Barack Obama steamrolled into Denver in the summer of 2008, vowing to change the very nature of American politics as a four-day celebration coronated him the Democratic nominee for president. The entire affair, give or take a few bucks, was brought to you by corporate America and the 1 percent.
Three quarters of the funding for the $61 million convention came from donors who gave more than a quarter million dollars, according to a study by the Campaign Finance Institute and the Center for Responsive Politics. A third of that money came from a dozen contributors — companies, rich folks and unions who gave at least a million each. Half of the big donors gave to both conventions. Only 5 percent came from people who gave less than $100,000.
At a typical convention, corporations get what they pay for: The type of informal access that is highly prized when it comes to building lasting relationships.
"The convention was a great way to build relationships with members. People are usually in a good mood. The whole thing, you feel like it's historic, it's once every four years, you remember the people and the parties," said one top Democratic lobbyist who requested anonymity so he could speak openly about building relationships without damaging them. "For my clients and for me, it's really about access and building a relationship, having the ability to go in and meet with a member or meet with an office."
This lobbyist, who works with a variety of corporate clients, is considering skipping this year's convention, the first he would miss in three decades.
That's because Obama vowed during his 2008 campaign that if he won the White House, the next convention would be, if not an all-volunteer effort, at least less of a corporate shitshow. The promise was part of an anti-lobbying effort that has barred lobbyists from donating to his campaign or working in the White House. And while corporations aren't lacking for influence on politics in general, and plenty of lobbyists have gotten waivers to work in the administration, the convention reform has been surprisingly effective.
By changing the rules of which elements of the 1 percent can contribute, Democrats have altered the balance of power at the convention. For the 2012 convention, Obama banned all contributions from corporations and lobbyists and capped individual donations at $100,000. Unions, meanwhile, were still welcome to kick in generously.
Lobbyists threw a fit. Over the past few months, they have taken to Roll Call and Politico, two publications read closely by their colleagues, to complain about the new restrictions and fret over whether to attend at all.
"The level of access of Members [of Congress] is not there anymore," one banking lobbyist griped to Roll Call.
The new self-imposed restrictions have had a real effect on the makeup of the convention donor base. Suzi Emmerling, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte host committee, said her organization has pulled in 70 times more individual donors over 2008. (Who are those donors? Democrats won't say. You'll have to wait a few weeks until the Federal Election Commission compels disclosure of their names.)
While the two parties often compete for corporate cash, when it comes to the convention, Democrats have created what appears to be a genuine difference. The GOP convention accepts unlimited corporate and lobbyist money.
Getting small-dollar support for a convention is no easy feat. The event costs tens of millions of dollars to put on, and since the outcome is predetermined (spoiler alert: They're going to nominate Obama again), it's all theater — not the kind of thing someone with limited income is eager to fund.
Funding the entire shindig on low six-figure contributions made for a challenge that Democratic lawyers rose to meet. The party's attorneys have been working overtime to figure out how companies and their executives can chip in without violating the ban.
A document circulated in D.C. over the past few months, created by the Convention Host Committee, offers some clues.
A source who was given the document by convention officials and subsequently provided it to The Huffington Post said he was told that the party's lawyers had succeeded in their efforts.
The document lays out six alternatives under the heading "Who can contribute to Committee for Charlotte 2012":
Charlotte 2012 accepts contributions from the following entities:
• Individuals: up to $100,000
• Foundations: up to $100,000
• LLPs: up to $100,000
• LLCs (that file with the IRS as a partnership): up to $100,000
• Corporations: In-kind contributions only
• 501(c)(3): unlimited
Donations from "any corporation that received TARP or other bail-out funds that have not been repaid in full" are prohibited, according to the document, which adds that foundations affiliated with for-profit corporations are also disqualified. An in-kind contribution is a donation made of products or services rather than cash.
The list of allowable contributions makes it clear that Democrats aren't ready to go cold turkey on corporate cash. Coca-cola, for instance, is funding both the GOP and the Democratic conventions in different ways. Republicans have made no financing reform effort, despite Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain's call to do so, and so Coca-cola was free to give money directly to support the GOP convention. To foot the Democratic bill, however, the soda and bottled-water seller funneled the money through New American City Inc., its sister nonprofit, Roll Call reported. Per the rules, Coke can also give its beverages out free as in-kind contributions.
Meanwhile, Democrats employed the time-tested convention fund-raising strategy of encouraging contributions by locking down venues across Charlotte. A lobby shop or PR firm that wanted to host an event during the convention would have had a hard time finding a bar or restaurant that wasn't working with the host committee. Only by ponying up $50,000, or in most cases much more, could an influence peddler rent space to hobnob. The money, though, can't come from a registered lobbyist.
A GOP source who met with the Charlotte convention's fund-raisers in an attempt to secure venue space for clients said that the money harvesters pointed to the variety of ways that funds could be funneled to the convention without breaking the rules. But even in private, the fund-raisers stuck to the spirit of the reform, refusing to promise that a $100,000 pledge would lock down a specific venue. "We want people who raise $10,000 and $100,000 to have the same seat," he said he was told by a convention official.
While dirty corporate cash might not find a welcome home in the host committee's treasury, there will still, of course, be plenty sloshing around Charlotte. Several lobbyists told HuffPost that their corporate clients were funneling their contributions to events put on by state parties or governors, outside the critical eye of Obama's convention planners.
"The ones that have business with states and governors feel the obligation to go. The others feel like they got a pass," said the Democratic lobbyist, who bemoans the end of the free-for-all era, but has enough access to carry on just fine. "People say, 'Aren't you insulted they won't take your money?' I say, 'No, why should I be?' I have to write a $32,000 check to the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee]. Do I really wanna write a $32,000 check to the DNC for a convention [too]?