Democrats flocking to their national convention will spend this week hobnobbing in Charlotte, N.C., with lobbyists, special interest groups and wealthy donors, just days after Republicans hosted their own party of all political parties in Tampa, Fla.
During this week's Democratic National Convention, which organizers say will be the first not to rely on special-interest money, delegates, elected officials and other attendees filling time between speeches will have a slate of sponsored events to choose from outside the Time Warner Cable Arena, where the formal gathering is being staged.
In Charlotte, as in Tampa, behind-the-scenes receptions and other exclusive events allow the political elite to mingle with donors and special interests in a way that's remarkable even by Washington standards. Dozens of events are happening and scores of donors, lobbyists and corporate heads are mingling and sipping adult beverages in a loosely regulated setting.
On Monday, the Distilled Spirits Council threw a bash at the North Carolina Music Factory. On Wednesday, the Recording Industry Association of America is planning a party at the Fillmore benefiting the "Musicians on Call" charity. All week long, telecom companies, home builders and tech firms will be hosting events nearby.
Such an atmosphere is hardly unique; conventions usually create intersections of lobbying and power. Democratic donors complained early in Obama's administration that they were kept at arm's length, but since then the president has opened his White House to contributors for events like state dinners and meetings with policy advisers.
"The Democratic and Republican national conventions, which are supposed to be publicly financed electoral events with reasonable ethics restrictions on influence-peddling by lobbyists, have turned into mostly privately financed soirees funded by corporations and lobbying firms that seek favors from the federal government," says Public Citizen, a consumer-rights advocacy group in Washington.
For their part, convention organizers have said they are staying true to their self-imposed ban on special-interest money because none of the corporate money will be spent on events inside the sports arena and stadium where Obama will accept his party's nomination for a second term. All told, 10,000 volunteers, 6,000 convention delegates and 15,000 members of the media are expected in Charlotte this week.
Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher said more individual donors have donated to the convention compared with four years ago, largely because of the ban on bigger-ticket corporate contributions, making it "the most open and accessible convention in history." He said that contrasts with the GOP's "four-day, exclusive event catering to the top 1 percent."
Meanwhile, local organizers set up a nonprofit entity called the New American City Inc. to take in corporate cash, with sponsors like Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy sending checks to the group. That money is bankrolling operations that support the convention, including paying the salaries of full-time host committee employees, who are separate from convention workers.
Outside of those contributions — donors' identities won't be revealed in Federal Election Commission filings until next month — corporate sponsors not only are hosting parties but also are providing transportation for convention delegates, including buses and a fleet of courtesy cars. They're also underwriting less glamorous events like policy briefings.
As well, corporations with business before the federal government — including those with major financial interests at stake — are hosting their own events. In Tampa, the parties and other hosted events at times blended the agendas of both corporate and media hosts that have interests in Washington's halls of power.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is hosting a handful of events this week, according to a review of invitations collected by the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates greater government openness. Just last month, Pfizer agreed to pay the federal government $60 million to settle allegations that its employees bribed doctors and other foreign officials in Europe and Asia to win business and boost sales. Meanwhile, one of Pfizer's top executives, Sally Susman, is a major fundraiser for Obama and helped raise between $200,000 and $500,000 for his campaign, records show.
Representatives for Pfizer did not immediately return calls seeking comment Monday.
In the media sphere, there's a "Nightly Lounge" at both conventions hosted by Politico, the Washington-focused news operation that is trying to win more customers for its specialized subscription services. It said last week the parties were conceived as a "live extension of our journalistic mission." Other news outlets are hosting similar events.
The Democratic convention, parties aside, is also giving Obama supporters — particularly "super" political action committees that have spent millions of dollars to support his re-election effort — a chance to meet attendees. Invitations show Priorities USA, the nonprofit arm of the super PAC Priorities USA Action, and American Bridge 21st Century will be in town.
In Tampa last week, attendees had plenty of galas to choose from: a Kid Rock concert, a "Back to the Reagan '80s" reception by the Americans for Tax Reform Foundation and a "Wheels Up" party hosted in part by the National Energy Institute and Citizens United, the conservative organization behind the namesake 2010 Supreme Court case that loosened restrictions on money in politics.
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