Philadelphia is gearing up for the Democratic National Convention with its signature brand of bad taste. Everywhere I look, from the doorstep of the brownstone-and-brick Union League on Broad Street to the central courtyard of the ornate City Hall, I see fiberglass donkeys, the mascot of the Democratic Party.
Our former mayor, Ed Rendell, later governor of Pennsylvania and now chair of the Democratic National Convention Host Committee, OK’d the donkey initiative. It cost a cool $200,000. But if you try asking Rendell where he got the money, he won’t tell. He treats funding for the convention like a national security secret — despite a court order to the contrary.
On June 14, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ruled that the host committee was required to disclose its list of donor records immediately, but it refused to comply. Rendell and Co. have insisted that they will release the records only 60 days after the convention, as required by the Federal Election Commission. (The last time a convention was held in Philadelphia, with the Republicans in 2000, the donor list was published weeks before the event.) Dustin Slaughter, a freelance journalist who originally filed the open records request, is challenging the host committee’s appeal in court.
Where the money comes from matters because it buys influence. The host committee’s sole task — organizing and raising money for the convention — isn’t at all innocuous. A recent report from the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, “Funding the Conventions: How a Trickle of Money Turned Into a Flood,” shows how, thanks to a series of rules passed in the 1980s, the FEC gradually allowed exemptions on private funding of conventions. Until then, it was strictly prohibited under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act.
With an increasing number of loopholes to choose from, industries began to use the conventions to sway policy. In 2004, the pharmaceutical industry gave millions in donations to both party conventions to aid its (ultimately successful) fight against a bill that would allow cheaper drugs from Canada to be sold in the U.S. In summer 2008, as the financial crisis began to snowball, banks that would eventually receive bailout money similarly donated millions to fund both conventions.
There’s an obvious reason why the host committee doesn't want to disclose the donors: It wants to protect them from political scrutiny. Special advisor David Cohen, the executive vice president of Comcast, suggested as much when he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “People out there have their own partisan agendas and if a company is on there ... 50 demonstrators show up outside their offices because ‘XYZ bank’ invests in fossil fuels or participated in raising money for Republicans. I don't see the public interest in knowing who the donors are.”
This sort of sentiment isn’t surprising, because the host committee is largely composed of people whose business it is to spread money around without attracting attention — a motley crew of high-powered lobbyists for fracking, cable and health insurance companies, who more often than not have worked against Democratic priorities.
Take the finance chair, Daniel Hilferty. The chief executive of Independence Blue Cross, he is a Republican who served on the board of directors of America’s Health Insurance Providers, the country’s largest healthcare lobby, which in 2009 and ’10 spent $102.4 million fighting the Affordable Care Act.
Cohen, for his part, notoriously campaigned hard for former Republican governor Tom Corbett, elected in the tea party wave of 2010 and loathed in Philadelphia for cutting nearly $360 million from the public school system. Rendell, a stalwart of the party, has taken stances that aren’t traditionally Democratic, from leading Fix the Debt, a campaign to reduce government spending by cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, to working as a lobbyist for the natural gas industry and publicly coming out in support of fracking. These are all practices and positions opposed by a sizable majority of Democrats. No wonder they’re afraid of protesters.
The Democratic Platform Committee recently adopted some of the most progressive policy goals in the party’s history: a $15 an hour federal minimum wage; no bankers on Federal Reserve boards; expanded Social Security benefits. Is it possible that the donors are people and organizations who oppose policies like these? Just like Rendell, Cohen and Hilferty?
Until we find out the donors, it’s impossible to know for sure. What I do know is that every time I see those donkeys around town, I may not know who paid for them, but I know what they represent.
Nikil Saval is a member of Reclaim Philadelphia, an organization of Democrats concerned about the role of money in politics. He is also an editor of n+1.