LOS ANGELES - A voice from the podium drifts into the corridors of Upper Concourse C
of the Staples Center. I don't know who's speaking, but it doesn't
matter. The message is familiar, flowing nonstop like a skein of
smoke through the building.
``In the Democratic Party,'' the voice booms, preacher-like, ``the
door is always open!''
I can hear the delegates go wild.
I have slipped by security to get up here. I don't belong. I need
a Special Pass, which I have come to understand is the currency and
clearest symbol of status at this convention. The right pass. The
right invitation. The right credential. Up here by the luxury suites,
the colorful rectangles of cardboard hang in plastic sheaths around
the pearled and linen-collared necks of everyone I see. The thickest
sheaths draw the most admiring looks.
I stop at one of the suites and ask a security guard who's inside.
(There is a glaring absence of signage.) AT&T? Microsoft? American
Airlines? Mirage Hotels? I had read that at least 23 corporations
have made large contributions to both the Republican and Democratic
conventions (indicating either cynicism or confusion about their
I tell the security guard I'm interested as a citizen and a
Democrat which of my elected officials is fraternizing with which
major donors. It's not like these schmooze-sessions are in someone's
private home. They're here at the official party convention,
supported in part by my tax dollars.
``I'm not allowed to say who's inside,'' the guard says.
I move on, passing Larry King, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts,
Patrick Kennedy, Ann Richards. Each is talking to people I don't
recognize. CEOs, lobbyists, plain old rich people -- they're all up
here. This is where their convention is, not down on the floor with
the union reps and school teachers and other delegates casting
predetermined votes for the predetermined candidate.
I think about what Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Mr. Campaign
Finance Reform, said a few days earlier.
``What we are seeing on television are not the real party
conventions,'' he said. ``The main show is behind closed doors at
big-dollar, soft-money fund-raisers. And those big-money
contributions, make no mistake, are setting the agenda for the
American Congress and for the United States as a whole.''
At the end of the corridor, by the VIP escalator, I'm turned away
from the Arena Club, reserved for the most generous among the six
tiers of donors. (The ``Chairman's Circle,'' for example, is those
who have contributed $500,000 or more.) No luck either at the Grand
Reserve room, where Southwestern Bell Association is hosting a
gathering. (Members of Congress who want to stop by need only walk a
few steps; their own exclusive lounge is across the hall.)
``It's not just the size of the national feast,'' I hear from the
podium, ``but how many people we can fit around the table!''
I stop at the City View Terrace, an outdoor restaurant midway down
the concourse. The Democratic Party is serving up oysters on the
half-shell and skewers of steak to those with a blue invitation. I
can't enter, but I can see through the glass doors to the outside. I
notice for the first time that the 14-foot-high chain-
link fence I pass through every morning to enter the Staples Center
extends the entire perimeter of the center, creating
an island in the middle of downtown.
``The people on the street,'' the voice from the podium continues, ``the
people I talk with, they understand the values of the Democratic
On my way out, I stop at Frank and Bev's hotdog stand on the
main level. I ask a cashier how much she made per hour. ``Our bosses
told us not to comment,'' she said. She glanced over her shoulder,
her voice dropping. ``You ought to meet me outside. Yoo-eee. I could
I cadge an invitation to a party honoring Democratic party
chairman Ed Rendell at the Sky Bar in the Mondrian Hotel in West
Hollywood. This is the center of cool. Willowy women in short dresses
and bare, tanned legs. Men in creamy summer suits. A spotlight
projects the logos of sponsors America Online, grassroots.com and UPS
onto the side of the hotel. I see Sean Penn in a dim alcove among
other attractive people sipping stemmed drinks.
Now Rendell will be associated with Cool and Beautiful. And major
donors will feel ``serviced,'' as the political people say.
``People will give to be seen,'' says Rob McCord, an investment
banker from Boston who says he had raised $60,000 for Gore. ``Or
because it's a business associate who's asking and they need to
cultivate that person. Or to hedge bets: Whichever side wins, they
want to be on record as being a supporter.''
As I leave, I hear a voice saying, ``If
someone's going to own the politicians, it might as well be us.''
Down the street, Clinton's major fundraiser, Terry McAuliffe, is
leaving yet another party at the Sunset Club, a place so exclusive
there's no sign outside. Advocates for campaign-finance reform are
picketing. McAuliffe surprises the picketers by stopping to talk.
``Do you think I want to be here fund-
raising when I've got four kids?'' he says. He's charming, and when
he heads for his limo, the protesters ask him to autograph a placard
that reads, ``McAuliffe -- corporate pimp.'' He laughs as he signs.
The protesters see campaign-finance reform as a human rights
issue, even a civil rights issue. How can we have a democracy, they
ask, when elections have given way to pledge drives? How is the
present system -- which allows those with the most money access to
those with the most power -- much different from the one that kept
blacks from voting? In the 18 months ending June 30, the Democrats
have collected $118.6 million in unregulated soft-money donations.
The Republicans have raised $137 million. Nine of 10 contributors are
white. Eight of 10 are male.
``There's passive acceptance of the established rules,'' says
Jason Mark of Global Exchange, which organized the protest outside
the Sunset Club. ``Even the young people I talk to just shrug and
say, `That's how the game is played.' ''
It's now midnight. I don't have a limo and can't find a cab. I hop a
city bus heading for downtown. There's a man in combat fatigues
holding six plastic grocery bags stuffed with who knows what. Along
the way we pick up a twentysomething woman with bleached hair held
off her face with a rhinestone headband. She's wearing a thin cotton
dress that's too loose for her and black strappy heels. She asks the
driver where she can catch a bus to Pasadena. A Latino man in a
McDonald's uniform boards. As we pull farther from the limo crowd at
the Sky Bar, I think of something I heard earlier.
``We're people who ride the bus,'' a
voice from the podium had said. ``They (the Republicans) have never
ridden the bus!''
As I look at the McDonald's man, I think of something else I
heard. People who live in mostly white and affluent Century City have
donated an average of $900 per resident to a political party.
Residents of mostly Latino and poor South Central have contributed an
average of 97 cents. It's no leap to figure out why it's so difficult
to get legislators to increase the minimum wage. Or why, despite
rampant gun violence in places like South Central, there are still
such absurdly lax gun-control laws.
I keep wondering why there's so little outrage about the influence
wealthy people and big business have on our government. I hear people
say they're all for campaign-finance reform but their main issue is
racism, or the environment, or health care. But don't they see?
Unless they get big money out of politics, they'll never get far on
their other issues.
And I keep hearing we can't change the system because donating
money is protected under our First Amendment right of free speech.
Are they kidding? Here's what I learned this week: Big money
prohibits free speech. Unless you pony up the money to get into the
Arena Club and the Sky Bar. Unless you're connected enough to score a
meeting in the corridor of Concourse C.
``Inclusion is what defines the Democratic Party!''
I hear the voice in my head as I walk through downtown toward my
hotel. Two homeless men are hunkered inside cardboard boxes for the
night. The words from the podium, the endless stream, have never
struck me as so false and hollow and numbingly familiar. I wonder how
I, or anyone, ever found them to be enough.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle