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Ala. heavyweights squeeze donors to give to their aides

For Republican voters in Alabama's First Congressional District, the race to replace retiring Rep. Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., presents an array of choices, with at least six candidates running. In Washington, however, some lobbyists say they fear there's only one question: Can they afford to offend the senior senator from Alabama?

Several lobbyists say allies of Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., have made phone calls this month delivering the same message. Contribute to the campaign of Shelby's former chief of staff Tom Young, they say, or risk legislative retribution.

Heightening their dilemma is that Callahan's former top aide, Jo Bonner, also wants the GOP nomination. Callahan supports Bonner, Shelby supports Young, and lobbyists feel that overtures from the two camps are so intense that some have complained to the chairman of the House GOP's campaign committee, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.

"They're telling me they're getting a lot of pressure," Davis said. "The pressure's probably coming from Shelby, but they also feel a competitive pull from Callahan."

Shelby denied pushing anyone to contribute, and said he would not base legislative decisions on who supports, or doesn't support, his former aide. "I have not called one lobbyist to raise money for Tom (Young)," he said.

Still, the intense competition between Young and Bonner for Washington dollars has rattled some lobbyists whose clients need Shelby's and Callahan's good favor.

Both lawmakers are well-positioned to coax money from interest groups, directly or indirectly. Shelby is the Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee's top Republican; Callahan leads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water.

Unsurprisingly, allies of Young and Shelby have aimed their appeals at potential contributors with business before the senator's subcommittee. One such lobbyist told the Washington Post that a former Shelby aide contacted him about the House race shortly after Callahan announced his retirement on March 4.

The lobbyist said the former staffer warned that if he and his fellow lobbyists were not willing to help Young, then Shelby was not willing "to help them."

Another lobbyist said a senior Republican lawmaker told him he would be unwise to support someone other than Young in the Alabama contest.

One transportation lobbyist, Rick Meyers, made a similarly blunt appeal Thursday in an e-mail to prospective donors. The e-mail, which a source provided to the Washington Post, said Young "is looking for campaign contributions ASAP."

"Any help you can provide will be a tremendous "investment' and will be beneficial to you down the road," Meyers wrote. "Here is a couple of facts for potential contributors to consider: (1) Callahan as I said, is retiring _ going away; (2) Shelby is NOT retiring _ will be around for several years _ is not only an appropriator he is also ranking member on the transportation appropriations subcommittee. Very strong incentive to back Tom Young now!"

Meyers said he sent the e-mail but declined to discuss it further, calling it "confidential."

The fundraising contest is important to Young and Bonner, because as aides, they are less well known in southern Alabama than are other candidates such as state Rep. Chris Pringle. Both are veteran Hill staffers, giving them a valuable but overlapping network of possible supporters. Young served as Shelby's chief of staff for a dozen years, while Bonner started as Callahan's press secretary in 1985.

"It's just the nature of the game," said Birmingham lobbyist Luther Strange, who is friends with both. "Both of these candidates have to raise a lot of money to get their names out there."

Strange has gotten caught in the crossfire. Bonner called him for a contribution the weekend before Callahan announced his retirement, and Strange promptly sent a $1,000 check. A day or two later, Young asked Strange to support his campaign. Now he is considering another donation.

"As soon as I talk to my wife and she gives me the checkbook, I'm going to (send) a check to Tom," Strange said.

Young appears to be enjoying considerable fundraising success. He has held two Washington fundraisers and collected $250,000, campaign spokesman Michael Davis said. Davis said it was "ludicrous" to suggest that Shelby had threatened lobbyists over the race. "Senator Shelby is helping and we're appreciative of that help, but Tom is running the race himself," Davis said.

Bonner, who said he could not estimate how much he has raised, said he hoped no one was using the senator's position to intimidate potential contributors. "If this is true, it is certainly disturbing," he said. "It doesn't add anything positive to the race, as far as I'm concerned."

Tom Davis, for his part, has begun advising lobbyists to stay neutral in the primary. "I tell them, you ought to let the Alabamans decide this, not Washington," he said.

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