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Pat Rooney: Not Your Usual Gop Crusader

News: Analysis & Commentary: POLITICS


The insurance magnate is out to curb big labor's clout

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) failed to pass federal legislation that would have made it more difficult for unions to contribute members' money to political campaigns. But he hasn't given up, and he has an able assistant on the case: J. Patrick Rooney, an Indianapolis insurance magnate who has proven himself an effective salesman for hot-button issues such as school choice and medical savings accounts. That--and large campaign contributions--have made Rooney a hero to conservatives and a member of Gingrich's corporate kitchen cabinet.

Now, Rooney is focusing on campaign-finance reform, GOP-style. The chairman emeritus of Golden Rule Financial Corp., the top seller of individual and small-group health policies, Rooney is chair of a California ballot drive to require workers to give written permission each year before unions can use their dues in campaigns--money that most often goes to Democrats.

Rooney wooed Governor Pete Wilson. He also ponied up $49,000 of his own to keep a signature drive going. "His role was crucial," says Mark Bucher, owner of an Orange County construction services company who co-authored the initiative, officially dubbed the "paycheck protection plan" by GOP supporters.

If the California referendum passes next year, it could boost similar efforts in Arizona, Oregon, and Nevada. So far, Rooney has restricted his campaigning to California, but another Gingrich adviser, conservative activist Grover G. Norquist, is at the forefront of a GOP push for similar provisions in all 50 states.

Rooney, a devout Catholic who studied for the priesthood in his youth, seems to relish the fracas. "I'm a crusader," he says. The courtly patriarch of his family's privately held company, Rooney, 69, can afford to take political risks most CEOs duck. "He may be a businessman," says Norquist, "but he thinks like a political strategist."

Although Rooney has solid conservative credentials, he does not fit any stereotype. A vegetarian and former member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he has worshipped for 17 years at Holy Angels, a black Catholic church in downtown Indianapolis. "White people accept integration when they're in charge. I wanted to go and worship with black people in their church," he says.

Rooney spent eight years and $2 million pressing a racial-discrimination lawsuit against the GOP-run Illinois government. Eventually settled out of court, the suit charged that the state's insurance-agent exam discriminated against blacks. Rooney also wins plaudits from black parents for a foundation he launched that pays tuition vouchers for poor Indianapolis kids to attend private or parochial schools like the one attached to Holy Angels.

In politics, Rooney is tenacious--and sometimes outrageous. After failing to defeat insurance reforms in Vermont in 1992, he flew to Montpelier with two caged weasels--one named for the governor and one for Vermont's insurance commissioner. In 1996, Rooney racked up a key legislative win. Congress approved tax-free medical savings accounts (MSAs), which individuals can tap to pay health-care bills. Rooney and Golden Rule, the largest purveyor of MSAs, lobbied hard for the provision.

The Rooney family, Golden Rule, and its executives are also big campaign givers. For the '96 election, they gave more than $440,000. Locally, he is also known for lavish donations; He gave $21,900 to Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith's campaign for governor. About the same time, Golden Rule was placed on a list of health-care providers for city and county employees, a case of what Rooney calls very bad timing.

Labor leaders charge that Rooney's campaign is motivated partly by their stand against MSAs as an alternative to Medicare. "He plans on making big money by getting rid of Medicare and having retirees buy their own insurance," says Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation.

Not so, Rooney insists. "This is a fairness issue," he says. "People who work hard for their money ought to be able to authorize it before it gets used for political purposes." To Rooney, the ballot drive is one more crusade. If it turns out to be good for business, so much the better.By Amy Borrus in Washington and Andrew Osterland in Chicago, with Steven V. Brull in Los Angeles and Seanna Browder in SeattleReturn to top

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