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Atop donor list: Stephens scion

2010 top political contributors include Walton heirs, lawyers by Seth Blomeley | January 23, 2011 at 4:26 a.m.

— Arkansas’ top political donors include trial lawyers, heirs of family fortunes, an oil distributor and a chicken company owner who died this month.

By far the biggest contributor during the 2010 election cycle was Jackson T. “Steve” Stephens Jr. of Little Rock, the son of the late Jack Stephens, former chairman of Stephens Inc. investment banking firm.

Steve Stephens’ donations came to $770,206, with $500,000 of it going to the Club for Growth, a Republican-leaning advocacy group of which Stephens is chairman.

He said that when the club gets behind a candidate, its members send checks to the club.

“We take [the checks] to the candidate and remind the candidate that we expect them to vote for limited government and lower taxes,” said Stephens, the president of a medical-research firm.

At the request of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., sorted campaign-finance data to produce a list of the 10 Arkansas donors who contributed the most and to which candidate or group each contributed.

The top 10 gave $1.74 million of the total contributions from Arkansans, about $18 million, according to the center.

The top contributors mostly gave to Republicans,with $597,700 going to the GOP and $398,050 going to Democrats. The remaining contributions went to unaffiliated groups. Statewide, Democrats received a slight majority of all Arkansas contributions, about 50.4 percent.


Recipients of money from the top Arkansas political donors


The second- and third biggest donors - Jim Walton of Bentonville and Warren Stephens of Little Rock - declined comment through spokesmen.

Each gave most of their donations to Republicans. Walton is the chief executive officer of Arvest Bank and the son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. Stephens is the chief executive officer of Stephens Inc. and brother of Steve Stephens.

Matt Keil of Texarkana, a plaintiff attorney, was the biggest donor to Democrats. He placed fourth overall. He said he gives because he “believes in good candidates and good government.” He declined to define what he views as “good government.”

He said he has no business reasons in donating to politicians.

Keil’s law partner, Jon Goodson, gave the second most to Democrats and the sixth-most overall. In most cases, Goodson and Keil contributed to the same candidates. Goodson didn’t return messages left at his office seeking his comment for this article.


According to the Federal Election Commission, individuals may give no more than $2,400 to a candidate per election, $30,400 to a national party per year, and $10,000 to a state party per year.

Candidates may receive the maximum from a contributor for a primary election, a runoff, and the general election, even if they have no opposition.

There is no limit on contributions to advocacy groups, such as the Club for Growth, for their expenditures, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Steve Stephens, 58, has been the president since 1987 of Exoxemis, a firm that researches and develops pharmaceuticals. He’s been on the board of Club for Growth since 2003. Based in Washington, D.C., the group focuses on fiscal issues and favors smaller government and lower taxes.

Stephens recalled getting interested in politics as a child when he was a page for W.R. “Witt” Stephens, his uncle and founder of Stephens Inc. who served in the Arkansas House of Representatives.

“I’ve known a good many politicians and have seen how politics impacts people’s lives,” said Stephens.

He doesn’t hold fundraisers at his house like some of the other top donors do. He said such things cost money and dilute what can be given to candidates.

He called the 2010 election the “most successful year ever” for the Club for Growth, with its candidates winning 20 races and losing six.

He cited the victory of Pat Toomey, a Republican and a former club president, to an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania.


Stephens also gave$150,206 to a group called Common Sense in America, which got involved in a New York congressional race.

The group ran television ads that appeared to compliment Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava as the “best choice for progressives.” It pointed out that she favored same-sex marriage, the federal stimulus bill and a prounion bill.

Politico, a political news website, called the ad a “dirty trick” by supporters of Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman.

The ad listed the telephone number for Exoxemis as the contact number for Common Sense in America.

Stephens said “that woman Dede” received the GOP nomination through a “smoke-filled process” that “smacked all of our members as wrong. I took the opportunity to express some independent thoughts. That race really stunk. I felt like Dede should be properly labeled.”

Scozzafava ended up dropping out of the race and endorsing the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, who won the race over Hoffman, who was backed by Stephens.

“That’s a loss,” Stephens said. “I don’t like it. I want to win. That’s why I did it.”

