Inside the convention hall and on the steamy streets of Philadelphia, an incensed progressive insurgency is protesting the political power of corporations and billionaires – but the message doesn’t appear to be getting through at the city’s A-list eateries and nightclubs.
High-rolling donors, lobbyists and lawmakers have all converged on the city to conduct business as usual, imbibing at private concerts, making deals over canapes, and swapping invites to intimate corporate events at fancy venues. The choices that lawmakers have for partying with lobbyists seem almost limitless, with each dignitary given a dizzying spreadsheet of their options on any given day this week.
The convention in Philadelphia – like the Republican event in Cleveland before it – is an unabashed display of the coziness between those who write big checks, and those who run, or want to run, the government. It is particularly conspicuous this year in Philadelphia, when lobbyists are betting Democrats will keep control of the White House. Democrats are not even trying to put on the show of restraint they did in their last two conventions, when they imposed a ban, albeit a porous one, on funding from corporations.
“Whatever happened to the candidates being all about the people?” asked John Klein, 33, of Philadelphia, a supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, seeking refuge from the crush of convention activity on a shady patch of grass near Philadelphia’s Center City. “It’s all about corporate sponsorship.”
Before the Democrats even gaveled in the convention, the disclosure of thousands of internal party emails by WikiLeaks shed new light on the nakedly transactional and at times seedy process of trolling for mega-contributions from big spenders who wanted to be part of the insider crowd here. In the emails, donors and fundraisers discussed how to time their checks to get them the most access.
Party officials plotted how to get one firm, Honeywell, which receives billions of dollars in government contracts, to kick in $60,000. Not enough to secure a hotel room for the event, but an exception was made. “This gesture would definitely help our relationships with them for later in the election cycle and for years to come,” an email from a party fundraiser said.
Corporate logos are emblazoned on most big-ticket events at the convention in the same fashion they are at major-league sporting contests.
Facebook invited lawmakers and lobbyists to come together at Philadelphia’s trendy Buddakan restaurant, with its giant gold Buddha and techno vibe, for “the most exclusive party of the week,” which it hosted with comedy website Funny or Die. Google will host a much-talked-about party later.
A Monday cocktail party honoring female leaders at an ornate bank building refashioned as a hip restaurant featured clams, shrimp and prosciutto – and a speech from an executive at a wireless communications firm, a co-sponsor of the event, promoting the firm’s “cutting-edge technology.” In a ballroom at a boutique hotel, lawmakers were invited by drug giant Johnson & Johnson to mingle with actors promoting its campaign to teach kids the safe use of prescription medications.
For the Hollywood types, showing up at both the Republican and Democratic conventions was a chance to push one of their own causes – protecting money for arts education.
“Same zoo, different animals,” said actor Tim Daly, president of the Creative Coalition. “We learn a lot at both places.”
The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, featuring a priceless collection of Impressionist art, was opened after hours exclusively for the guests of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who would be treated to a private concert by Janelle Monae. The cost for a pair of tickets was a mere $33,400. The event’s organizers got agitated when a reporter started talking to guests outside. A security guard arrived promptly, and ordered the reporter to leave the parking lot. Then another showed up and declared the sidewalk was off-limits, too.
Donors themselves were less skittish. Mary McCartin of Princeton, N.J., said she is a socialist who happens to have money and is giving some to Democrats because “I believe the rich should pay more taxes.” As for why she picked Pelosi’s event, she said it was recommended by former Democratic Party Chairman Ed Rendell, who had told a friend of hers, “This is the one to be at because there will be a lot of movie stars.”
They almost certainly will include huge corporations, even though federal law says they aren’t supposed to pay for conventions. Organizers get around that prohibition by steering checks to nonprofits technically not linked to the parties. Those nonprofits now foot most of the convention bills.
“The [Federal Election Commission] has really made this into a free-for-all,” said Brendan Fischer, associate counsel of the Campaign Legal Center.
A spokeswoman for the Philadelphia host committee blamed “the system” for the secrecy and for the fundraising methods: “We are required to work within the parameters of the structure that currently exists,” said Anna Adams-Sarthou.
A solicitation the party used to entice those with big bank accounts to open their checkbooks – part of the Wikileaks disclosures – reads like a vacation brochure. The high-end “Rittenhouse Square” package, named after the tony Philadelphia neighborhood and offered to people who give $467,600, came with booking at a top hotel, VIP passes to parties and lounges and the chance to get your picture taken at the convention lectern.
It also includes floor passes to the convention, where donors who attended Monday night could have heard Sanders speak. Ironically, among his lines that drew the most applause were the ones in which he railed the loudest against money in politics.
“It should be an embarrassment,” he said the next morning, of the special interest frenzy convention week has become. Then he looked around the posh neoclassical conference room where he was breakfasting with reporters. “Who is sponsoring this?”
Moderator Al Hunt of Bloomberg Politics started to joke but then thought better of it. “We don’t have any outside funder,” Hunt said.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign responded to questions about the excess in Philadelphia by pointing out that the nominee is all for campaign finance reform, calling to overturn the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case that has helped so much political cash to flow unfettered.
But what did Clinton think of what a reporter at the Sanders breakfast termed the “special-interest orgy” going on this week?
“I haven’t spoken to her about that,” Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney said. “So I really couldn’t answer that question.”