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|August 28-September 3, 2008
The other convention
Corporations, lobby groups try to buy influence with lawmakers and Democratic officials by throwing lavish parties
by Pamela White
The Democratic National Convention (DNC), as covered by the national media, is a massive convergence of delegates, party officials, elected representatives and media at Denver’s Pepsi Center that culminates today, Thursday, Aug. 28, at Mile High Stadium. But out of the limelight, beyond the cameras, other events are taking place, events that have every bit as much potential to shape the future of the United States as those broadcast from the convention floor. In fact, it may be more accurate to say there are three conventions going on in Denver at the moment.
The first is the official convention. A carefully orchestrated made-for-TV event, the Democratic National Convention serves three important purposes: to confirm the Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency; to excite and inspire Democrats to act on behalf of that candidate; and to deliver a powerful campaign message designed to win the support of a broad spectrum of American voters.
The second convention is one that is largely ignored by corporate media. Made up of activist organizations and protesters, it’s the convention that has taken place in the streets, a gathering of citizens whose frustration and disgust with the American political system includes Democrats as well as Republicans. Corralled and kept away from the Pepsi Center, this convention sees little participation from the delegates or Democratic party officials at the main convention. (See accompanying article and photos.)
The third convention — arguably the most important convention — takes place out of the limelight, a convention of luncheons, wine and cheese parties, fund-raisers, strategy sessions and meetings the purpose of which is to influence the actions of Democrats, particularly Democratic lawmakers. It’s a convention of special-interest groups, nonprofit organizations and, yes, corporate lobbyists, each taking advantage of this gathering to rally its membership and get out its message.
It could be said that both the Democratic and Republican national conventions function as a microcosm of our political system: the party elite gather inside the big building publicly to take action, separated from the citizenry by security guards and apathy, while special interests vie for their favor beyond the cameras of network news. And all the American public knows is what it sees on television.
Made for TV
It’s Monday at 5 p.m., and for two hours the podium at the Pepsi Center has hosted back-to-back speakers. Many of them have been prominent Latinos from around the country, like Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. Women’s interests are represented, as well, with Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, have also spoken.
Though these individuals represent different interests, their speeches can be summed up in a few key “talking points”: Americans are suffering. America cannot afford four more years of Bush administration policies. America needs change. Barack Obama is the man who can bring America the change it needs.
“The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Latinos throughout the nation, knows that Senator Barack Obama is the candidate who will deliver the change our nation needs,” says Rep. Joe Baca, D.-Calif., stumbling slightly over Obama’s name. “He is the right person for the job. As president, Barack Obama will be a fighter, not only for the Latino community, but for all Americans. Si se puede con Barack Obama!”
A few hundred people applaud anemically, most seats in the Pepsi Center still vacant. (They won’t fill with warm bodies until later in afternoon as the convention nears primetime and the more famous speakers take the podium. By the time Jesse Jackson Jr., Caroline and Sen. Edward Kennedy speak, the auditorium will be full.)
It’s clear that many speakers were chosen for the demographics they represent rather than their public speaking skills. The Latino speakers talk about the importance of Barack Obama to the Latino, immigrant and blue-collar communities, stressing his humble upbringing. Women point out that Obama was raised by a single mother and laud his support of education, health-care reform and women’s rights. African American leaders emphasize the work Obama did with poor families on the south side of Chicago.
And somewhere in the building, a campaign wonk is checking off a list: the Latino community, women, the working poor, African Americans.
To win in November, Obama will need strong voter support from each of these communities, and the DNC offers the Democratic Party the best opportunity it’s going to get to prune its “vision for America” into a format that will fit neatly into a box — your television to be specific.
It’s a polished message meant for consumption by the masses. Yes, there is business to transact at the convention — establishing the party platform, holding various caucuses, officially deciding on Obama as the Democratic candidate — but its most important function in the information age is to attract voter support.
This is the Democratic National Convention you see. It’s the Democratic National Convention you are meant to see.
