To get to the Democratic National Convention, you take the subway to the AT&T Station and walk to the Wells Fargo Center. Along the way, you’ll stroll by the Comcast Xfinity Live complex, where delegates and honored guests can booze it up. You’ll also see the “Cars Move America” exhibit, an actual showroom sponsored by Ford, GM, Toyota, and others. Finally, you’ll reach your seat and watch Democrats explain why we have to reduce the power of big corporations in America.
Party conventions have always been collection points for big money. But many major corporations sat out last week’s Republican gathering for fear of Trump contamination. There’s no such reticence here in Philadelphia; in fact, it feels like they’re making up for that lack of investment.
It’s hard to ferret out all the special interests at the DNC, because there’s no full public schedule. Invitations are doled out individually, and people whisper about this or that event. But enter any official hotel where a delegation is staying, or any Philadelphia landmark, and you’re likely to have a complimentary drink thrust into your hand.
As Politico’s Ben White reported on Monday, private equity firm Blackstone has a meet-and-greet on Thursday. Independence Blue Cross, the southeastern Pennsylvania arm of the large insurer, held a host-committee reception Tuesday; their chief executive is the finance chair of that host committee. The same day, Le Meridien hotel had a private event for Bloomberg LP, and the Logan Hotel hosted “Inspiring Women, a Luncheon Discussion.” The sponsors included Johnson & Johnson, Walgreens, AFLAC, the Financial Services Roundtable (the industry trade lobby), and New York Life. (How many people were they serving, given the number of corporations involved?)
Facebook commandeered a bar inside the Wells Fargo Center for delegates and guests. Twitter rented out an entire restaurant, bestowing attendees with free breakfast, lunch and an open bar. (Full disclosure: I had a slider and some salad. The way I see it, I’ve boosted their market value through the free labor of tweeting and deserve something back.) And when the speeches end, convention-goers fan out to a sea of mostly industry-sponsored parties. A particular favorite of convention delegates is the Distilled Spirits Council kickoff, which in Philadelphia featured music from Jason Isbell and former Eagle Joe Walsh.
Those are just the liquor and cocktail-weenie bribes. An entire other category of corporate cash goes toward “policy discussions,” must-see educational roundtables with a host of luminaries. On Tuesday, Obama campaign guru David Plouffe (now with Uber) and Gore consultant Chris Lehane (now with Airbnb) unveiled new polling data on the sharing economy; a second Airbnb event celebrated the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Party, featuring actor Bryan Cranston. On Wednesday, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation convenes its own technology conference, featuring four members of Congress, a Federal Trade Commission member, the president of the biotech lobby, representatives from Microsoft and Facebook, and former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, now at Amazon.
The donors who are actually paying for the convention are anonymous. So God (and Debbie Wasserman Shultz) only knows where it all comes from.
A softer version—in perfect concert with the “Hillary works for families and children” theme of the week—is the corporate PR booth, highlighting charitable work, usually with children. JPMorgan Chase has its summer youth employment program. Johnson & Johnson (they get around) has the Save the Children Action Network, committed to eradicating rural poverty. I saw House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn holding court at their booth when I passed by yesterday.
None of this is considered money toward the convention, which is being entirely privately funded for the first time. The donors who are actually paying for the festivitities in Philly are anonymous. So God (and Debbie Wasserman Shultz) only knows where it all comes from. And clearly the DNC wants to keep it that way.
The DNC’s host committee refuses to disclose the names despite a court order, allowing corporate benefactors to hide behind anonymity. The 2014 “CRomnibus” budget law massively increased contribution limits for political convention committees, which can raise up to $800,000 from a single donor per year. And overlooked by emails showing possible anti-Bernie Sanders bias by DNC officials in the Democratic primaries, the WikiLeaks trove released last Friday actually detailed how the DNC woos big donors with gifts and perks.
The whole spectacle is not technically considered lobbying, but it may have a more insidious effect. Not only are elected officials compromised by their proximity to big money—a version of this happens daily in Washington, after all—but the delegates, usually the grassroots activists most likely to pressure their members of Congress to stand up for Democratic values, get caught up in the muck as well.
Big money didn’t necessarily overshadow Day 2 of the convention, with the historic selection of the first female president and a succession of speakers hailing Hillary Clinton’s lifetime of work. But it pervaded the whole scene. Right before the roll-call vote, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, himself one of the most prodigious corporate fundraisers in Democratic history, addressed the convention. In an interview directly afterward, he suggested that Clinton would eventually come around and support the Trans-Pacific Partnership corporate trade deal, “with some tweaks.” Clinton campaign aide John Podesta had to refute McAuliffe; for his part, Podesta has jumped in and out of government and corporate lobbying for three decades.
Wasserman Schultz, supposedly banished to Florida after resigning as DNC chair, was still hanging around Philadelphia, and slipped into the Wells Fargo Center to watch the roll call. She got to see the vice presidential nomination of her predecessor as lead party fundraiser, Tim Kaine, who ran the DNC from 2009 to 2011. During the roll call, lobbyists with the Society for Human Resource Management, which helped stall the signature equal pay bill in Congress, cheered from the floor.
Former Attorney General and corporate lawyer Eric Holder took time off from his work with Uber and Airbnb to address the convention. Former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, now Global Chief Communications Officer for McDonald’s, showed up in a video. Howard Dean praised Hillary Clinton on health care, but strangely left out her support for the public option. Perhaps that’s because he’s a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, which doesn’t want government insurance plans driving down prices. Even former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who added her praise of Clinton to others’ on Tuesday night, has her own lobbying firm. And Tuesday closer Bill Clinton also has a certain, er, comfort with the corporate world.
The best speech I saw on Tuesday happened five miles from the Wells Fargo Center. In an afternoon address she should have unleashed the previous night—and not sponsored by anyone but her own Senate office—Elizabeth Warren gave a couple hundred delegates a Power Point presentation showing how the economy shifted from broadly shared prosperity to a funnel of practically everything to the very top.
The average American holds 15 times more debt than a generation ago, Warren noted, and one in three with a credit file is dealing with a debt collector. “I went to college for $50 a semester,” Warren said, but now fixed costs on education and health care have skyrocketed, making it impossible for the middle class to keep up. The reason: disinvestment in the public good, deregulation of banks and industry, and policies that pushed practically all economic gains upward.
Warren pointed the finger directly at lobbying, which grew seven-fold in the past 30 years. After the speech, I asked her about the corporate underwriting of practically everything in Philadelphia this week. “Too many CEOs have learned that they can invest millions in Washington and get billions in return with special deals with the government,” she said. “This is the central issue of 2016.”
You wouldn’t know that from the official, industry-sponsored proceedings. Maybe the ideological split within the Democratic Party has something to do with Bernie Sanders’s supporters distaste for the ostentatious display of corporate money, and how it has affected the party. The rare moment when overturning Citizens United gets a mention in a convention speech, loud whoops and cheers go up. But corporate influence on the party goes way beyond SuperPACs and campaign contributions; in Philadelphia, it is everywhere.