Election law's unintended side effect: posh parties

Donors: Democrats get pampered as campaign finance reforms allow corporations to spend lavishly at conventions.

Election 2004 -- The Democratic Convention

July 28, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON - For convention-crazed Democrats, Monday was a night of irony. First, they listened to former President Bill Clinton declare that Republicans serve only the wealthy, that Democrats stand for all Americans and that he would gladly give up $5,000 of his own tax cut to help ordinary people.

Then, after Clinton's speech, about 1,000 of them - lawmakers, delegates and others - headed straight to Felt, a swanky Boston nightclub, for a "Dance by the Light of the Moon" gala paid for by the natural-gas industry. Well off limits to ordinary people, the party specialized in vodka martinis poured through $12,000 ice sculptures.

With liquor flowing and good times rolling, some watchdog groups in Washington have expressed dismay. They are concerned that the new McCain-Feingold campaign finance law has had the unintended effect of making convention parties seem even more tantalizing to corporations.

All over Boston, events like the Felt party are rocking into the early morning - a part of the convention never seen by television viewers.

Throwing a rollicking convention party, companies have learned, remains a legal and especially effective way to schmooze and lobby influential Democrats.

Royal treatment

Democrats might ridicule Republicans for ties to the rich, but at their own convention, the rich are playing outsized roles. Big-time individual donors are being treated like royalty - wined, dined and given exclusive access to private functions with luminaries from Clinton to Ben Affleck. The Democrats have likewise opened their arms to corporations that wished to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars into sponsoring the convention or holding posh parties.

"Our main interest right now is passage of new energy legislation," said Peggy Laramie, a spokeswoman for the American Gas Association, which budgeted $700,000 to throw bashes here and at the Republican National Convention next month in New York.

"We want to keep people focused on feeling good about natural gas," Laramie said. "Just by talking to them, we hope that next time an issue comes up related to natural gas, they'll call upon us as a resource."

Her group is also holding receptions for Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the senior Democrat on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and for Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the top Democrat on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee.

All the partying has created an intense social scene - as it will be again when Republicans gather in New York - and has many delegates talking not about the speeches but what party they managed to slip into and how late they stayed up.

"This week will all depend on how much energy I have," said Bobby Savoie, a member of Kerry's finance committee and a leading fund-raiser who has gathered donations of well more than $200,000 for the senator. "Mardi Gras is two weeks of everybody drinking and partying. This is Mardi Gras - maybe a little more sober."

Savoie, the son of Cajun sugarcane farmers from Louisiana, is chief executive officer of a technology company that created the laser-guided system used during the Iraq war to target a restaurant where Saddam Hussein was thought to be eating. As a top donor, Savoie was showered with nearly 30 invitations to galas and luncheons throughout the week and prime access to the convention hall. He is free to wander the floor at will or hang out on the restricted sixth floor, gazing down at speakers while sipping cocktails from an open bar.

McCain-Feingold banned corporations, labor unions and individuals from donating unlimited "soft money" to the political parties. But it left two ways for them to pour money into the political process. One is to donate to the official convention host committee, which contributors have done lavishly this year. A study by the Campaign Finance Institute showed that private donations to the conventions have jumped from $8.4 million in 1992 (14 percent of total funding) to $103.5 million this year (60 percent of total funding).

`It is buying access'

The new law also lets corporations throw parties as posh and expensive as they like and in no way regulates the lobbying that goes on. What's more, the House ethics committee, which normally bars members of Congress from accepting gifts worth more than $50, allows lawmakers to attend corporate-sponsored parties, so long as the parties are held to "honor" them or their colleagues.

"The political conventions have really become the last frontier of soft money," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "These parties are watering holes. It is buying access, buying friendship and buying influence. Where else do you get to cozy up to senators, members of Congress, state senators, governors - they're all here."

In their zeal to top the other donors with a better party, contributors have created a kind of pecking order.

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