Party Animals: Nonprofits at the Democratic National Convention

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Nonprofits are at the heart of the Democratic National Convention, partly because the Democratic Party put tough restrictions on raising funds to pay for the convention, and partly because nonprofits sponsor convention events that attract politicians and people willing to pay to cozy up to them.

Despite the $37 million cost (not including outside events) of the convention, the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. features even less suspense than the Republicans’ convention in Tampa, Fla. (which NPQ covered last week) unless the Democrats have a mystery guest comparable to the Republicans’ Clint Eastwood. It’s pretty certain that President Barack Obama will be renominated and Vice President Joe Biden won’t be replaced by Hillary Clinton. Equally certain is that there will be Party events at which people who want access to major political powerbrokers get it. If the Democrats retain control of the Senate or overturn the Republicans in the House, access counts. If President Obama is reelected, powerbrokers will want access to his allies and advisors who they might rub shoulders with here at nonprofit fundraisers.

As put by Public Citizen, “The party conventions host huge influence-peddling and fundraising events between those who want something from government and those in government who can affect those interests.” The Sunlight Foundation, which does a great job in tracking convention-related events, has counted over 400 gatherings in Charlotte. So long as members of Congress steer clear of House and Senate rules prohibiting them from attending events in their honor hosted by lobbyists, much of the partying might be to provide opportunities for invaluable face time with lawmakers and just about entirely legal.

The Guest List

The Democrats have prohibited contributions to the official Democratic convention committee from lobbyists, PACs, and for-profit corporations. However, the influence-buyers always find a way around the restrictions, and they did for Charlotte too, contributing to an affiliated nonprofit organization called New American City for various convention-related events. According to a Reuters article, businesses have also contributed through local foundations. The business and lobbyist contributions to support the convention, even if bypassing the official convention fundraising apparatus, are signals to the party powerbrokers of evidence of allegiance and support.

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Lobbyists are still holding their parties, too, but offering finger food on toothpicks so that politicians can attend without running afoul of rules that prevent them from accepting full meals from lobbyists. Each day of the convention features a lobbyist-sponsored “Late Night Charlotte’’ party marketed as an opportunity for face time with members of the Democratic Congressional Caucus; taglines on the official convention website read, “This event will be produced to comply with Congressional Ethics rules.”

While there has been some press commentary about a lower turnout of Washington celebrities for the Democratic convention this year than four years ago due to their reduced enthusiasm for the president’s candidacy, some nonprofit fundraising events will be held with the occasional celeb or two showing up. For example, the rapper Common will be headlining a fundraiser for Musicians on Call, described as “a group that makes music available to wounded U.S. service men and women.” Actor Jeff Bridges will be singing with his group, The Abiders, with Maryland’s Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley as a sideman, as part of a charity fundraiser for the Share Our Strength No Kid Hungry campaign. Actress Sheryl Ralph is co-hosting a fundraiser for the Moriah Hemingsway Health Foundation, described as a charity that helps provide health services to uninsured North Carolinians. General Wesley Clark is the featured speaker at a fundraiser for the Echo Foundation, a peace and justice foundation with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel serving as honorary chairperson.

A few gatherings are highbrow discussions rather than blowout parties, such as the panel discussion on changes needed in the U.S. system of higher education, sponsored by the Lumina Foundation. The United Nations Foundation program on the calendar searches for ideas that will help strengthen the U.N.’s global problem-solving. Like its program in Tampa, the Council for Economic Education has a discussion scheduled on financial literacy.

In some instances, the charity events in Charlotte may attract a different cast of nonprofits than those that tried to sway rock-ribbed conservatives in Tampa. For example, the Bureau of Indigenous Muslim Affairs (BIMA) has gatherings scheduled in Charlotte, though they weren’t endorsed by the convention organizers as official events. BIMA has been trying to get both parties to deal with their charges about invasive practices under the PATRIOT Act, zoning discrimination against mosques, and general attitudes of Islamophobia. After protests by right wing groups such as Operation Save America, DNC representatives removed the BIMA events from the official convention schedule with the explanation that they were posted as user-generated items and didn’t really belong on the convention website.

In contrast to the BIMA presence, the most significant religious nonprofit event in Charlotte may happen on the convention floor on Thursday night. After giving a blessing at the Republican National Convention, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, sometimes referred to as the “Pope of America,” will deliver a blessing at the Democratic convention. This comes after last night’s convention speech by Sister Simone Campbell, known for her association with the “Nuns on the Bus” social justice campaign. Given Dolan’s vocal Church campaigns against marriage equality, abortion rights, and provisions of the Affordable Care Act that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sees as a threat to religious freedom, the Cardinal’s presence will likely be a major topic at the Catholics United event at the convention. Catholics United has been highly critical of the Catholic Bishops’ public policy positions on the above social issues.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Lobbyist

“Lobbyists and special interests aren’t going to be spending their money to promote and support events like this out of altruism and the goodness of their heart,” one commentator recently told ABC News viewers, and that commentator should know; those words of wisdom came from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who you’ll recall was convicted of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion in relation to a Native American lobbying scandal. Abramoff’s newfound candor comes after his having spent 43 months in jail.

