Saxton-levin Campaigns Might Exceed $4 Million The Level Of Fund-raising Puts Their U.s. House Contest Among The Top Three Congressional Races To Watch In N.j.

Posted: October 22, 2000

In March, U.S. Rep. H. James Saxton tried to help Holtec International, a Marlton firm that manages radioactive waste storage, in its quest to win an overseas contract.

Now Holtec employees, their family members and a company subcontractor have showered Saxton's reelection campaign with a total of $52,350 in contributions.

Saxton, a Republican from Mount Holly, needs the cash.

He's in the toughest challenge of his 16-year tenure. His opponent is Cherry Hill's Democratic mayor, Susan Bass Levin, who is flush with money from township vendors and women's groups. The two are on pace to raise a total of more than $4 million by Election Day. So far, Saxton has nearly $2.3 million to Levin's more than $1.5 million.

The total puts the race among the top three congressional contests in New Jersey, rivaling the nationally watched battles between Democratic U.S. Rep. Rush Holt and Republican Dick Zimmer in the 12th Congressional District and Democrat Maryanne Connelly and Republican Michael Ferguson in the Seventh.

Though experts still favor Saxton to win, Levin's furious fund-raising makes her a dangerous foe and forces him to work harder than ever to keep his Third Congressional District seat.

"In American politics, there are campaigns, and advertising is done and it costs money," Saxton said.

Levin has received contributions largely from a network of vendors, lawyers and developers who do business with Cherry Hill, as well as traditional Democratic Party backers such as labor unions and trial lawyers.

Among her biggest contributors is Emily's List, a group that backs female congressional candidates who support abortion rights. Its members have sent a total of $57,000 her way this year.

Saxton's account is brimming with individual and political action committee contributions from electric utility, transportation and pharmaceutical companies. Money has also come from usual Democratic givers such as health professionals and some unions.

Saxton, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has received more than $90,000 from defense industry workers and political action committees. One of his largest donors is Lockheed Martin Corp., which has a naval electronics branch in Moorestown.

Saxton, whose opponent in 1998 spent $2,663 to the incumbent's $255,866, insists that contributions, even from those with business before him or from special interests, do not guarantee influence.

"I feel equally beholden to everyone in my district who I represent," he said. "Not everyone has unlimited personal wealth, and, therefore, they can't fund their own campaigns. I'm in that group, too."

Levin's campaign manager, Sallie Stohler, said Levin never promised anything in return for contributions to businesses that have raked in nearly $5.8 million in contracts with Cherry Hill in 1999-2000.

That concern, Stohler said, "points to why we need campaign-finance reform. Candidates have to spend too much time raising money. It takes away from talking to voters."

Nonetheless, Levin's fund-raising prowess is well known. She raised money for the Clinton-Gore ticket and is seen as a go-to person statewide.

From among the large givers to state Democrats, Levin has taken in $22,000 from Charles Kushner, a real estate developer from Florham Park, as well as from his family and business associates.

Carl Goldberg, another major Democratic fund-raiser and a principal partner of Roseland Properties, and other executives of the Essex County real estate firm have donated $13,000 to Levin.

Goldberg met Levin in 1996 when she was state co-chairman of the Clinton-Gore campaign. He said he was impressed by her tenacity and positions on issues such as gun control and abortion.

"Susan came to me fairly early in the process and said, 'If I run, do you think you can help me put together credible dollars?' " Goldberg said. "I encouraged her to run."

Goldberg, who was one of the developers of the new 24-screen Loews theater in Cherry Hill, said there was no special deal to support Levin. "I really don't have any ulterior motives, just a shared belief on issues."

Although Roseland does most of its work in North Jersey's urban areas, at least one of its projects could raise eyebrows among open-space advocates. The group has joined with a New York firm to develop 680 acres of woodlands and wetlands in Connecticut.

Environmentalists who oppose any development of the land forced Roseland to scale back the project.

Levin, a lawyer, has also benefited from lawyers - more than $100,000 has come from them.

Individual contributions have come from various township vendors: $24,000 from township engineers Remington and Vernick; $14,000 from JCA Associates, which has a contract to revise the Cherry Hill tax map; $13,900 from township auditors Bowman & Co.; and $12,000 from Shore Slurry Seal of Hammonton, which has obtained contracts for Cherry Hill roads.

In the other camp, the defense industry has been good to Saxton.

The leading givers were employees of Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics Corp., based in Falls Church, Va. - $23,259 and $11,750, respectively.

"We support candidates who have views that support national defense and our industry and also those that are representatives of our constituents," Lockheed spokesman Hugh Burns said.

The largest total of individual contributions for Saxton came from Holtec, which employs about 60 people locally and in Florida. The company manages the storage of spent nuclear fuel at nuclear reactors.

On March 7, Holtec officials called Saxton's office to seek U.S. help in obtaining a project in Slovenia against European competitors because they thought Holtec wasn't getting a fair chance at the contract.

"Within hours . . . he had [the U.S. State Department] people calling us up," said Christian Blessing, Holtec's vice president for sales and marketing. That response resulted in visits to Slovenia by U.S. officials to lobby in support of Holtec.

The company did not win the contract, but executives were impressed by Saxton's zeal.

Blessing said "anyone who's going to show that kind of concern I want in office."

Soon Holtec executives looked for Saxton's help again. Company officials worry that a battle between the Energy Department and utilities over nuclear waste storage space will hurt their business - which netted Holtec $8.4 million last year.

So executives met with Saxton at a Marlton restaurant in May and told him their concerns. Blessing said Saxton listened but didn't promise anything.

Within a month, officials of Holtec and subcontractor Omni Fabricators Inc. of Southampton gave Saxton's campaign manager a bundle of personal checks - most for $1,000 apiece, the maximum allowed by law. The money went toward a fund-raising luncheon more than a week later.

Saxton said he remembers the meeting vividly. He told the Holtec executives about his fall campaign but said he did not "know to this day if they are having a problem with the Department of Energy."

He said he did not solicit money. "Not that there's anything wrong with asking for money. People in my business do it all the time."

Leonard N. Fleming's e-mail address is lfleming@phillynews.com

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