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Finance reformer has huge war chest

Meehan leads US House with campaign funds

WASHINGTON -- Representative Martin T. Meehan has gained national exposure in recent years as a champion of efforts to reduce the influence of money in politics. Now, the Lowell Democrat is poised to achieve a new distinction: He is days away from becoming the only House member in the nation with a campaign war chest that tops $5 million, with an eye on a possible run for the Senate.

At the end of 2005, Meehan's campaign reported having $4.97 million on hand -- some $2 million more than any of the other 434 House members, and $2.7 million more than any of the nine other representatives from Massachusetts. A pair of fund-raisers Meehan hosts Saturday in his Merrimack Valley district should bring in enough to push Meehan's campaign account past $5 million.

The representative, now serving his seventh term, raised the bulk of his money during the 2003-2004 election cycle, in anticipation of a Senate run had Senator John F. Kerry won the presidency. Most of Meehan's cash has come from smaller donations in his home state -- he boasts that he won't take donations from political action committees -- and he has accepted contributions from more than 8,000 individuals during his 13 years in Congress, rather than a handful of corporations or wealthy donors seeking influence.

Nevertheless, that a representative who has been at the vanguard of campaign finance reform has the largest campaign bank account in the House speaks to the huge advantages of incumbency, said Celia Wexler, vice president for advocacy at Common Cause, a government watchdog group.

''It doesn't matter that it's Marty Meehan; what it says is that the system is broken," Wexler said. ''Members of Congress really are like little hamsters on this wheel, trying to raise all this money. In almost every [election], the guy with more money wins. This is a real problem. Voters need choice."

Last year alone, Meehan added $508,000 in donations to his campaign account, according to federal reports -- adding to a formidable campaign fund that so far has intimidated any serious challenges to his reelection this year. With ready money and political security, Meehan is well-positioned for a Senate bid in 2008 or whenever the next Senate vacancy occurs.

''There's no other reason to be raising that kind of money in a safe congressional district," said Dan Payne, a Democratic political consultant in Boston.

Meehan, 49, said he agrees that elections have become too expensive, but notes that his colleagues on Capitol Hill have shown no appetite to embrace a system that would replace big-money politics with publicly financed campaigns. Until the system changes, he said, there's no choice but to aggressively raise money to stay in Washington. He would almost certainly have to raise millions more to run for the Senate.

''Passing landmark campaign-finance legislation does not mean you raise the white flag and give up seeking higher office," Meehan said. ''The intent was never to reduce the overall amount of money being spent, but to get people to run for office with smaller contributions."

Meehan was one of the chief sponsors of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, which became law in 2002 after years of wrangling. The law banned unregulated, unlimited donations to political parties -- so-called ''soft money" -- and doubled the limit on individual campaign donations to $2,000 to increase candidates' ability to raise money from individuals instead of companies and political action committees. The cap rises with inflation every two years.

He raised a total of $3.2 million in 2003 and 2004, by far the most Meehan has taken in during any two-year election cycle, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In that same time frame, several of Meehan's would-be rivals for a Senate vacancy also stepped up their fund-raising: Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden, brought in $2.8 million, and Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Newton, raised $1.3 million.

Big campaign accounts can be used to fund expensive advertising campaigns and to pay staff who can help build grass-roots support. Meehan's deep coffers would make it difficult for most challengers to match his spending.

Tom Tierney, a Framingham actuary who sought to take on Meehan in each of the past three elections -- first as a Democrat and then as a Republican -- said Friday that he won't try another run. He figures it would take at least $2 million to make it a competitive race.

''I'll attempt anything but the futile," Tierney said.

Because he pledged to serve only four terms, Meehan faced harsh criticism in 1999, when he decided to run for a fifth. But local Republicans have all but ceded the Fifth Congressional District seat to Meehan for as long as he chooses.

''Marty has achieved escape velocity -- he can now go to other planets," said Clifford Krieger, former chairman of the Lowell Republican City Committee. ''There's nobody out there who can take him on and win."

Meehan said he slowed his fund-raising pace when Kerry returned to the Senate after President Bush defeated him in 2004. Now, Meehan said, his fund-raising is primarily through a series of annual events, including $30-a-plate St. Patrick's Day events he's hosting in Dracut and Haverhill on Saturday. Some 1,100 people are expected.

''It's a good way to stay in touch with your district," he said.

Meehan's campaign fund is particularly unusual for a representative who is neither a party leader nor part of the majority party. The House's second-largest war chest belongs to Representative David Dreier, a California Republican -- one of the most powerful members of leadership as chairman of the Rules Committee -- with slightly more than $3 million. Representative Mark Kennedy, a Minnesota Republican, is in third place; he plans to put his $2.7 million toward his race for an open Senate seat this year.

Though Meehan has considered running for governor in the past, a 1998 state law would bar him from using his federal campaign account to do so. Meanwhile, a Senate campaign in Massachusetts with a crowded primary field could cost between $15 million and $20 million, according to political observers. By contrast, Meehan has never spent as much as $1 million in any two-year campaign cycle.

Still, to some who back Meehan's efforts to control campaign spending, Meehan's campaign account is surprising. Doris ''Granny D" Haddock, the 96-year-old New Hampshire woman who walked across the country in support of campaign-finance reform, said the money cries out for further explanation.

''It's ridiculous that one man should have that much money when it could be much better used for other things," said Haddock, who ran unsuccessfully against Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, in 2004. ''To me, it looks as if things are out of control."

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