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Real Voices Lost In The Convention
Published on Friday, August 18, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Real Voices Lost In The Convention
by Joan Ryan
 
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.

Yes! Yes!

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 ideology).

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!''

Yes! Yes!

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 Party!''

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 tell you.''

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

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