Corporate sponsors, Hollywood millionaires shower Democratic convention with money

By Jerry White
17 August 2000

The Democratic Party's national convention in Los Angeles has provided ample evidence of the domination of big money over American politics. From the corporate sponsorship of the convention itself, to the shameless money-grubbing by politicians and party brokers, to the celebrity-studded galas and invitation-only parties, the convention has demonstrated that the Democrats, the self-described “party of the people, not the powerful,” are just as beholden to corporate America as their Republican counterparts.

The moment you step into the Staples Center or the adjacent Los Angeles convention center, the corporate logos on everything from bottled water to the free giveaways handed out to the 15,000 reporters covering the affair virtually yell out: “This convention has been brought to you by General Motors, United Parcel Service, United Airlines, America Online and Cisco Systems.” GM contributed $1 million in cash and services and 400 cars, the same amount the number one automaker donated to the Republicans' affair in Philadelphia.

In the media rooms, Apple and Dell supplied hundreds of spanking new computers; Panasonic, hundreds of televisions; and AT&T and Nortel, the telephones. SBC proudly announced it was a sponsor. In the media lounge, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the health insurance company, provided free food and drink for the 15,000 reporters. There were countless booths for telecommunication companies, airlines, e-commerce and other businesses located around the convention halls.

The convention formally began on Monday. But even before it opened the money began flowing. On Saturday evening some of Hollywood's richest donors hosted a party to say goodbye to Bill Clinton and to support Hillary Clinton's senatorial campaign. Scores of limousines pulled into a Mandeville Canyon estate for a party hosted by comic book magnate Stan Lee, where Democratic backers paid $1,000 a head for cocktails or $25,000 a couple to stay late and eat dinner. The party attracted Brad Pitt, Milton Berle, Michael Bolton, Cher, Paul Anka and other celebrities.

On Sunday a $100,000-a-couple brunch at the Malibu compound of Barbara Streisand raised $10 million for a Clinton library in Little Rock, Arkansas. These events reportedly upset some of Gore's aides, concerned that valuable cash was being siphoned from the vice president's campaign. There was the fear that Gore supporters might be put off with complaints of “donor fatigue” when they went around asking for more. Streisand, however, is scheduled to headline a concert on Thursday following Gore's acceptance speech—with tickets costing between $5,000 and $50,000 each—expected to raise another $4 million for Gore.

Leading officials of the Democratic Party are using the convention to wine and dine large donors and solicit more funds for the final months of the campaign. In the parlance of Terrence McAuliffe, the chairman of the national convention committee, and other Democratic officials, however, these are not fundraisers, but “donor servicing” and “donor-maintenance” events.

According to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) there are around 100 convention parties a day in the Los Angeles area, with four out of five being closed to the public. Among the four dozen corporate sponsors of these affairs the DNC identified America Online, BellSouth, Ernst & Young, Texaco, United Parcel Service and the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae). These gatherings no doubt provide an opportunity for the corporate lobbyists to thank their friends in the Democratic Party and make new suggestions about what legislative measures would enhance their “mutual interests.”

This reporter obtained a confidential list sent to one of the country's largest corporate law firms—headquartered in Los Angeles—which included 13 pages of parties. The fundraising began in earnest Sunday with a $100,000-a-sponsorship Governor's Cup golf tournament that teed off at the Riviera Country Club, Bank of America's party for the Congressional Black Caucus at a downtown high-rise and a tribute to Detroit's Mayor Dennis Archer, co-hosted by DaimlerChrysler and the United Auto Workers.

According to the New York Times, supporters who contributed at least $100,000 to the DNC were issued an 18-page “Convention 2000 Passport” with a list of four days and nights of exclusive parties, receptions and other “intimate” events with party leaders, including the president, Vice President Al Gore and first lady Hillary Clinton. These included Monday night's party at an exclusive restaurant in Beverly Hills, a reception for big money donors at the Giorgio Armani boutique and a late-night dessert reception hosted by the president after he finished his speech to the convention.

A list of the daily events are included in the National Journal, a convention newspaper distributed to delegates, the media and officials. The parties and other events begin around 8:30 a.m. and do not end until the early morning hours of the following day. A sample of Tuesday night's parties gives a flavor of the events:

7 p.m.: “Here's one theme the Republicans missed: ‘Partying with a Purpose.' Blacks in Entertainment and Telecommunications will show you how it's done at Club Soho.”

Also at 7 p.m. “Will Calista be there?” (A reference to actress Calista Flockhart from Fox TV's Ally McBeal show). “Looks to be the hottest ticket in town, since Joe L. got on the ticket. Lieberman's New Democratic compatriot Sen. John Breaux, La., will spice things up with his ‘Mardi Gras goes to Hollywood' at Paramount Studios. Revelers will take to the studio's ‘downtown-streets lot' where Ally McBeal exterior shots are filmed. The many corporate sponsors include AT&T, Bell South, Lockheed Martin, Merck, Texaco and Waste Management. By invitation only.”

9 p.m.: “Voter.com and the national lobby firm Patton Boggs honor Democratic National Convention Committee Chairman Terrence McAuliffe and former DNC finance chair and Clinton friend, Beth Dozoretz. Cocktails and supper at the Sunset Room in Hollywood, invitation only.” Also at 9 p.m. “Direct, but not very sexy. ‘Stay Up Late on a Tuesday Night.' The young professional crowd gather for drinks and dancing at the Bar Marmont in the heart of the Sunset Strip, for an invitation-only party sponsored by Seagrams and Universal Pictures, with Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century.”

DNC officials apparently overextended themselves when it came to promises to big donors about special seating arrangements at the convention. Some donors in the $500,000 to $1 million range expected to be seated in coveted skyboxes, luxury suites with multiple TV monitors, minibars and sofas. But there are only 160 skyboxes at the Staples Center—about 60 fewer than at the United Center in Chicago, the location of the 1996 Democratic convention—and DNC officials have told billionaires that they must share the boxes or use them in rotation. One Democratic official, who according to the Washington Post “wields skybox influence,” reported that he has received cases of wine from those angling for space.

The Democrats' platform advocates a ban on political contributions known as soft money. Al Gore says the elimination of such donations is his first legislative priority. The unabashed embrace of corporate cash has prompted Senator Russell Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who advocates campaign finance reform, to label his party's fundraising tactics, “a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion.”

Earlier this week Feingold labeled “absurd” claims by DNC officials that there was no fundraising going at the convention. He acknowledged that “In room after room, in hotel after hotel and private home after private home there are literally scores of fundraisers that include contribution levels as high as $50,000 or $100,000.”

Feingold cited the numerous “tributes” to members of Congress sponsored by major corporations and attended by donors of $20,000 to $100,000. Among them are a luncheon for Senator Dianne Feinstein of California sponsored by Chevron and a dinner for Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota paid for by Global Crossing, a telecommunications company.

One of the chief players in the money and favor-swapping game at the convention is the trade union bureaucracy, which co-hosted a series of parties and fundraisers along with major corporations. Union members, mostly top and lower-level officials, make up nearly a third—or 1,500—of the convention delegates, and six of the Democrats' ten largest donors are unions. As one Teamsters official from Mississippi told this reporter, “We're in the process now.”

The vast majority of working people, however, look with contempt at the spectacle in Los Angeles. This reporter had a telling conversation with one worker who is employed at a restaurant in the Staples Center. When I asked the worker, a Filipino immigrant, to describe the delegates, she said they were “bourgeois” and inhabited a “world that was completely different from the real world” of working people. As for the million dollar fundraisers, she said, “Why don't they feed the hungry people around here or fix my children's broken schools?” She concluded, “They say we have prosperity, but the prosperity has only gone to the rich.”