Published on Monday, August 14, 2000 in the Washington Post
Big Contributors Feel Skybox Envy
by Ruth Marcus
LOS ANGELES - The good news for the Democratic Party is that it has more big donors than ever. The bad news is they all want skyboxes at the convention here.

In fact, they feel entitled. And not just to a skybox, but a good one, with no obstructed sightlines to the podium. The A-level boxes close to the floor, not up in the nosebleed C section. In skyboxes, as in other aspects of real estate, location is everything.

All this has created something of a Skybox Situation here. Many donors have been forced to share their skyboxes--a kind of high-rent version of the double-celling prisons resort to in times of overcrowding. "Things have been over-promised," said one veteran of skybox battles past. "We've had people calling and saying, 'I raised $1 million, where's my skybox?' " said a senior Democratic official.

For example, David Geffen, the movie mogul who has raised millions for the party during Clinton's presidency, was told he needed to bunk up with Global Crossing, the telecommunications firm. Many others did not fare even that well; they are being "rotated through" the suites, with passes limited to specific days and times. For example, one of the party's biggest donors was told he was restricted to using his skybox on Monday and Thursday.

Some of whose who wrote big checks for the Democratic Party are not amused. Some had the impression that $500,000 was the going rate for a prime skybox. This spring, prospects were brought to the Staples Center for a tour of the skybox facilities; last Monday, aides to some of the big givers trooped to the arena to see their site.

"It's not acceptable," one such mega-donor said of his skybox allotment. "They shouldn't be jerking us around. It feels insulting." Democratic National Committee Chairman Edward Rendell was said to be furious when he discovered that some of the boxes reserved for party donors were located behind the podium.

Convention officials insist that there was no money-for-skyboxes deal. "There's nothing to say about skyboxes," said convention spokesman Peter Ragon. "What you're implying is there is a kind of pay-as-you-go system, and that's not the way they're assigned here. They go to friends and supporters of the Democratic Party."

"The people who are giving the party $500,000 are not giving it so they can have a minibar with some hot dogs," said DNC press secretary Jenny Backus.

Backus pointed hopefully to the extra seating available in the Arena Club, the 500-person capacity, two-level restaurant inside the arena that will be open to givers. "I think right now that donors are not necessarily unhappy," Backus said. "They have a viewing opportunity in the Arena Club. They have a program that is chock full of activities."

One of the most furious battles was between the party and the local host committee, which raised some $30 million to bring the convention here but neglected to spell out its skybox rights in the convention contract. Now, the host committee has been allotted a paltry three skyboxes, to be shared among the 12 donors who gave $1 million; the $500,000 crowd is relegated to a hospitality suite in the adjoining convention center.

Skybox frenzy--like skybox envy--is a quadrennial phenomenon; for big donors and other important party personages, having a skybox of one's own is the ultimate convention status symbol.

"It's your biggest VIP project that you have at the convention," said one senior Democratic official.

That creates a scramble for turf that makes the Middle East peace process look simple, with the finance types, the political people, the convention host committee, the campaign, the House and Senate all scrapping for territory. One Democratic official who wields skybox influence reports receiving cases of wine from those angling for space.

This year, the situation was so acute that Marcia Hale, the Gore campaign's convention liaison, flew east for a Skybox Summit with campaign chairman William Daley to map out the territory. "Daley got involved because we had some tough decisions to make," said one official.

The final configurations were still being fine-tuned through the weekend: The Democratic Leadership Council had no skybox and called in a panic, managing to snag one. The National Education Association had one box, wanted two, and was mollified with a double-wide box. The Lieberman people had two skyboxes and were angling for a third. The Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee agreed to a kind of condominium time-share deal with some of their skyboxes, splitting them into three shifts: 1 to 3, 3 to 5, and 5 to 8.

The problem is a classic of supply and demand. There are 160 skyboxes at the Staples Center--about 60 fewer than at the United Center in Chicago four years ago. Of those, more than ever--62--have been reserved for media, to accommodate the growing number of cable and outlets. That leaves just 98, to be divvied up among the various entities--about 30 to the DNC, 5 for Senate Democrats, 7 for the House, 3 for the host committee, much of the rest for the Gore campaign.

Among the lucky recipients: Walter Shorenstein, a number of unions (communications workers, electrical workers, teachers, public employees, machinists), Emily's List, United Airlines (they provided tickets for the convention), Native Americans and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

And party bigwigs also have boxes of their own: Rendell, convention chair Terry McAuliffe, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, Daley, Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, and fundraisers Peter Knight and Johnny Hayes. Gore, Tipper Gore and the Gore children also managed to snag one box each.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company