Hundreds of thousands of dollars that will ultimately end up funding state, federal and local campaigns for Texas Democrats this year will first churn through a nondescript row house on Capitol Hill.
It’s the headquarters for a tight network of organizations dedicated to electing Democrats in the Lone Star State.
At the center of the operation is Matt Angle, the former chief of staff for ex-Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, who can reach into the checkbook of an organization he runs and make a donation to another organization he runs, pay rent to himself as a landlord, hire himself as a consultant, and employ a handful of friends, party activists and longtime Frost allies.
The various organizations Angle runs take in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from a handful of Texas Democratic activists and organizations. The money is redistributed to local Democratic campaigns and other party organizations, some of which Angle also runs or works for.
Angle’s roster of donors and consultants is packed with employees of the Texas Democratic Party and affiliated organizations.
And it appears that all of it is perfectly legal.
“The Texas Democratic Trust was formed to rebuild the Democratic infrastructure in Texas,” Angle said. “It operates entirely within the law doing exactly what it set out to do.”
What the Texas Democratic Trust and Angle’s other organizations — the Lone Star Fund, the Lone Star Project and the Texas Justice Fund — set out to do is reverse the mid-decade redistricting led by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, which forced several long-tenured House Democrats out of office.
Frost was one of the primary casualties of the redistricting; he lost his re-election bid in a new district in 2004, when he was forced to run against incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions (R).
Angle’s organizations are focused on re-establishing a Democratic majority in the state House, where Texas Republicans now have a 77-73 majority.
Controlling the House would give that party a stronger hand in the redistricting that will occur after the 2010 Census, in which Texas is likely to gain seats in Congress.
What is interesting about the Democratic effort is not its goals or tactics, but the degree to which the financing behind the effort tends to recycle through a small network of organizations and individuals.
For example: According to state and federal campaign records, the Lone Star Fund (Treasurer Matt Angle) pays rent to E St. Properties for use of the Capitol Hill row house (owned by Matt Angle), pays Angle & Associates Inc. for consulting services (about $100,000 between 2004 and 2007) and has donated about $20,000 to the Texas Democratic Trust (Treasurer Matt Angle).
The Texas Democratic Trust since 2005 has paid Angle & Associates more than $1.2 million for consulting services, travel reimbursements and rent, and it pays retainers as much as $7,000 a month to a variety of political consultants and researchers who also work for the Texas Democratic Party, the Lone Star Trust or other affiliated organizations.
The trust also is a major supporter of the Texas Democratic Party. As of last June, the trust had donated more than $3.7 million to the Democratic Party and another $800,000 to the Democratic research and organizing entity Texas Progress Council.
The Texas Democratic Trust initially was funded by trial lawyer Fred Baron and other wealthy individuals. Baron — who was finance chairman for the presidential campaign of former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and admitted giving money to Edwards’ mistress to leave North Carolina — died in late 2008, but his widow and other trial lawyers have continued to fund the organization and the Lone Star Fund. The Lone Star Fund also has received large donations from several union political action committees, including the United Auto Workers, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Angle said there is no bar on his various organizations accepting money from labor PACs or donating money to other political organizations.
“The Texas Democratic Trust was formed as a state PAC for the very reason that under state law it can make contributions to state parties, to candidates and to other PACs,” he said. “It’s all there — we file reports every month, and so you can see pretty clearly where we get our money and how we spend it.”
Both the Democratic trust and the Lone Star Fund spend significant amounts on political consultants, many of whom have long histories with Angle and Frost.
For instance, since 2007, the Texas Democratic Trust has paid about $200,000 to the Turner Group for political consulting. The Turner Group is Lisa Turner, who worked with Angle in Frost’s office, and who is married to Chris Turner, a former staffer for Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, who is now a member of the Texas House. The Lone Star Fund made about $6,000 in cash and in-kind donations to Chris Turner’s campaign in 2008 and 2009.
Among the paid consultants Angle has hired is Aimee Boone, who also served as the finance director of the Texas Democratic Party and is a major donor to the Texas Democratic Trust. Since 2007, Boone, whose family founded the Container Store, has personally donated $350,000 to the trust, according to state finance records, and her family members donated about $410,000 through last June. State campaign reports for the last half of 2009 are due at the end of the week.
Boone now serves as the finance director for the Texas Democratic Trust.
“Aimee Boone is one of the most capable political operatives in the entire country,” Angle said. “She also happens to come from a lot of personal resources — does that mean that we shouldn’t hire her? Because she’s good — she’s outstanding. If she wasn’t somebody who had some personal wealth, she would still be hired in politics at a high level.”
Boone said she no longer works for the Democratic Party, and the party and the Democratic trust have clear, separate missions, but she donates to both because she believes in them.
“I believe in putting my money where my mouth is,” Boone said. Everybody at the trust volunteers for campaigns and donates to candidates, but “I am just able to write bigger checks,” she said. “The fact that I also work for the trust doesn’t make me want to support the trust any less.”
Boone said the trust is careful about rules prohibiting it from coordinating efforts with the state party on any particular campaign, though the trust does have a paid consultant who is also listed as a deputy political director of the state party and another who has worked as a consultant for the state party for a decade.
Two of Angle’s organizations, the Lone Star Fund and the Texas Justice Fund, also are listed as clients of a consulting firm run by Angle’s bother, J.D. Angle.
Matt Angle said it should come as no surprise that he hires consultants whom he has worked with in the past.
“It makes sense to use the most capable and most skillful people in the state,” he said. “Would it make sense to hire people you don’t know or that you don’t know have done a good job? There’s nothing unusual about that at all.”
Angle also argued that the ties to Frost are overblown. “Over the last 10 or 15 years, the most active and capable person doing political work in Texas was Martin Frost,” so many Democratic activists in the state worked for Frost at some point. In a prior generation, Angle said, most Democratic activists would have had some kind of tie to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas).
Frost is not active in any of the organizations, Angle said.