MIAMI — As waiters clad in bright green Hawaiian shirts served mounds of jumbo shrimp and clams under skyscraping palm trees, it was difficult to discern that the sponsors of this weekend's "fat cat" retreat at the world-class Doral Golf Resort and Spa are facing hard times.
But the Democratic National Committee--saddled with $14.4 million in debt and a campaign finance controversy that has brought a swarm of subpoenas from federal investigators--is striving to reassure its major donors to continue supporting the party.
"These are trying times and know that your support is needed, welcomed and appreciated," Tom Hendrickson, chairman of the Democratic Business Council, told donors Saturday night.
The DNC's fourth annual conference for business contributors gives party leaders the opportunity to defend their controversial fund-raising practices, wage political war against the Republicans and energize their donor base.
In practice, however, Washington lobbyists representing America's largest corporations also mingle around the clock with influential members of Congress in policy seminars and open-air restaurants, on tennis courts and Doral's famous "Blue Monster" championship golf course.
While the stroking of donors is as old as politics, the major parties typically hold their annual retreats behind closed doors. In February, Republicans organized a lavish weekend for $100,000 supporters, including tobacco and drug firms, at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. Reporters were not permitted to attend.
But Democratic officials, vowing that they have nothing to hide, on Friday opened the business council conference to the media. At the same time, the DNC required reporters to leave the question-and-answer portions of seminars with lawmakers and it coached donors on how to respond to questions from the media, including queries about the campaign finance issue.
The council, consisting of 2,000 members who donate a minimum of $10,000 annually, was formed by the DNC more than a decade ago to build a partnership with wealthy business leaders who traditionally support the Republican Party. About 120 members paid their own expenses to attend this weekend's event, down from 180 donors last year. DNC officials cited the off-election year for the decrease, not the donation controversy.
Democrats were not eager to rehash details of the problems, preferring to blame the media and Republicans for creating so much negative publicity. Nor did any of the speakers mention John Huang, the prolific DNC fund-raiser who specialized in raising money from the Asian American community and who is a central figure in ongoing investigations by the Justice Department and Congress. The DNC has announced plans to return $3 million in illegal foreign donations and other questionable funds, including about $1.6 million solicited by Huang.
This weekend, party officials have gone out of their way to apologize to donors, particularly Asian Americans, for the fallout from the campaign finance controversy.
Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), responding to a question from a Indian American businessman about the treatment of Asian American donors, said: "I find it painful, and [I] need for every American to apologize to every Asian American for the debate that is taking place in this country. Because of the errors of a few, there is blame being placed on the many. There is a risk that a generation of Asian Americans are going to feel stigmatized and unwelcome. That can't happen."
The businessman, 57-year-old Jayant S. Kolatra of Virginia, said he embraced Torricelli's message and would not be deterred from giving to the Democrats. He said he donated $10,000 to the DNC last year after he "didn't feel wanted" by the GOP.
"Asians don't give up easily," said Kolatra, president of an international consulting company. "We have to learn, and we do believe in the fact that we have to work very hard to prove ourselves and be successful."
Reuven Bloch, a Russian immigrant who joined the business council last year by donating $10,000, said he is not bothered by the Democratic campaign abuses.
"Politicians are politicians," said the Baltimore entrepreneur. "You can't get any worse than it is."
Donors also were urged not to let Republicans gain a financial edge by fully exploiting the DNC's campaign troubles.
Republicans "just want to intimidate donors to the Democratic Party," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "And I'm saying: 'Don't let them do it to you. That's just one of their ploys.' "
Nearly all of the participants are well-heeled business executives referred to by DNC staffers as "FCs"--for "fat cats". Many are Washington lobbyists representing major companies such as telecommunication giants Nynex Corp., Pacific Telesis Group, MCI Communications Corp., Sprint Corp. and GTE Corp.