AIMING FOR HIGH OFFICE Country lawyer Steve Buyer -- a Desert Storm vet and a political rookie -- puts his practice in limbo and his family's finances at risk to win a congressional seat.
(MONEY Magazine) – Steve Buyer has a recurring nightmare: ''It's a week before the election, and the campaign chest is pretty well empty. I get a call telling me a new poll says the race is a toss-up, and another $30,000 in radio time could put me over the top. Now that's a position I really don't want to be in.'' This sort of concern seems out of character for the normally ebullient Buyer (pronounced boo-yer), 33. The ambitious, politically plugged-in lawyer from Monticello, Ind. (pop. 5,237) is running for the U.S. Congress, trying to unseat three-term Democratic incumbent Jim Jontz, 40, in the fifth district -- 20 mostly rural counties in the northwestern part of the state. A moderate Republican, Buyer has dabbled in local politics since the late '80s, but this is his first run for elective office. Voters' response to his energetic campaign, built largely on an anti-incumbency theme, makes Buyer optimistic that he'll be among what could be the largest freshman class in the House in 60 years -- with as many as 150 new members. In late September, an Indiana University poll (error margin: plus or minus 10 percentage points) had him trailing Jontz by 34% to 20% with 49% undecided, which meant the race was too close to call. To keep his nightmare from coming true, Buyer has set aside $30,000 out of the $153,000 he had raised by October -- 62% from individuals, 38% from political action committees (PACs) representing such interests as farmers and builders. But the campaign is still draining his family's finances. Net income from Steve's one-man storefront law practice will shrink this year to about $22,000, less than half what he would have earned if he hadn't all but shelved his legal work to start campaigning full time in May. He and his cheerful wife Joni, a 34-year-old computer systems analyst who earns $37,600, haven't added a penny this year to the $2,800 in U.S. Savings Bonds they have set aside for college for kids Colleen, 10, and Ryan, 7. And the $5,100 a year Steve collects for twice-a-month duty as an Army Reserve captain must now go to pay day-to-day expenses rather than into the couple's money- market account, which has shrunk from $26,100 to $16,100. ''All told this year,'' says Joni, who has remained stalwart in the face of the campaign's cost, ''we've taken about $12,000 out of our savings, and for us that's a lot.'' If Steve wins on Nov. 3, he'll get big financial boosts from the annual congressional pay of roughly $134,000 and the House's generous taxpayer- subsidized retirement plan. The family's expenses will soar, however, as the Buyers struggle with maintaining two households. For now, Steve plans to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the Washington area -- where the cost of living is 20% to 30% higher -- and fly home weekends. And even if the entire family moves east, they say they'll hang on to their three-beroom, $163,000 lakefront house, whose 9 7/8% mortgage costs them $1,245 a month. Moreover, if they move, Joni will provide no income until she finds a new job. If Steve loses, he'll have to rebuild his law practice -- just as he did once before. Two years ago, Buyer was getting established in Monticello as a family attorney, handling everything from wills to personal-injury cases. The son of a dentist and a homemaker, he had returned with Joni to the area where they grew up and were high school sweethearts (they married in '81). Joni, the daughter of a farmer and a homemaker, found a job as coordinator of management information services for Federal Mogul, an auto-parts maker in Logansport, Ind. By fall 1990, Steve was clearing $45,000 a year from his practice. Then, bingo! The week after Thanksgiving, Steve got a call from a fellow Army Reserve officer: Steve's unit had been called to active duty in the Persian Gulf. He had three days to put his affairs in order and report to Indianapolis to be shipped out. ''I had to pass all my clients on to other attorneys,'' he says, ''and wind the practice down to nothing.'' He spent five months in the gulf giving legal counsel to commanders and interrogating Iraqi P.O.W.s. In May 1991, he returned to Monticello with a Bronze Star for meritorious service and set about restarting his practice. Despite the disruption involved, the war brought an unexpected bonus: It created Steve's political opportunity, something he seems to have been preparing himself for since he was a kid. He was class president in high school and active in student government in college at The Citadel. After law school at Indiana's Valparaiso University and three years of Army active duty in Virginia, his first civilian job, in 1987, was as an Indiana deputy attorney general -- a traditional stepping-stone to a political career. When he left the state office to hang out his shingle in 1988, he kept one foot in politics as an unpaid Republican county vice chairman. He briefly considered a run for Congress in 1988 before abandoning the idea after weighing his ambition against what the long campaign would mean for his family and his practice. The gulf war tipped the equation. Says Joni: ''While Steve was away, the kids and I learned that we could cope on our own if we had to. And when he came back, he saw that he could get his practice going again. So we realized we could survive a campaign, win