This Convention Is Brought To You By ...by Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
The Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities, like last week's Democratic convention in Denver, is largely funded by big corporations. So too are scores of convention-related parties, receptions, and concerts.
Some critics think that stinks. They envision lobbyists essentially buying opportunities to schmooze with lawmakers. But many corporate sponsors disagree. They say the conventions are primarily a way to raise their profiles and demonstrate their civic responsibility.
St. Paul, Minn. — One of the biggest parties for delegates and other folks in town for the Republican National Convention was held Tuesday night at the Depot in Minneapolis.
It was AgNite, a million dollar shindig. Sponsors included Hormel, Land O' Lakes, Cargill and some 50 other food and agriculture companies were involved in the event.
The party featured two bands, including Styx, and a copious supply of free appetizers. But no open bar. Beer and wine cost $7. Mixed drinks $10.50.
Drinks were served at bars featuring monster-size illuminated photos of pigs, turkeys and other agricultural icons.
Industry and corporate slideshows and videos played throughout the party. But attendees seemed more interested in partying than enhancing their knowledge of matters such as organic and engineered foods.
The party's host, the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, pitched AgNite as an opportunity to celebrate America's food and agricultural industry with thousands of key policy makers, convention delegates, media and top industry leaders.
Council president Daryn McBeth said his organization was not looking to lobby anyone.
But McBeth said it was determined to leave attendees with an impression: "Boy this industry isn't overalls and pitchforks. It's diverse. It's modern. It's not what I thought it was. That is the big takeaway we'd like people to have."
But McBeth expected some party-goers would test their persuasive powers on key industry issues as the night went on.
"I'm sure there will be lots of interesting conversation about pieces of public policy," he said.
But some people have a problem with events such as AgNite and corporate funding of conventions.
"This is a schmoozefest for lobbyists," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, the watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader in 1971.
"The corporations are there as a means for influence peddling," he said. "This is an extension of their lobbying activity. They absolutely have an agenda. We've got companies like AT&T, Cargill, Eli Lilly, Qwest, Xcel. These are all the major corporations that have immediate business pending before Congress."
Public Citizen estimates the some 175 corporations funding the two conventions have spent about $1.5 billion since 2005 to lobby federal officials.
Now, Public Citizen forecasts the 175 businesses will give a total of at least $115 million to help pay for the conventions. That money goes to host committees in the cities where the conventions are held.
Holman says the companies will also spend heavily money on parties and other events.
Holman argues the the big corporate spending at conventions runs counter to federal election laws and congressional ethics rules meant to limit financial contributions to politicians and political parties.
But Holman says corporations and politicians find loopholes to get around those restrictions. Or they ignore them, figuring there won't be any serious punishment.
Local major convention sponsors are unapologetic and unashamed about their support for the convention. And they say they are careful to follow the law and ethics guidelines.
On Monday night, Fridley-based Medtronic hosted a reception for about 1,600 convention delegates and other guests. The delegates were mostly from five states where Medtronic is a big employer. Guests got hors d'oeuvres and drinks.
Medtronic spokesman Chuck Grothaus says the company wanted to enhance its profile
"It's just a good way to generate some positive awareness and education around what we do and reach and educate some folks about the industry as a whole," he said.
Grothaus won't say exactly how much money Medtronic put toward sponsoring the convention. But he says it's less than $1 million.
US Bank is providing $1 million to the local host committee helping fund the Republican convention. Deborah Burke is the bank's director of government relations.
"It's a great opportunity to showcase the Twin Cities," she said. "We wanted to support that effort and really help make the Twin Cities shine under this spotlight."
One company that surely wants to shine at the convention is Denver-based Qwest Communications.
Qwest is providing $6 million in support for the convention. In return, Qwest was made the exclusive provider of landline phone and data connections at the Xcel Energy Center.
"This is a significant business opportunity," said Qwest spokeswoman Joanna Hjelmeland, "These two parties get together once every four years and they're becoming more and more technologically advanced events. For Qwest to be able to come in and showcase our services and really hit it out of the park is really an exceptional opportunity."
Qwest may or may not get some political benefit from its convention support down the road. But it will take in some some serious money for the thousands of phone and data lines provided to the media and other customers at the convention.
In St. Paul, Qwest is charging $470 for a basic phone line and over $50,000 for the big data lines broadcasters and other power users need.
- Morning Edition, 09/04/2008, 7:48 a.m.