Rather than attending nonprofit fundraisers out of a sense of altruism, Abramoff says, “They’re doing it because they have an agenda. They may be good agendas, by the way, but they’re still agendas that are fed by an improper use of financial resources in a way that tilts it away from members deciding things only on their merits.” As a skilled practitioner of the dark arts of the lobbying industry, Abramoff knows that spending money at a nonprofit event works just as well as at any other venue if the result is access. “Virtually every interaction that a lobbyist has with a congressman is money well spent, from the lobbyist’s point of view,” Abramoff says.

Money was well spent in Tampa and will likewise be flowing at the Democratic convention to promote agendas with powerbrokers in Charlotte. The price tags for getting into the nonprofit events in Charlotte seem to be more affordable than some of those held for the Republicans in Tampa, but the principle is the same. When moneyed interests take advantage of nonprofit fundraising events simply to sweet-talk political leaders, public disclosure of corporate lobbying and influence peddling takes a hit. Why not have a pledge right now in the name of protecting democracy and public disclosure: every corporate leader and every lobbyist that pays to attend a nonprofit soiree at the convention, and every political office-holder and powerbroker who also shows up, should be publicly disclosed so that the American public gets to see specifically which moneyed interests were able to flit toward which politicians. Even if they don’t exchange promises or favors, the public deserves to know when corporate or union leaders get to shimmy up to the legislators and government executives they might want to influence.

  • Deborah J. Boyd

    In the second term of President Obama, I feel we should take a more serious look at who qualifies as a non-profit and how they account for money raised. For the past year I have seen several examples of non-profits that sent virtually no money to the cause they were soliciting for.
    All lobbying should be exposed. How? Simple, you just do what the rest of the Federal Government has now done. PUT IT ON THE INTERNET. Every law firm and others that engage in lobbying are required to register. The exception is for private individuals. Our form of government wants to encourage people to take an active role in speaking with their representatives.
    Our government draws a line between people who speak based on experience and principals they believe in and those that are hired. The public should have easy access to who is hire to lobby for whom. I do not advocate disclosing personal names, addresses, etc. for security reasons but the company name and address should be available.

  • Sheila Stanford

    While this is not good, it’s the least of our problems with campaign financing. By the way, did you do a similar report on the Republican convention? If so, I missed it.

  • rick cohen
  • Stacey Howard

    We should absolutely lead the way in open disclosure.

  • Gail Perry

    I attended some of these events in Charlotte, and they were just lobbying business as usual to me. Here’s what was going on from my fundraising perspective:

    Some of my nonprofit friends were stalking big donor prospects who might be able to help their causes.
    Other nonprofit colleagues hovered around corporate executives who controlled corporate philanthropic donations.
    Several nonprofit board members were schmoozing elected officials to remind them of important policy votes.

    I had the pleasure of attending an Emily’s List discussion and reception that was crawling with elected officials, philanthropic and political donors and many volunteers. It was wonderful. There was lots of “access.” I made some terrific business and political contacts and renewed old friendships.

    I think this article distorts the truth. You can try to make “government relations” out to be a dangerous and “dark” practice. We are always trying to get access to “government power brokers.” Why would we not want to do this? This is the way a democracy works, correct?

    Smart nonprofit leaders understand this and work the system. What’s wrong with face time with government representatives? They are supposed to represent us.

    And since when were political decisions made on solely their merits? I thought it was WHO was backing the decisions that had the most impact.

    I am a realist. This is politics 101. We may not like it but our government is based on forming coalitions to gain majority support. You gotta get key people behind your cause!

    We need to work the system as hard as we can, or our voices will never be heard.

  • Gail Perry

    Hi Rick, I was wondering if you were going to approve my comment that I posted a couple of hours ago? Do you have any questions about it?
    thanks Gail Perry

  • rick cohen

    Dear gail: thanks for your comment. No, it’s not a question of nonprofits accessing power brokers. Read this and my earlier one on the Republican convention. It’s the corporate lobbyists conducting behind the scenes lobbying with politicians under the cover of attending nonprofit fundraising events. As the article said, the corporate lobbyists who pay to get in to rub shoulders with the politicians don’t care too many figs about the nonprofits. They’re paying for access to politicians.

    If you read this–or anything i’ve written in 10 years of writing for NPQ–as a negative about nonprofits doing their own lobbying or engaging in government relations, then i have to suggest you’ve misread it. This article, the Republican convention article, and my writing on this topic going back to the fundraising events of Tom DeLay’s nonprofits at conventions a decade ago are complaints about the corporate lobbyists and corporate money money players using nonprofit fundraisers as an opportunity to get invaluable face time with politicians.

    Thanks for your comment, Gail.