or lose.'' What's more, Steve was able to turn his Desert Storm service into political currency. The Monticello Herald Journal published 11 installments of his ''Gulf War Diary,'' firsthand reports of his war experiences. Then when he returned, he addressed veterans' groups and Republican gatherings across northern Indiana. ''I was one of their own, and I'd been over there,'' he says. ''They wanted to hear what it was like.'' During the summer of 1991, before he announced his candidacy, Buyer began building his political base, speaking to 70 local organizations, wearing his fatigues a half-dozen times for dramatic effect. Each time he spoke, he says, people came up afterward and urged him to run for Congress. Buyer knew, however, that campaigns against sitting members of Congress tend to be long shots. He realized, for example, that incumbents typically spend about $180,000 a year of taxpayer money for postage-free mail to constituents, dole out extra federal largesse as the vote nears, and attract far more than challengers can in contributions ($440,480 vs. $111,131 on average in 1990). In the past three elections, incumbent House members beat their challengers more than 96% of the time. Buyer also knew, though, that Indiana's fifth district -- locally called the Hoosier Heartland -- was archetypal Republican territory: farm country with a 98% white electorate. The House seat had been Republican for 16 years until 1986, when the incumbent retired and Jontz, then a state senator, was elected because of divided G.O.P. opposition. To Republican consternation, Jontz was re-elected twice by respectable margins. ''He's a tireless campaigner,'' says Brian Vargus of Indiana University's Public Opinion Laboratory. ''He's in the district every weekend showing people how hard he's working. It's effective.'' But this time the local G.O.P. establishment was sure Jontz was vulnerable. His record has been decidedly liberal (a 99% rating from Americans for Democratic Action); he is divorced in a political year stressing family values; and he voted against using force in the Persian Gulf. ''When Buyer came back from the war,'' says Vargus, ''the Republican brass must have seen him as a godsend.'' Buyer made his formal announcement in February, after consolidating local party support. He tried to keep his law practice going through the spring but found it a strain. ''If I'm telling a reporter my views on free trade, and the local convenience-store owner calls with a problem about a liquor license,'' he says, ''I have a hard time shifting gears to give him the 100% he deserves.'' The final weeks of the campaign were filled with nothing but politics. A typical 85 degrees day in late August starts with a meeting of the district Farm Bureau PAC at the Logansport Holiday Inn. In April the bureau had given Buyer $5,000 and its endorsement -- even though Jontz sits on the House agriculture committee. Now Buyer is pitching for a second $5,000. Addressing two dozen shirtsleeved listeners, Buyer launches into his major theme: Throw the bums out. ''We all support recycling, right?'' he says. ''Well, I'm asking you to help me recycle Congress.'' From across the room someone calls out: ''What are we going to do with the waste?'' The next stop is a pig roast near Francisville, where, among a crowd of 100 farmers in work boots and baseball caps, Buyer takes half an hour to walk the length of a 200-foot party tent, shaking every hand. Then it's on to a bacon- bits factory outside Peru, where he dons a lab coat and shower cap for a plant tour. Before his next appointment, there's time for a little door-to- door in tiny Swayzee (pop. 1,050). At each house, he hands over a red, white and blue flier prominently marked: not printed at government expense. The last stop is a gathering of 20 party regulars at Swayzee town hall. Buyer tells them how hard he's working and illustrates with an account of a Saturday in late June when he and his son Ryan went to a Kiwanis breakfast, seven parades, and a Republican dinner. ''On the way back to Monticello,'' he says, ''Ryan looked at the sun low in the sky and said, 'Dad, I can't believe it's still day.' '' Buyer has chosen to absorb some of these travel costs. In May, he bought a 1988 Jeep Cherokee for $9,900, and by the end of September he had put 26,000 miles on it, almost all for campaign work and none of it reimbursed. ''I don't want the committee writing any checks to me,'' he says. ''You never know how that kind of thing can be misrepresented.'' He also swallows the cost of much of the campaign overhead, paying the monthly $750 in mortgage, taxes and utilities on his law-office-turned- campaign-headquarters. Then there are incidentals like extra clothes and quadrupled cleaning bills for him and Joni -- likely to total $2,500 to $3,000 this year. ''I sometimes wear three shirts a day,'' he says. He also picks up the tab for meals on the road (about $800 so far) and family appearances at county fairs. During the summer, Steve went to every fair in the district, and Joni and the kids came along about half the time. ''Try taking your family to 20 fairs,'' he says. ''Rides, hot dogs, elephant ears ((fried dough)) -- it must have cost $25 a pop.'' ''We're doing what we can to keep expenses down,'' says Joni. ''There's no 'just shopping.' '' But without Steve's law income, the Buyers are barely getting by. Says the candidate: ''It's surprising how much money you can lose campaigning without seeming to spend any.''
