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Off Camera, Celebrating So It Counts

By Ruth Marcus, Washington Post,
Monday 21 August 2000

LOS ANGELES –– The television audience for the two party conventions may have been the smallest in decades, but the party-hopping audience was bigger, and the parties even more lavish than the excesses of four years ago.

The nonstop festivities had a certain end of the Roman Empire feel, from cruises on the Amway corporate yacht in Philadelphia to lunches at the Beverly Hills mansions of Hollywood moguls, where contributors chatted with senators as they strolled among the topiary animals and artificial waterfalls.

Democratic National Committee donors who gave $50,000 enjoyed a private reception and shop-op at the Giorgio Armani clothing boutique on Rodeo Drive, receiving $100 gift certificates as they entered.

The biggest donors watched the action from private skyboxes far above the floor, while a sold-out post-convention fundraiser--featuring Barbra Streisand's rendition of the Democratic anthem, "Happy Days Are Here Again"--brought in more than $5 million in valuable "hard money" contributions to the Democratic Party.

"Good evening everyone, and welcome to the inaugural ball," emcee Whoopi Goldberg told the crowd at the Shrine Auditorium, also the site of this year's Academy Awards.

It was a fittingly glitzy finale to the two-week orgy of revelry that began at the GOP bash in Philadelphia, paused briefly and resumed in full force here as Democrats went Hollywood with a vengeance behind the scenes even as their candidates lashed the industry in their prime-time comments.

As conventions have increasingly become more spectacle than suspense, the off-camera action--the "convention behind the convention," as House Republicans' deputy chairman Dan Mattoon put it--has increasingly become the venue where the real business of the week is done.

That business has several dimensions: It is a way for the parties to raise money from donors and hit them up for more; for candidates to collect funds and schmooze with potential givers; and for corporate America to buy goodwill from--and access to--the politicians it fetes.

"I'm partied out," New Jersey Sen. Robert G. Torricelli said Thursday morning, with several still to go.

Torricelli chairs the Senate Democrats' campaign arm, meaning that he spent the week stroking those who have already given big checks to the party and buttering them up to write even larger ones. In that role, Torricelli also requested that his fellow Democratic senators butter up donors at nine convention-week events.

It wasn't always like this--and it wasn't supposed to be. When Congress rewrote the campaign finance laws in 1974, it provided for public funding of conventions in an effort to avoid quadrennial corporate influence-buying. This year, each party received $13.5 million in taxpayer money to put on their shows. But that money has turned out to be just a down payment on the amount it took to put on each convention; the host committees for Los Angeles and Philadelphia each raised more than $30 million in private funds, an amount that does not include what the parties themselves raised in connection with conventions.

For the political parties, conventions are a key fundraising tool. In Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the national parties and their House and Senate campaign committees marketed competing convention packages--with price tags from $5,000 to $100,000 and up--in which the biggest checks bought the best of everything: hotels, skybox seats and face time with key lawmakers.

The conventions not only bring in money from those who pay to play but also give party fundraisers a captive audience, with potential donors teed up along with golf balls at the exclusive courses where convention tournaments are played with a member of Congress guaranteed in every foursome.

Democratic convention chairman Terry McAuliffe, perhaps the party's best fundraiser, liked to distinguish between the two conventions, saying the Republicans "would have auctioned off the Liberty Bell if it wasn't bolted down."

But in truth, there was little difference between the parties' convention activities, except that the Democrats' checks came accompanied by a heaping serving of guilt and a promise to end the system of unlimited "soft money" checks if they take control. The Republican National Committee created its club of Regents, the $250,000-level donors who received appropriately royal treatment in Philadelphia, while the Democratic National Committee's caste system features two even higher tiers: Leadership 2000, for those who have given or raised $350,000, and the $500,000-level Chairman's Circle.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) solicited one corporate tycoon, who along with his company has already given more than $500,000 to Democrats, to ante up an additional $250,000 for the fall campaign to retake the House and put Gephardt in charge. In Philadelphia, party fundraisers laid the groundwork for an audacious $100 million fundraising drive to finance the GOP's air and ground war for the fall campaigns.

The drive for corporate--and in the case of the Democrats, union and trial lawyer--cash is fueled by the parties' need to pay for increasingly expensive television time and to underwrite high-tech--and high-cost--voter turnout efforts that both sides believe will make the difference in November.

The parties' insatiable appetite for funds has become especially unquenchable since 1996, when the Clinton-Gore campaign pioneered the use of the Democratic Party to pay for so-called issue advertising that did everything but directly urge viewers to vote for the Democratic ticket. Republicans followed that lead, and such advertising has since become a staple not only of the presidential campaign but of House and Senate races as well, providing a new use for the huge soft money donations to the parties and generating demands for even more.

Likewise, the ballooning costs of congressional campaigns have made conventions an even more important venue for candidates to prospect for potential donors or even ignore the traditional--if unwritten--taboo against direct convention fundraising in competition with their party. In Los Angeles, the most prominent--and controversial--example of that was the star-studded "Hollywood Tribute to William Jefferson Clinton," actually a $1 million fundraiser for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate race.

Meanwhile, corporations not only underwrite the parties' activities but also put on their own increasingly lavish events, paying tribute to lawmakers who regulate them. Union Pacific railroad hosted parties for lawmakers and delegates in its luxurious vintage rail cars from the 1950s in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. At the GOP convention, it set aside some of its cars for the use of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and his political action committee just outside the First Union Center.

"For us, it's a great tool," said Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley. "It adds a little bit of panache, gives us a leg up compared to all the other people trying to get attention at the conventions. We give people good food on good china."

For the railroad, Bromley said, "it's a matter of access, as it is for everybody. Maybe a year from now, something will come up in a state legislature and hopefully that person will remember we gave him dinner. It's a quid pro quo sort of thing."

United Airlines served as the official airline for the Democratic convention, offering discounted tickets to the party and receiving a coveted skybox in return. Its merger partner, US Airways, played the same role for the GOP.

"It's an opportunity to get to know people we don't know, and to talk about issues," said United spokesman Joe Hopkins. And the airline has issues aplenty: its pending merger, complaints about delays and cancellations, and continuing negotiations with the pilots and machinists unions.

For some, the conventions have become so excessive they decided to sit this one out. The Democrats' two top individual donors, Philadelphia investor Peter Buttenwieser and Slimfast founder S. Daniel Abraham, who have each given about $1 million for this election, chose not to attend the Democratic festivities.

"We did that whole circus in 1996," Buttenwieser said before the convention got underway. "This time, we're going to put up our feet and watch from home."

Staff writer John Mintz contributed to this report.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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