By Stephen F. Hayes, a writer living in Washington, D.C.
t's a long way from Park Avenue to Wells Street.
But Connie Milstein, who last November held a $25,000 per couple fundraiser for Al Gore in her Park Avenue condominium, found herself among Milwaukee's homeless yesterday, at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission on Wells. Milstein said she was "brought in" to help get out the vote in the crucial state of Wisconsin. And yesterday, she was one of several Democrats with ties to the Gore campaign caught on tape by WISN-TV in Milwaukee, distributing cigarettes to homeless men staying temporarily at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission.
"We've been pretty busy," said Milstein, interviewed on local Milwaukee television, with a chuckle. "Going to the local shelters."
The tape shows the campaign workers standing outside a green SUV, distributing packs of cigarettes from large white plastic bags. Residents of the mission say they took the cigarettes after Gore campaign staffers drove them to Milwaukee's city hall in order to cast absentee ballots for the presidential race in this state where polls show the race dead even.
Milstein's last-minute activities on behalf of the Gore campaign raised eyebrows yesterday, as Wisconsin law is clear that any gift with a value over $1 constitutes bribery.
According FEC reports, it appears as though Milstein was also "busy" with the Gore campaign long before she came to Wisconsin: A Constance Milstein from New York City has contributed more than $600,000 to the Democratic National Committee and Democratic candidates this election cycle. A second Constance Milstein, who lists her hometown as South Hampton, New York, has also given generously to Democrats. And Milstein herself whose family is worth an estimated $5 billion, according to published reports said yesterday she serves as "Chair of the Democratic National Committee's Major Supporters Committee."
"That is a group that I just found out about today," said DNC chairman Joe Andrews, in a conference call with reporters today. And despite Milstein's generosity to Democrats, Andrew insists she is not a major DNC donor. "She is not a 'heavy hitter' in our Democratic organization," said Andrew.
But last November, Milstein hosted a $25,000 per couple fundraiser in her Park Avenue couple for Gore. That fundraiser, combined with another that day in New York City, was estimated to have raised approximately $1.3 million of the DNC, according to an Associated Press story at the time. It's fair to ask what, exactly, it takes to be a "heavy hitter" with the DNC.
Though he wasn't familiar with the DNC committee Milstein heads and he was unaware of Milstein's activities on their behalf, Andrew says he is able to say with confidence that Milstein had not engaged in any similar activities before. "She was acting on her own," said Andrew. "And these attempts by Republicans to connect this to the DNC and Gore campaign are frankly silly."
But moments after she was caught on videotape distributing the cigarettes, Milstein had a different story for the local television reporter. "I am here representing the Gore and Lieberman campaign and I was asked to get out the vote in Wisconsin," she said.
Milstein today contradicted that characterization of her work, saying in a statement late today that she acted alone. The videotape, however, very clearly shows several people distributing cigarettes from the white bags.
And Pat Vandenburgh, executive director of the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, said in an interview today that "seven campaign workers" were in the lobby of the shelter trying to convince the residents to vote. "It was very evident what they were doing," said Vandenburgh.
Vandenburgh said the employee told them that partisan campaigning was not permitting inside the shelter. The Gore campaign workers then gathered outside to continue their efforts. "They were just sort of loitering in front of the building, and he had to shoo them away from there, too," said Vandenburgh.
"At first the guys weren't overly anxious to go [with the campaign workers]," said Vandenburgh. "But then they began holding up packs of cigarettes." Five of the shelter's residents then followed the campaign workers outside and listened to their proposals.
Asked if the homeless men were persuaded to vote after the offer of the cigarettes, Vandenburgh said, "That's what they told us."
If the Gore campaign's only interest was to get these homeless men to the polls, those efforts were unnecessary. "The Mission does that on its own," said Vandenburgh, explaining that each election cycle the shelter takes steps to notify its residents of their rights to vote, and even accompanies them to the polls to prove residency.
Overwhelmed by the facts, Andrew and DNC general counsel Joe Sandler gave the "everyone-does-it" defense a try.
"This situation in Wisconsin is a joke compared to the serious and systematic efforts by Republicans to intimidate minority voters across the country," said Sandler. But producing evidence of this "systematic" effort proved difficult. That, of course, didn't stop the Democratic leaders from making the charges.
Though the story probably comes too late to do much national damage, it is getting big play in Wisconsin, which accounts for 11 electoral votes. It will likely be on the 6 and 10 o'clock newscasts on the four major Milwaukee networks, and reporters from throughout the state are following the story carefully.
"Tobacco hooks and eventually kills hundreds of thousands of people, and we shouldn't wait another day until we strengthen protections against it," said Gore last March, after the Supreme Court ruled the FDA can't regulate tobacco.
Another day comes tomorrow, and if Wisconsin goes for Bush, Gore's campaign, ironically, may be killed by tobacco.