The advice In August, MONEY asked two Indiana financial planners to give the Buyers advice whether Steve wins or loses.
IF HE WINS Take your time exploring the Washington, D.C. area housing market. Gary Pittsford, an Indianapolis planner with clients in the nation's capital, said Steve ought to rent a small apartment for $500 to $700 a month and commute between Washington and Monticello until summer. The government will reimburse all trips back to the fifth district if Steve does constituent business while there. Once he is more familiar with the Washington area, he can consider bringing the family east. Their most economical housing choice, says Pittsford, would probably be to rent a three- or four-bedroom house in a D.C. suburb for $1,000 to $2,500 a month. Contribute to Congress' subsidized savings plan as soon as Steve becomes eligible in a year. The first 5% of his salary in this 401(k)-type plan will effectively be matched dollar for dollar by government revenues. His maximum annual contribution: $8,728.
IF HE LOSES Buy long-term disability insurance. Joni has coverage at work, but if Steve doesn't go to Congress, he won't have any. Kokomo planner Mick Owens recommended buying at least $3,000 a month worth of coverage, an amount equivalent to 75% of Steve's income in a normal year. Probable cost: about $870 a year from a company such as United Services Automobile Association (800-531-7245). Set up a Keogh retirement plan for Steve's law practice. Depending on the type of plan he chooses, he can squirrel away as much as 20% of his pretax earnings or $30,000 a year, whichever is less, and the money will grow tax deferred. One catch: He has to offer the Keogh to any employees over 21 who have worked for him at least a year (at present, one secretary). The name recognition that he has created by running for Congress should help build his practice, making his Keogh an even better deal. Says Owens: ''What you've been doing is great marketing.''
WIN OR LOSE Get back in the habit of saving for college for Colleen and Ryan. In addition to taking advantage of retirement saving plans, said Pittsford, the Buyers must also begin making regular contributions into custodial accounts of at least $300 a month for Colleen and $250 for Ryan, who is three years younger. He recommended no-load stock funds such as Twentieth Century Growth or Twentieth Century Select (up 54.4% and 32.6%, respectively, in the past five years to Sept. 1; 800-345-2021). ''You will cut your taxes by putting the first $12,000 or so for each child in a custodial account in his or her own name, since kids under 14 owe minimal taxes on the first $1,200 they get,'' said Pittsford. Replenish your cash reserves. Pittsford suggested that the couple open an account with a no-load, intermediate-term, tax-free municipal bond fund such as Vanguard Municipal Limited Term (current yield: 4.1%; 800-851-4999). Refinance the house. Owens advised the Buyers to trade in their 20-year, 9 7/8% mortgage for one with a lower rate and a shorter term. ''At today's rates,'' he said, ''you can find a 15-year loan that will reduce your payments and build equity faster.''
The family plans to review most of the recommendations after the election. But they didn't wait to refinance. In early September, they swapped their loan for a 15-year fixed mortgage at 7 1/4%, which reduced their payments by $90 a month. ''We know we have to face all these financial decisions -- and we will,'' says Joni. ''But right now, we're a little preoccupied.''
With Buyer's law income drying up, the family has had to drain more than $12,000 from their savings.
BOX: Campaign drain
Steve's shrunken income is hurting the Buyers' finances. Figures are estimates for January through December 1992.
INCOME Joni's salary $37,600 Profit from Steve's practice 22,000 Withdrawals from savings 12,000 Steve's Army Reserve pay 5,100 Interest on savings 1,200 TOTAL $77,900
OUTGO Taxes $15,100 Mortgage payments 14,940 Car costs 8,000 Clothing, dry cleaning 6,500 Credit-card, loan payments 5,200 Household expenses 5,100 Insurance, medical bills 4,900 Food 4,800 Entertainment 4,200 Joni's 401(k) contribution 3,760 Miscellaneous 3,300 Gifts, contributions 2,100 TOTAL $77,900
ASSETS House $163,000 Steve's office 78,500 Personal, office property 69,000 Cars 26,000 Joni's 401(k) balance, IRAs 25,600 Checking, savings accounts 19,400 U.S. Savings Bonds 2,800 TOTAL $384,300
LIABILITIES Home mortgage $125,000 Office mortgage 28,000 College and law school loans 8,000 Car loan 7,800 Credit-card debt 6,300 TOTAL $175,100
NET WORTH $209,200