Who Is The "Purest" Of Them All? Clinton, Obama, Edwards Battle Over Lobbyists' Money

In the increasingly bitter debate over taking campaign contributions from lobbyists and special interests, there are few candidates with clean hands.

John Edwards and Barack Obama have both pounded Hillary Clinton, who openly acknowledges that she takes lobbyists' donations. In unusually blunt language at the Yearly Kos debate in Chicago, Clinton told the audience, "A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans. They actually do. They represent nurses. They represent social workers. They represent -- yes, they represent corporations that employ a lot of people."

Lobbyists are not Mr. and Mrs. Joe Sixpack to Edwards. "We do not want their money. Their money is no good with us. We're going to end this game, and we will challenge the Republicans to do the same thing. And I suggest to you they will not join us, because they are not the party of the people. The Democratic Party is the party of the people."

Edwards then proposed, "Why don't we start today reforming the Democratic Party by all of us admitting no more from this day forward, not a dime from the Washington lobbyists.''

Obama joined in: "I disagree with the notion that lobbyists don't have disproportionate influence. Look, the insurance and the drug companies spent $1 billion in lobbying over the last 10 years. Now, Hillary, you were talking earlier about the efforts you made back in '93. Well, you can't tell me that that money did not have a difference. They are not spending that just because they are contributing to the public interest. They have an agenda."

Both Edwards and Obama sought repeatedly to revive the issue at the Tuesday AFL-CIO debate in Chicago, but neither gained much traction.

Obama and Edwards, running second and third to Clinton respectively, have pinpointed one of the New York Senator's vulnerabilities. Anonymous opposition researchers (you can guess) have calculated that 261 federal lobbyists have given her campaign $479,130 so far this year. In addition, 15 lobbyists acting as contribution bundlers have raised at least $1.5 million for her.

[See a full list of federal lobbyists here, and use Huffington Post's FundRace 2008 to see which candidates they're supporting.]

Edwards and Obama may not be taking contributions from federally registered lobbyists, but that does not mean that their money is as pure as they'd like us to believe.

Edwards' 2004 campaign manager, Nick Baldick, who is currently a senior adviser to the 2008 campaign, is a founder of the Washington lobbying firm Avenue Solutions, which includes among its clients Aetna, Northwest Airlines, the Healthcare Leadership Council, Medco, Travelers Cos. Inc., and the Financial Services Roundtable.

Baldick left the firm in 2006 to found Hilltop Public Solutions which, according to its website, has "managed winning campaigns for clients that have included the nation's largest financial services firm, one of the nation's largest airlines, a major fast food retailer, the world's largest healthcare provider, and numerous additional industry leaders." It generally performs these services at a state level and is not federally registered.

At least three staffers on the Obama campaign were registered as federal lobbyists, although two worked for such pro-Democratic clients as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Environmental Defense Fund. The third, Emmett Beliveau, worked at Patton Boggs LLP, which includes among its clients Giner Electrochemical Systems, the Offshore Marine Service Association, ABT Associates, and Preferred Communications Systems.

In addition, the campaign web site Opensecrets.org reports that Edwards has received $6.5 million from lawyers, many of them trial lawyers; $668,590 from employees in the investment banking industry; $254,297 from officials of the health care industry and $218,290 from operators of hedge funds.

Obama has been no slouch in this territory, according to Opensecrets. Employees of investment banking firms gave him $3.2 million; real estate companies $1.3 million; health companies, $701,993; and hedge funds $652,105.

Clinton's contributions fit much the same pattern.

The reality is that CEOs, managers and officers of companies with large stakes in public policy are major sources of campaign contributions. Except for mega-rich self-funders like Steve Forbes and Ross Perot, every serious contender for the nomination has tapped into the same general universe of donors.

At the Kos debate, a number of the candidates, including Clinton, agreed that the only way to resolve the issue of special interests and campaign contributions is public financing of campaigns.