Scozzafava this month was appointed to a position in the administration of new Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

She chuckled last week when contacted by the Democrat-Gazette by telephone at the New York Department of State. She said she remembered the ads but didn’t know that Stephens was behind them. She said she didn’t want to comment further on a state telephone. She said she would call back from another line but never did.


Stephens called the Club for Growth the “antithesis of a special interest. It’s for lower taxes and limited government. A special interest is trying to get money.”

He said his firm once sought a contract with the Army to provide a battlefield pharmaceutical. He said the Army decided against doing it.

He said there is no conflict with advocating smaller government while also seeking government contracts.

“Article 1, Section 8, of the United States Constitution actually specifically authorizes the use of tax money for the military and for the Navy,” Stephens said.

In 2001, Stephens said he was considering challenging Gov. Mike Huckabee for the Republican nomination for governor in 2002 but decided not to.

“I was never interested in a professional career in politics,” Stephens said. “My interest was trying to get Mike Huckabee accountable in education and taxes.”

When Huckabee ran for president in 2008, the Club for Growth ran ads criticizing Huckabee for tax increases in Arkansas when he was governor.

Warren Stephens and other Arkansas businessmen later publicly defended Huckabee.

Warren Stephens previously was a big donor to the Club for Growth, giving $500,000 from 2000 to 2005. But he didn’t donate to the club during the most recent election cycle.

Steve Stephens said he didn’t know why his brother had stopped giving to the Club for Growth.


Edward Moody of Little Rock, a trial lawyer, and his wife, Angela, gave the seventh-most to political causes, with all going to Democrats and a legal advocacy group. He said Democrats have always been more favorable to laws preferred by plaintiffs’ lawyers.

“The civil-justice system is very important to me and as a citizen of this country what I try to do is when issues like civil justice come up is that I have someone to listen to me,” Moody said.

He and his wife gave $60,800 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $7,200 to U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who was defeated last year.

“I don’t think it was a waste,” Moody said. “You just got to keep pushing your message.”

What does he expect from his contributions?

“All I expect is being able to talk to the person in the position and get access to them,” Moody said.

He and his wife host and attend fundraisers across the country. He said he enjoys the social aspects of that and likes making new friends from those events.

Moody said he understands the financial demands of running a campaign and does what he can to help.

“I’ve already been approached about doing a fundraiser for a senator from out-of-state,” he said. “This is January and the election is another couple of years away. Isn’t that crazy?”

Another Democratic donor, Mike Coulson of Little Rock, placed 10th. His wife, Beth, in 1987 was appointed by Gov. Bill Clinton to the Court of Appeals. She lost a race the next year for circuit judge in Pulaski County.

He said his wife’s campaign emphasized for him the importance of money in campaigns, and he’s been involved ever since, hosting events in their home, including one attended by Clinton.

“Other business owners like myself aren’t politically engaged and it sort of mystifies me,” said Coulson, president of Coulson Oil Co., a North Little Rock gasoline wholesaler. He’s also on the board of the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers. He contributed $20,000 to that group.

“We’re not looking for a handout,” Coulson said. “We tend to be playing defense. No campaign contribution can secure you a vote. You might get an e-mail or phone call returned and that’s all.”

He said he tries to educate politicians on issues that affect his business such as environmental policies, underground storage tanks and taxes.

He said he supports Democrats because he’s “always been one. That’s the best answer I’ve got.”

The No. 5 donor, Ron Cameron, and the No. 8 donor, Alice Walton, didn’t return multiple messages left at their businesses.

Cameron is listed on FEC reports as being affiliated with Mountaire Corp. of North Little Rock. All of his money went to Republicans except for contributions to the National Chicken Council and the Club for Growth.

Walton is the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. Her address on FEC reports is a post-office box in Bentonville but various news media reports list her as living in Fort Worth. She owns Rocking W Ranch horse farm in Millsap, Texas. All of her contributions went to Republicans or Republican committees.

The No. 9 donor was Don Tyson of Springdale, the former head of Tyson Foods Inc. Tyson died earlier this month. He contributed to candidates from each party but favored Democrats about 2-to-1.

Front Section, Pages 1 on 01/23/2011

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