There’s a reason each day’s convention session doesn’t start until 3 p.m. Part of it is that most TV networks won’t start broadcasting until it’s 5 p.m. in the east. What’s the point of having speakers talking into the microphone if America isn’t watching? But part of it is that delegates need free time, not only for their various caucuses, but also for activities outside the Pepsi Center. Call it “socializing.” Call it “hobnobbing.” Call it “networking.”
With 4,400 credentialed delegates from the nation’s 56 states and territories, as well as national Democratic leadership and the “Who’s who” of Congressional Democrats gathered in one location, the opportunity for citizens’ groups and special interests to meet and interact with influential people is unbeatable. So, although the convention officially resumes each afternoon at 3, days start early.
On Monday, for example, the Maryland State Delegation met for a private breakfast with Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith at the Renaissance Denver Hotel, while Politico, Yahoo! and the Denver Post hosted a breakfast panel at the Denver Athletic Club. A little later in the morning, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee met at the Brown Palace Hotel for its own private breakfast.
Events continued throughout each day, breakfasts becoming brunches becoming lunches becoming wine and cheese receptions, dinners and late-night gatherings of every kind — concerts, wine-tastings, discussion groups. The official Democratic National Convention Committee master schedule lists dozens upon dozens of overlapping events each day, some free and open to the public, many by invitation only, and some private.
Looking at the schedule, one sees that these events continue even when the DNC is in session — even when the delegates are in their seats.
Question: If delegates are in their seats, who attends these events?
Answer: Everyone who’s anyone — Democratic leaders, members of Congress, congressional candidates, business leaders and philanthropists.
Welcome to the other convention.
While the media and delegates fill the Pepsi Center, a great many of those who flew to Denver for the convention have spent precious little time at the convention, attending instead a dizzying number of parties hosted around town.
A good many of the events at this “shadow” convention are progressive in nature and are consistent with a Democratic reform agenda. Labor unions like Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO had gatherings. So did Planned Parenthood and Rock the Vote, EMILY’s List and ProgressNow. The Sierra Club hosted a wine and cheese reception. The Human Rights Campaign hosted a standing-room-only concert, and the Global AIDS Alliance welcomed attendees to a luncheon.
But many of these parallel events are little more than corporate lobbying efforts.
Thanks to the Federal Election Campaign Act, which ostensibly prohibits unlimited contributions from special-interest groups, corporations have fewer ways to ply politicos with soft-money donations. But the regulations don’t extend to the conventions, which are now perhaps the last opportunity for unfettered corporate largesse. Special interests that can no longer donate directly to parties can instead absorb most of the costs of the conventions, freeing the parties to money for use on campaigns.
“Corporations have turned our national nominating conventions into an opportunity for executives and lobbyists to wine, dine and schmooze lawmakers all under the pretense of a public purpose,” says Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “The only way to return these conventions to the public is to close the loopholes and remove the influence of special interests from the conventions.”
According to Public Citizen’s Aug. 20 report on the conventions, more than 400 parties have been scheduled outside the conventions, a great many of them hosted by corporations and lobby groups.
Qwest has donated $6 million to both the Democratic and Republican conventions. It also hosted several invitation-only events, including a reception honoring women leaders and a reception where those important enough to receive invitations can mingle with the likes of Qwest Chairman and CEO Ed Mueller.
Not to be outdone, AT&T also donated to both parties’ convention committees. Together with U.S. Telecom, the company hosted batting practice for delegates and other attendees at Coors Field.
Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly also hosted an array of events, including a reception for African-American leaders and an invitation-only VIP dinner. The company, which earned $18.6 million in 2007 making it the 148th largest corporation in the United States, also hosted a luncheon at which the topic was diabetes.
Other special interests holding events include: Daimler Co., the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Capital One, Charles Schwab, Mutual of Omaha, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo and so on.
Protesting the continued corruption of the political system are activists whose presence is barely felt by those inside the Pepsi Center. But that’s another story.
To read Public Citizen’s report on the way soft money is impacting the conventions go to www.citizen.org.
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