Sponsors kept parties rolling on

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn at Google's base at the Charlotte convention. Google was a popular sponsor, with free iced coffee among the offerings providing a buzz.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn at Google's base at the Charlotte convention. Google was a popular sponsor, with free iced coffee among the offerings providing a buzz. (KATHLEEN FLYNN / Tampa Bay Times)
Posted: September 12, 2012

Rock concerts, open bars, and, at one party, small glasses with free cigarettes welcomed Republicans to Tampa last month.

In Charlotte, Democrats at an event sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council downed free shots of vodka and tequila, delivered straight from bottle to mouth via a luge carved from ice.

This was a side of the national party political conventions the viewers at home generally didn't see.

In prime time, Mitt Romney railed against Democratic government excess, while President Obama and his cohort criticized the Republican's business interests.

But when the cameras were off, party delegates and political elite from both sides of the aisle geared up for an unending array of breakfast buffets and late-night soirees - all paid for by corporations and political interest groups.

Such is life at recent conventions: The sponsored shindigs allow donors, businesses, and special interests the chance to quaff cocktails and mingle with officeholders and decision-makers from around the country in a loosely regulated setting. And increasingly, critics say, the elaborate festivities have overshadowed the speechifying by top-of-the-ticket names.

"These parties have really become the heart and soul of the conventions over the last several years," said Craig Holman, of the self-styled watchdog group Public Citizen. "The goal is to give special interests and lobbyists a chance to do their work off of Capitol Hill."

According to another nonpartisan group, the Sunlight Foundation - which collected invitations throughout both conventions - Democrats could choose from more than 400 parties, luncheons, and panels during their three-day convention in Charlotte. Republicans kept their numbers lower, but their galas tended toward the more extravagant, the group's analysis said.

The list of sponsors at this year's events reads like a who's-who of American businesses, labor unions, and interest groups. Google, Comcast, and the pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Merck were all represented.

Google set up a glorified Starbucks, as one convention-goer called it, at both conventions, with a "concierge" for charging cellphones, massage chairs for the weary, dozens of computer screens, and funky furniture. Free iced coffees got a lot of buzz.

The search-engine company followed it up in Charlotte last week with a convention-ending bash. Democratic attendees noshed on bacon on a stick and mini-cherry pies while swilling free Arnold Palmers.

Philadelphia-based Comcast and its subsidiary NBCUniversal Media seemed to be everywhere with dozens of sponsored breakfasts and events - at both conventions.

These efforts extended to the micro-level, too, with events tailored to reach lawmakers and political operatives from individual states.

Breakfasts hosted by PPL Electric Utilities, Johnson & Johnson, and Merck each day of the Democratic convention for the Pennsylvania delegation drew the likes of Mayor Nutter, Reps. Chaka Fattah and Allyson Y. Schwartz, and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.

And a late-night party for Mid-Atlantic state delegates at Charlotte's children's museum - featuring free wine and beer, fried green tomato and BBQ pork sliders, and an active dance party - came courtesy of businesses including Capital One, Peco, and the Cozen O'Connor law firm.

How much these corporations spent on their lobbying events this year remains closely guarded.

None of the company representatives contacted for this article responded to requests for comment, and lobbying reports covering the period won't be filed for months.

But Kenneth Davis, senior director of Duane Morris Government Strategies in Philadelphia, said costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per event were not unusual.

Davis, a Republican, did not attend this year's conventions but has represented clients at conventions past.

And with each subsequent cycle, he said, the side parties and events seem to grow more costly and ever more elaborate as sponsors compete in an influence arms race, jockeying for attention from convention attendees.

"You just have to do it. There's no way around it," Davis said of the pressure for clients to have a presence at the conventions. "You don't want to leave the field open to a competitor. A lot of times you feel like you have to host something almost as a defensive measure."

Greg Allman, Journey, and Kid Rock played sets for invitation-only parties in Tampa - where the list of one night's party sponsors included Aflac, Airlines for America, America's Energy 2012, and the American Resort Development Association - and that's not even all the A's.

Not to be outdone, the Distilled Spirits Association welcomed guests to the Florida Aquarium with fog machines; hand-rolled cigars; and fish tanks filled with otters, sea turtles, sharks, and women dressed as mermaids, said Holman, of Public Citizen. Meanwhile, liquor flowed from about a dozen drink stations while scantily clad women circulated trays of shots.

But despite the largesse put on display by some hosts, Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said the vast majority of these events were restrained and entirely appropriate.

The institute, an energy lobbying organization that has resisted oversight efforts for natural gas extraction, sponsored a host of panels at both the Republican and Democratic conventions featuring experts and supportive lawmakers. The group also cohosted a party in Charlotte with the Democratic Governors' Association.

In most cases, Porter said, event sponsors aren't seeking to trade crispy canap├ęs and cooling cocktails for legislative votes. Instead, they are looking to get convention attendees talking about their pet issues.

"It's not about either political party. It's not even about the specific candidates," Porter said. "Our goal with these events is making energy a top issue in this campaign."

But even that may be a long shot, said Duane Morris' Davis. As events become more elaborate, the messages and interests of the sponsors tend to fade into the background.

While a TV screen scrolled through a laundry list of sponsors, most attendees at a Democratic party hosted for state delegates (including those from Pennsylvania and New Jersey) seemed far more interested in a nitrous oxide machine that was churning out free ice cream.

"There's a public perception that the only reason we do these events is to keep everyone in our pocket," Davis said. "But it's a lot more subtle than that. They offer an opportunity to interact with important people in a nonbusiness setting. It's like playing a round of golf."

Contact Jeremy Roebuck

at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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