The Life of the Party

On Monday, the same evening that the eminences grises of the Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, addressed the party faithful at the Fleet Center, a greasier process was also underway, as corporate donors waited waiting eagerly for delegates to stream out of the Fleet Center to a long-list of late night parties.

Some couldn't even wait for the real partying to begin. One friend of ours managed to get into an exclusive party at the top of the Prudential Center, where long before Clinton was done speaking, the doors were already open on the scenic 50th floor. Heaps of fresh seafood, fine French pastries and overflowing platters of other delicacies, along with troops of performers, greeted the California congressional delegation. The event was paid for by Fleishman-Hilliard, a national PR firm with offices all over the country. Other sponsors included Intel, Oracle, Ebay, SBC, Genentech and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. On the way out, attendees received a T-shirt with a list of all the events corporate sponsors.

At the same time, there were receptions for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), and a Microsoft bash for homestate Sen. Patty Murray. The Roxy Night Club, scene of a soiree for the conservative Blue Dog Democrats the night before, was now the site for a party for Rep. Harold Ford (D-TN), where, reported the National Journal, Justin Timberlake might or might not be performing. Champagne and cigars were the attraction at a small gathering for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Picking up the tab for these events are a long list of corporate donors. The Roxy Blue Dog event Sunday night, a little $600,000 shindig, was paid for by some 30, including Altria (formerly known as Phillip Morris), Comcast (the cable giant), ConocoPhillips (the oil conglomerate), and Microsoft. Verizon and Lockheed Martin sprang for an affair honoring the Congressional Black Caucus, and Novartis for a quiet cocktail hour honoring the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. Bell South, the Edison Electric Institute, and some dozen other companies are hosting festivities for Sen. John B. Breaux (D-LA), who is fabled to have quipped years ago that his vote wasn't for sale, but it was for rent.

In the wake of the new ban on soft money enacted as part of McCain-Feingold, which prevents the national political parties from accepting unlimited contributions from special interests, corporate cash has instead been pouring into the coffers of the nonprofit host committees for the Democratic and Republican conventions. Together, the two committees are expected to raise more than $100 million from private sources – more than 12 times as much as they raised in 1992. Here as in the presidential fundraising race, the Republicans are in the lead, expecting to raise $63.6 million to the Democrats' $39 million. And that's not even counting millions more been spent on hundreds of private parties.

What's more, many of these donors are showing bipartisanship, and sponsoring events in Boston as well as at the GOP convention in New York. Among the double donors are big givers to both the Democratic and Republican conventions, including IBM, AT&T, Coca-Cola Company, Microsoft, Pfizer, Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Altria Group.

Why do these donors give? A Novartis public affairs VP attending the cocktail hour explained that the company was giving $500,000 apiece to the Democratic and Republican host committees for the conventions because "We're very emmeshed in both communities, New York and Boston." Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD), whom we bumped into at the Hamer event, was a bit more blunt. Asked why PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Bell South and Motorola were each throwing him an event this week. "It's a tradition that leaders of Congress are honored by certain groups," he said smoothly. "To the extent they sponsor a party, they get a chance to talk to you."

What happens at these parties isn't so much the direct exchange of cash for favors as something more subtle and invidious: the reinforcement of a common worldview. That's because ordinary people aren't invited to these events; nor could they afford to pay-to-play. So the politicians in the room don't hear about the high cost of health insurance or how hard it is to find affordable housing on the minimum wage. To do that, they'd have to talk to the waiters, busboys and janitors who clean up after the revelers leave at 2:00 a.m. Instead, fatcats and lobbyists touch their arms and remind them about that capital gains tax they're hoping to reduce, or that tax subsidy they're hoping to protect for their business client. As Robert Reich, Clinton's Labor Secretary once wrote, "Access to the network of the wealthy does not buy a politician's mind, instead it nibbles constantly, sweetly, at his ear."

When the parties are over, these donors come knocking, emailing, faxing, and phoning, asking for paybacks on their investments. All too often, they receive them. The utility industry's Edison Electric Institute, the sponsor of at least nine events here in Boston, successfully lobbied the Cheney Energy Task Force to include a number of items from its legislative wish list in the Bush Administration's energy plan, including new EPA regulations essentially exempting coal-burning utilities from installing pollution control devices when making upgrades. Not knowing who will be in the White House in 2005, Edison is here in Boston to cover its bets.

Even those being feted acknowledge the problem. The Congressional Black Caucus event honored the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. In 1964, she bravely led a delegation from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the Democratic convention in Atlantic City, where they challenged the seating of an all-white slate from the state's segregationist Democrats. Far from the glare of media attention, which has been all over the celebrities attending this week's events, fourteen surviving members of the MFDP were toasted by the CBC. The Rev. Ed King, one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats being honored, seemed a bit nonplussed by its corporate sponsorship. "I wish citizens were funding politics, not corporations," he said. We couldn't agree more.

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