Within the Bush administration, two senior aides, chief strategist Karl Rove and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, were reportedly at odds over whether the government should finance embryonic stem cell research.
Thompson was the strongest proponent of federal funding within the Bush inner circle. The former Wisconsin governor, one of the first conservative politicians to wholeheartedly back the research, “has been the most eager advocate inside the administration for funding the study of embryonic stem cells,” wrote the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
As governor, Thompson encouraged the cutting-edge research on stem cells at the University of Wisconsin, a leader in the field. Some critics say the secretary was influential in changing Hatch’s mind. “He’s behind the whole thing,” said Scott Weinberg of the American Life League, an anti-abortion group. “He baptized the destructive research,” Weinberg said, referring to Thompson’s support for the research in its early days, which required the destruction of embryos.
Thompson is a fan of biotechnology, and under his watch Wisconsin grew to become a biotech giant, with the state investing nearly a billion dollars in university labs and other biotech infrastructure during his time in office. University of Wisconsin researcher Jamie Thomson in 1998 was one of the first scientists to grow human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory. Since then, the state has become the largest human embryonic stem cell manufacturer in the country.
According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Thompson received $270,485 from the health sector in the 1998 election cycle, when he was running for a fourth four-year term as governor. Of that amount, $180,684 came from health professionals, his largest from any “industry.”
Prior to his nomination as health and human services secretary, Thompson had owned stock in the drug manufacturers Merck & Co. and Abbott Laboratories. He sold those stocks after federal ethics monitors told him that his ownership could pose a conflict of interest. (A Thompson aide had said during his confirmation proceedings that the stocks were bought by a professional financial manager who purchased and sold them on behalf of the governor’s blind trust. According to the aide, his boss didn’t know he owned those stocks until he reviewed the federal financial report after the nomination.)
Conventional Washington wisdom holds that Rove, Bush’s liaison to the president’s conservative base, opposed federal funding of stem cell research for political reasons. The senior strategist sees Roman Catholic votes as key to the president’s re-election in 2004, this thinking goes. Roman Catholic clergy have denounced research on embryonic stem cells, saying it amounts to destroying lives. However, in a poll conducted by Newsweek magazine and published in its July 9 issue, 57 percent of abortion opponents and 72 percent of Roman Catholics accepted stem cell research.
Newspaper accounts said that Chief of Staff Andrew Card, domestic policy chief Josh Bolten and communications head Karen Hughes, among other Bush aides, had strongly advocated the federal funding.
Other top White House officials who have ties to the industry benefiting from stem cell research are Nicholas Calio, Bush’s chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill, and his deputy, Kristen Chadwick. Calio’s former lobbying firm, O’Brien Calio, where Chadwick also worked as a lobbyist, had worked for the trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization, according to federal records obtained by The Public i. The records show that one of the issues the firm took up was “stem cell research.” The lobby shop was paid $140,000 by Biotechnology Industry Organization in 1999 alone.
It is not clear whether Calio has been involved in the stem cell issue. Calio’s job involves selling the administrations policies to Congress and keeping the White House abreast of the positions of members of Congress. Phone calls to Calio’s office seeking comments were not returned. Several congressional aides who are involved in the issue could not confirm or deny Calio’s involvement.