’ candidacy an invaluable boost and made him appear viable to the Washington and California donor communities.

“When he puts his endorsement behind someone, it means he’s going to work to help you win,” said Nunes.

Thomas had a hand in more than one California House race last year. He was also one of a handful of people who convinced Carpinteria businesswoman Beth Rogers (R) to challenge Rep. Lois Capps (D) in the 23rd district. Former Thomas aide Bob Tapella managed Rogers’ unsuccessful campaign.

Washington isn’t the only capital that boasts a Thomas apprentice. The lawmaker was instrumental in helping McCarthy navigate another tough Republican primary to win an Assembly seat, and the state lawmaker is now regarded as a potential future leader in Sacramento.

Both Nunes and McCarthy were seen as hard workers who just needed an extra boost of support to put them over the top.

“Thomas does not just endorse anybody — you have to earn it,” said McCarthy. “He

doesn’t just endorse somebody because you’re his friend.”

The Party Man

Beyond boosting individual candidates, Thomas has also played a key behind-the-scenes role in the state Republican Party for several years. Thomas was an early backer of new state party Chairman Duf Sundheim, who defeated the more conservative Bill Back for the post in February. Thomas was also a key supporter of the state party reforms pushed by financier Gerald Parsky, President Bush’s top ally in California.

The lawmaker has been particularly active on the redistricting front, pushing for Republicans to get the best possible deal they could out of the most recent round of reapportionment. In 1999, Thomas lashed out at then-Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson for not supporting a Thomas-backed plan to have the state Supreme Court handle California redistricting.

Now, Nunes is pushing a proposed ballot initiative that would set some guidelines for how the state Legislature should handle future rounds of redistricting.

Nunes is being aided in that effort by Mark Abernathy, a Bakersfield-based GOP consultant who is perhaps Thomas’ closest ally in the state. Along with Ted Costa, another Thomas friend, Abernathy is a key player in the effort to recall California Gov. Gray Davis (D).

“There’s a machine of sorts [in Bakersfield] more or less run by Mark Abernathy,” said a California GOP official.

Abernathy is married to Cathy Abernathy, a longtime Thomas chief of staff who has also done consulting work for the NRCC. The Abernathys help to serve as Thomas’ eyes and ears in his district and also aid his efforts to promote centrist Republican candidates and issues.

“Once you become part of the family, they’re very loyal and they do anything they can to help people,” said a moderate California Republican strategist.

Thomas’ influence has also been felt at the Young Republican National Federation and its state chapter, the California Young Republicans.

Before winning his state Assembly seat, McCarthy served as YRNF chairman from 1999-2001. The current co-chairman of the group is Michael Mack, another former Thomas aide.

Thomas’ support for and from Young Republican groups has even affected his activities in the House. When the Californian was locked in a tough Ways and Means chairmanship race with Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) in 2000, the California Young Republicans posted an “action item” on their Web site touting Thomas’ candidacy. That prompted the Young Republican Federation of California, a more conservative group that splintered acrimoniously from CYR, to send a letter to House Republican leaders backing Crane and blaming Thomas for “discord” within the state GOP.

Despite all of his activity, Thomas has rarely sought the spotlight for his political work. As with his fundraising, he usually prefers to use intermediaries to achieve his goals.

“Thomas fundamentally believes that he is here to serve and is not consumed by the politics,” said Jason Poblete, a former Thomas aide who now works as a lobbyist at Reed Smith. “He is not out to win a popularity contest but to make things happen — he supports people who will help in that process.”