Published on Friday, August 4, 2000 in the Washington Post
For Some, Party Was Just Too Grand
by Mike Allen
PHILADELPHIA - After five days of lavish fundraisers and corporate-sponsored entertainment during the Republican convention, some participants expressed concern today that the grand scale of the partying may have hurt the GOP's image--even as Democrats prepared for a star-studded bash in Los Angeles later this month.
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a reform-minded lawmaker who introduced Sen. John McCain of Arizona at the podium on Tuesday, decried what he called "these gluttonous parties, this incredible show that we put on that almost forces everyone to gobble as much shrimp and lobster as you can possibly inhale."
In recent years, the conventions have become valued as much for the opportunity for lobbyists to curry favor with lawmakers and the parties to raise money from their donors as for the official selection of a nominee. "We are showcasing something that continues to drive people away from the process," Hagel said.
Dan Mattoon, deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, called the partying "a convention behind the convention" and said it has grown enormously over the years. By one official estimate, there were 900 separate events at this year's gathering--candidates' fundraisers, thank-you spreads laid on by the party for its biggest donors, and corporate-financed tributes to lawmakers who hold sway over their businesses.
One senior Republican official called the four-day convention, which ended tonight, "the biggest orgy of hedonism in the history of politics"--a marathon of rock and blues concerts, golf and fishing tournaments, yacht cruises and shopping excursions.
Another GOP official said one party cost about $500,000 and three ran around $400,000, all paid for by corporate sponsors with business before the congressional leaders who were honored at the extravaganzas.
Democrats, who obtained GOP convention passes and videotaped some of the excesses for possible use against the Republicans, hope to deflect attention from the Hollywood component of their convention, which begins Aug. 14, by staging news conferences with party leaders in local schools.
But the Democratic entertaining will be just as intense, including a three-hour cruise from San Pedro, a reception at Armani on Rodeo Drive, a wine tasting, a Mardi Gras party and numerous dinners on the back lots of movie studios.
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has told members of his caucus they must attend nine donor-stroking events over the course of the convention.
Many of those here said they believe the sideshow will escalate four years from now as more industries discover that the quadrennial blowouts are a cost-effective way of getting members' affection and attention.
John J. Motley III, who lobbies for 20,000 grocers as the senior vice president of government and public affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, said that for each convention he had received about 10 prospectuses for sponsorship packages that ran from $5,000 to $100,000.
Motley said he expects even more industries will buy in for 2004.
"We need to be in a position to tell our story--to be sure we can get in to tell it when an issue comes up," he said, chatting in the Republican Governors' Association hospitality suite, which his association helped to sponsor.
Mattoon said he understood why companies wanted to sponsor parties for lawmakers but said his committee could use the money to help elect GOP candidates in November. "I'm pleased people are having these parties, but I hope they will have some money left for us," he said. "There's clearly money spent on these parties that would be nice if it could be spent on electing people."
Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he has warned clients of his lobbying firm that "it's very easy to waste a lot of money at these conventions." While Barbour defends the entertaining as a useful way for companies to meet opinion leaders and to market products, he said he expects that "a lot of companies will look back and reevaluate whether it was proper to spend at the level that they did."
Because Texas Gov. George W. Bush locked up the GOP presidential nomination in mid-March, Republican delegates had no hard decisions to debate.
"We fumigated the back room, so now we have nothing to do and it's party, party, party," said James Martin, 64, a lobbyist for senior citizens who was an alternate Virginia delegate.
The official sessions provided a breather between big events. One scheduling assistant to a House leader said she partied until 3 a.m. on Wednesday and then had at least three friends ask her, "Where did you go after that?"
Sen. Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, who has advocated tightening campaign finance rules, said he believes it will take a major scandal--proof that a vote was changed as a result of hospitality--to change the convention culture.
Thompson said the gift rules for House and Senate members have become nonsensical. "We come down here and they're throwing golf tournaments and spending thousands of dollars," he said. Back home in Washington, he added, "we've got a problem with crabcakes."
One conservative argued that the convention largess is a result of federal campaign donation limits, which elevate the importance of party spending in races. "If people could give directly to campaigns, we'd probably have less of this flummery," said Peter Robinson, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan who published a book this month called "It's My Party: A Republican's Messy Love Affair With the GOP."
The convention has become so divorced from politics that many people with credentials don't even bother to attend the sessions but instead kibbitz in hospitality suites at hotels around town, occasionally glancing at the television coverage. One person who sat in a skybox for big donors Wednesday night said few ventured out of the spacious suite even to watch the speech by vice presidential nominee Richard B. Cheney.
One lobbyist, who has attended every convention of both parties since 1976 and was hanging out in a hospitality suite for top GOP donors, said the entertaining excesses in both parties have become almost cartoonish.
"This can't last," the lobbyist said. "Too much money is being spent on irrelevant things."
In what was perhaps a fitting sendoff, dozens of major donors to the National Republican Senatorial Committee gorged themselves on 500 pounds of candy this afternoon at a party that was billed as a "Death by Chocolate Social."
Two senators spoke. The bill was paid by Hershey Foods Corp., Nestle USA, Philip Morris Cos. and other sponsors. As part of the GOP's week-long effort to discourage coverage of such events, an organizer called for a security official after a reporter did not immediately leave.
One Republican official, after a reporter was physically barred from a lavish hospitality suite, explained that some of the guests might have people "on their arms" who were not their spouses.
"Donor comfort" was the official explanation for the blackout. Scores of limousines hired by Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority whip, hovered outside all the big events, ready to whisk his members to the next open bar.
Staff writer Cathy Newman contributed to this report.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company