Still a party in Charlotte, but a less lavish one
WASHINGTON -- The national party conventions are usually accompanied by a cacophony of lavish parties, thrown by industries and interest groups jostling to get the attention of the political class.
But as the Democratic establishment descends upon Charlotte, N.C., this weekend for the Democratic National Convention, lobbyists and event organizers said they expect next week’s convention-related events to be less splashy than usual.
That’s in part because the Democratic National Committee banned corporations, lobbyists and political action committees from giving directly to the host committee (though they still sought in-kind corporate contributions and donations from corporate foundations), a move that chilled participation.
The lackluster economy also led many groups to cut back on their convention budgets. A sizable number of lawmakers have indicated they plan to stay home and campaign in their districts, which has also cut interest in hosting big events.
“Fewer shrimp will die for this convention,” quipped Democratic super-lobbyist Tony Podesta.
He said his clients who are participating are doing so in a “more quiet, less expensive way,” such as hosting a breakfast for a state delegation.
“There’s a surprising number of big donors who aren’t even planning to come and are really pulling back on what they’re doing,” Podesta added. “Some is the difficult economic times, some is a sense that, ‘The president doesn’t want corporate money, anyway, so why should we give it?’”
LeeAnn Petersen, whose consulting firm Conventions 2012 arranged logistics for corporate clients seeking a presence at this year’s events, said it did not help matters when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged Democratic lawmakers to stay home and campaign instead of going to Charlotte.
“That kills us because we’re trying to create events for corporate sponsors who want to rub elbows with those people,” Petersen said. “From an event planner and fundraiser standpoint, it’s definitely been a challenge -- not just to get corporate sponsors through the door, but to justify their investment, since there won’t be as many members of Congress.”
And lawmakers have to be careful which parties they attend. Campaign finance watchdog groups, including Public Citizen, issued a letter to members of Congress last month warning them to steer clear of parties that would violate new ethics rules forbidding lawmakers from attending events in their honor hosted by lobbyists or lobbying organizations.
That’s not to say there won’t be any partying going on -- particularly by the well-connected and the wealthy.
So far, the Sunlight Foundation’s Political Party Time website has tracked about 400 events scheduled to take place in Charlotte. Many are policy briefings, but there are a number of corporate-sponsored parties, such as the Montana delegation’s celebration at the NC Music Factory on Tuesday, sponsored by Verizon.
To have the all-access pass in Charlotte, it helps to be a big donor.
One of the hottest events of the week is a Thursday night bash at the Fillmore Charlotte dubbed “Super-O-Rama” being hosted by a trio of Democratic super PACs. Actress Jessica Alba and producer Cash Warren are hosting the party, which will feature performances by Latin hip hop star Pitbull and New York pop group Scissor Sisters. A sponsorship package of that event and others hosted by the super PACs next week started at $25,000.
As always, The Creative Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group for the entertainment industry, will be putting on an exclusive party – this one studded with celebrities such as Tim Daly, Patricia Arquette, Alfre Woodard, John Leguizamo and Rose Byrne. Google will have its post-gavel shindig in a big tent.
But top bundlers for Obama’s campaign will get access to the most exclusive events of all: a briefing breakfast Thursday morning with First Lady Michelle Obama and campaign officials, followed by a party at the NASCAR Hall of Fame that night with Vice President Joe Biden -- where some expect the president himself to make an appearance.
Kimberly Scott, a veteran political consultant who runs DemList.com, a compendium of the events taking place in Charlotte, said she is getting swamped with dozens of last-minute additions to the calendar every day. DemList has been so besieged with requests for information that she set up a Facebook page for attendees to connect with one another.
While some groups have chosen to have a more low-key presence at the convention this year, Scott said she thinks the atmosphere will still be “very electric.”
“We’re still talking about an incumbent president, and a historic one,” she said. “All the party leaders will be there, all the state delegations. It is all of that energy in one place. As a politico and operative, it’s one of the greatest rushes you can experience.”