Democrats, GOP Need Donors For Party Conventions

The Democratic and Republican parties are preparing for their respective nominating conventions in Tampa, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina. That means each side will depend, as usual, on donors to help pay for the events.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are also, of course, following the preparations for the Republican National Convention, which comes Monday, or at least is scheduled for Monday, despite the threat of a hurricane in Tampa, Florida.

On that first day, sooner than normal, the party plans to go through the formality of nominating Mitt Romney for president, though organizers do worry about potential protests by supporters of Ron Paul.

The party also takes the chance, the opportunity to lay out themes for the fall campaign. But away from the cameras, this convention - like the Democrats' meeting, which is coming up soon in Charlotte - are chances for politicians to mingle, as other interested parties pay the tab.

It is not always clear who is paying, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAMPA BAY HOST COMMITTEE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's coming, Tampa Bay. The convention is almost here. That's right, the 2012 Republican National Convention will be at...

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: That's the word from the Tampa Bay Host Committee, which produced this video for convention volunteers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAMPA BAY HOST COMMITTEE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Every man, woman and child in Tampa Bay wants to know just one thing: How can they help support this historic effort...

OVERBY: Others want to help, too. Corporate donors from Wal-Mart to Ford to America's Natural Gas Alliance have given the host committee a reported $55 million.

Back in the 1970s, Congress didn't think the conventions needed any outside money at all. It voted to provide public financing, so the parties wouldn't solicit corporate funds.

This year, each convention got $18.3 million from Washington. But long ago, politicians decided the federal money wasn't enough. So the ostensibly non-political host committees were created.

Here's Craig Holman with the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen.

CRAIG HOLMAN: It's just any special interest or corporation who has business pending before the federal government that is willing to throw money at the feet of the host committees.

OVERBY: Democrats actually tried to rein things in for the Charlotte convention.

This is Steve Kerrigan, CEO of the party's convention committee.

STEVE KERRIGAN: This convention will be the first in history not funded by corporate cash contributions.

OVERBY: Also, no cash from lobbyists or political action committees, and nothing from individual donors above $100,000. That turned out to be a little too straight and narrow.

The Charlotte host committee is struggling to hit a goal of $37 million. Its leaders set up a 501c4 non-profit so that it could solicit corporate America. None of these donors - corporate or otherwise - will be disclosed until October 15th. And there's more spending that won't be disclosed at all.

HOLMAN: The soirees that are sponsored by corporate interests, special interests and lobbyists.

OVERBY: Holman says Public Citizen will try to bird-dog the activities. It's a big job.

The Sunlight Foundation compiles political invitations at the website politicalpartytime.org. It lists 40 events, just for Monday in Tampa. And there are consultants to help companies throw those shindigs.

Scott Cottington is with GOP Convention Strategies. He says they do a lot of logistics, and they navigate ethics laws that were toughened up after the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

SCOTT COTTINGTON: Explain to clients what they can do and what they can't do, what they can say and not say.

OVERBY: What clients can do are congressional fundraisers, charity events, receptions with finger food and parties honoring the convention delegates, but not members of Congress.

But these ethics laws didn't prevent a D.C. lobby firm from buying out a 22,000-square foot restaurant in Tampa for the entire week.

Kelley Flynn, marketing director at Jackson's Bistro Bar and Sushi, says they would've had a tough time otherwise because of convention security. So...

KELLEY FLYNN: We felt like it was a win-win situation.

OVERBY: So far, the lobby firm has been able to remain anonymous.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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