In the 1932 movie "If I Had a Million," comedian W.C. Fields uses $1 million he inherits to buy countless cars to crash into any vehicles that cut him off while driving.
Utahns Patrick and Jack Byrne, the president and chairman of Overstock.com, did a political version of that recently. They combined to spend $1 million on ads designed to help crash John Edwards' vice presidential campaign two years ago.
They did not respond to inquiries about exactly why they did that. But it helped make Patrick Byrne the top individual political donor in the state (giving at least $676,500 since 2003), and make Jack Byrne No. 3 (with $510,800.)
They are among a relative handful of Utahns who supply a huge share of the state's political donations. Politicians have long complained that raising money here is difficult because most residents prefer to give any extra funds available to churches and charities, not politics.
In fact, Patrick Byrne by himself managed to supply about $1 of every $20 given by Utah individuals to candidates or political groups, according to a Deseret Morning News analysis of federal and state campaign disclosure data from 2003 to now.
The Top 10 political donors gave about 21 cents of every $1 raised from individual Utahns. The Top 100 donors gave about 42 cents of every $1 raised meaning those few nearly equaled the total given by all of Utah's other 2.5 million residents combined.
That gives those few big donors extra political influence which some of them acknowledge. It helps their businesses, promotes their personal agendas or even wins elections for friends or family or greases big political appointments.
"Does giving enhance my influence? Politicians always listen to people from whom they want money. That does not necessarily mean they do whatever that donor asks. That is why I insist on knowing their position on this issue (gay rights) before I give them anything," says Bruce Bastian, the state's No. 2 donor.
He was a co-founder of WordPerfect, is an activist on gay rights and gave at least $657,000 politically since 2003.
Patrick and Jack Byrne
The son-and-father Byrnes, Utah's No. 1 and No. 3 individual donors respectively, in 2004 formed a political communication group called Save American Medicine.
They each gave it $500,000. The resulting $1 million purchased ads nationally targeting John Edwards, the running mate of Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry.
Edwards' career as a trial attorney before becoming a U.S. senator was unpopular with many doctors because he won many big malpractice suits. The ads asked viewers to call Edwards to ask him to support tort reform.
Patrick Byrne also gave $2,500 to "Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth," a group that attacked Kerry's Vietnam War record.
But their efforts to derail Kerry and Edwards does not mean the Byrnes dislike all Democrats. In fact, Patrick gave $25,300 to the Utah Democratic Party in 2003, $25,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $1,000 to Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
That helped make Byrne the fifth largest individual Utah donor to Democrats since 2003. But he was also the state's fourth largest individual donor to Republicans. Like many businessmen nationally, he appears to seek friends in both parties.
While the Byrnes did not respond to Deseret Morning News inquiries, an online blog that Patrick writes describes himself as "zig-zag moderate." His blog also says he gave an early $1,000 donation to Kerry (which Federal Election Commission records do not show) but then "changed my mind on Kerry" and gave to groups targeting him.
Big donations attract attention. When Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta looked for places nationally to visit to tout a plan to reduce transportation congestion, he chose Overstock.com. Other big donors such as former ambassador John Price have said that big donations have brought access to Cabinet members and other policymakers.
Bastian, the retired co-founder of WordPerfect and the No. 2 individual donor in the state, said his giving is "based almost exclusively on (candidates' and groups') positions on total equality for all Americans, but specifically for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community."
Bastian gave $364,000 to the Don't Amend Alliance, which fought a same-sex marriage ban amendment to the Utah Constitution in 2004. Bastian supplied about half the money raised by that group, but Amendment 3 passed anyway.
Bastian said he gives so much, in part, to offset influence on gay rights issues in Utah by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"The main political influence in Utah is the LDS Church. They actually do give money and a lot of support inside and outside Utah to anyone and any cause that is aimed at limiting or taking away equal rights for GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) Americans.
"So I guess I am one of the few people in Utah who is in a position to do very much to try to balance the equation," Bastian said.
Roy Simmons family
The family of the late banker Roy Simmons is a political power, if viewed as a group, along with donations by the companies the family controls, its employees and its PACs. That includes Zions Bank and Simmons Media Group.
As a group, the family donated at least $820,000 since 2003. That ranks No. 2 in the state (behind the Byrnes and their Overstock.com) among similar groups (see chart).
David Simmons, a son of Roy and owner of Simmons Media Group, donated the most among individuals in the family $103,500. His group includes 25 radio stations nationally, including such Salt Lake City stations as X-96 Alternative Rock, 103.1 Jack-FM and 101.5 The Eagle.
David's brother, Harris Simmons, chairman of Zions Bank, donated $38,134. Zions Bank President A. Scott Anderson gave $86,864.
Another extended family that is powerful politically is that of Jon Huntsman Sr., the chemical industry billionaire and father of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
The Utah members of the family, their businesses and employees with Utah addresses gave at least a combined $476,000 since 2003.
That does not include the political giving by out-of-state family members and employees. It also does not include the $287,800 that Jon Jr. spent on his 2004 race out of his own pocket.
Interestingly, Jon Sr. and his wife, Karen, gave no money directly to their son's race. But the Huntsman Corp. spent about $65,000 on it, and other members of the extended family spent at least $143,000 to help elect Jon Jr.
While Jon Sr. declined comment for this story, he has said in past years that he aims his money at any politician Democrat or Republican who is willing to help fund fights against cancer. About 60 percent of the money that he and his wife gave went to Republicans and 40 percent to Democrats.
"At this stage of my life, there is only one cause that I care about funding: finding a cure for cancer," Huntsman told the Deseret Morning News in 2002. His money helped create the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Hospital at the University of Utah.
An example of influence from his donations is helping to persuade Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to support embryonic stem-cell research, even though Hatch's conservative allies blasted him for it. Huntsman persuaded him to listen to experts from the Huntsman Institute, who swayed Hatch.
Huntsman's donations brought him amazing access to leaders of both parties. He calls leaders of both national parties friends and even has personal fishing trips with Vice President Dick Cheney.
His donations also did not hurt Jon Jr.'s two appointments as ambassador (once as ambassador to Singapore, once as a top official in the U.S. trade representative's office.) The appointments came despite his youth (the youngest ambassador in a century) and his initial lack of diplomatic experience.
Arthur Lipson, owner of Western Investments, is the state's No. 5 donor with contributions of at least $241,500. His wife, Rochelle Kaplan,
did even more as the state's No. 4 donor with $245,650.
In an e-mail, Lipson said, "Like most people, we give to causes and candidates we wish to support." While he did not elaborate, their money went to Democratic candidates or liberal-leaning political action committees.
Robert B. Lichfield
Robert B. Lichfield is the single largest individual donor to Republicans in Utah, giving at least $212,000 to GOP politicians since 2003. He is also No. 6 on the overall list of individual Utah donors.
He is the owner of Teen Help, which operates sometimes controversial treatment facilities, schools and other programs for troubled teens.
An example of how his donations may bring influence is that in 2004, Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens blocked floor consideration of a bill opposed by Lichfield that would have brought state regulation to his boarding schools for troubled teens.
Six days after the legislative session ended, Lichfield donated $30,000 to Stephens' campaign for governor. (Lichfield, however, donated to several other gubernatorial candidates that year, including Huntsman, Nolan Karras and Jim Hansen.)
Price, No. 8 on the top individual donor list, giving at least $142,000 since 2003, may be the most interesting because he has never been shy about saying that his donations bring influence (although he did not respond to inquiries this year).
Price was one of the nation's largest developers of shopping centers. He said in a 1996 interview about his big political donations, "How would you know about me without those donations? You wouldn't. Others may have a lot of knowledge. But if they don't donate, too, no one's going to counsel with them and no one cares."
He noted that when he called Cabinet members with ideas, they would listen and would visit with him whenever they passed through Utah.
Ian Cumming is No. 19 on the list of individual Utah donors with at least $83,800, while his extended family and businesses are No. 8 as a group with at least $300,777. His political giving is interesting because he technically is no longer a Utahn.
He moved his primary residence to Wyoming in 1998 but still lists Utah addresses on many of his donations. Only these were counted in the current analysis. Cumming for years was the top donor in Utah and continues to support many Democratic candidates and causes in the state.
EnergySolutions, known as Envirocare until its recent sale, is a political player no matter who owns it. That has helped it navigate potential political hurdles to thrive as it operates a low-level nuclear and hazardous waste disposal facility in Tooele County.
Its current president is Steve Creamer. He ranks No. 11 on the list of individual Utah donors, giving at least $127,000. The extended group of Creamer and his employees (since he and other investors bought the company late in 2004) rank No. 13 among the state's groups, giving at least $161,000.
Other key donors
Among other key donors in Utah is the extended family of William Reagan. The family and Reagan Outdoor Advertising gave at least $309,000, ranking No. 7 among such groups in the state. Reagan and his wife, Julia, also ranked Nos. 11 and 13 respectively among individual Utah donors.
Another powerful group is the extended family of Robert L. Marquardt and his Management & Training Corp., which operates private jails and some Job Corps facilities.
As a group, they ranked No. 10 in the state, giving at least $177,000. A daughter, attorney Jane Marquardt, gave the most among family members with at least $76,000.
The extended family of Fred Lampropolous and his Merit Medical ranked No. 11 among groups, giving at least $168,000. That does not count the $1.5 million that Lampropolous spent out of his own pocket on his failed gubernatorial campaign.
The extended family of Richard Rawle and their Check City payday loan stores rank No. 14 among groups, giving more than $150,000. They have annually successfully fought bills seeking more regulation of the payday loan industry.
Gerda Greene, mother of ex-Rep. Enid Greene, R-Utah, quietly became the No. 7 individual donor in the state, giving $161,000. Most of that $150,000 went to help her daughter's bid for lieutenant governor as running mate to Nolan Karras. After they lost in the primary, Greene gave $10,000 to Huntsman, who beat her daughter.
Of note, landing a spot on Utah's top 100 individual donor list does not require much money by national standards. John Nichols, a 1-800-CONTACTS businessman, won the No. 100 spot by giving just $13,000.
Ron Fox, a GOP fund-raiser, says, "It's tough to raise money in Utah," echoing complaints of innumerable politicians through the years who say Utahns would rather give to churches and charity and too often figure that the only involvement they need in politics is to vote.
So, because few Utahns donate politically, it doesn't take much money to become a top player. Fox, for example, said people who give $5,000 here may gain personal "face time" with a national political star passing through the state. But in larger states like California, Texas or New York, he said donors would have to give 10 times that amount for equal access.
So, Fox said, political giving in Utah "is the cheapest giving around."