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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Lapping It Up

Fat Cat Donors Are Cashing In This Week With A-List Party Invitations and Privileges Galore

August 16, 2000|GREG MILLER and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Like a few thousand other Democrats in town this week, Vinod Gupta would have done almost anything to get into the quintessential A-list party, a luncheon at Barbra Streisand's Malibu estate.

"I'd park cars to get into her house," Gupta gushed.

But thanks to "soft money" and the Democratic Party's insatiable appetite for it, the Nebraska Internet mogul needn't worry about donning a valet cap.

After shelling out more than $1.2 million this year to Democratic causes, the 54-year-old Gupta has hit so many parties that he has been transformed from Omaha outsider to Hollywood insider. There was lunch at Streisand's cliff-top home, dessert at the St. Regis with President Clinton and a celebrity-packed concert at a Brentwood estate.

"I talked to Brad Pitt for a long time," Gupta said. "We're buds now."

Officially, the purpose of the Democratic National Convention is to bestow the party's presidential nomination on Al Gore. But unofficially, it's also Fat Cat Appreciation Week.

The party's elite, check-writing champions are being treated to a smorgasbord of Staples Center sky boxes, Beverly Hills boutiques and beachfront receptions. At times, these donors are overwhelmed by so many invitation-only parties thrown by various Democratic committees that it seems Al Gore had it easier selecting a running mate.

This is not a problem for most of the 4,338 convention delegates. For them, the week's festivities mostly consist of piling into packed buses, inexpensive hotels and fast-food joints.

Neither party is eager to draw attention to the special treatment showered on major donors. This is a particularly sensitive area for the Democrats because of the party's populist roots and because their platform opposes unlimited soft-money donations.

But in this era of precast political outcomes, rewarding donors is one of the few practical reasons left for staging a convention. And the task is executed with as much care and precision as anything that takes place on the Staples Center stage.

Many Motivations Behind Money

The reasons for the donors' largess vary. Some want influence, others merely want insider status. The perks are designed to keep them in a generous mood.

Norman Pattiz, founder of the Westwood One radio network, says he has poured more than $322,000 into Democratic committees so far this year because he is committed to such causes as abortion rights.

"I think it's mandatory that you use whatever tools you have to support the things you feel passionately about," he said.

Pattiz ranks No. 15 among donors to various Democratic committees during this election cycle. He is among 142 people who have donated at least $100,000 in soft money to the party.

Topping the list is Daniel Abraham, chairman of Slim-Fast Foods, who has donated $1.22 million.

Gupta ranks 50th, having donated $200,000. He also has written a $1-million check to support the Clinton presidential library. Gupta grew up in a village in India, where his father earned $20 a month, and came to the U.S. at age 21. Now he is chairman of InfoUSA, an Internet-based marketing company with $300 million in annual revenue and 2,000 employees.

On Monday, he watched the convention from sky box B61 with other major donors. By Tuesday, he had already attended more than half a dozen VIP events, including four with Clinton.

Over a three-day period, he'd had so much face time with Clinton that their chats became a bit giddy. Gupta even had the nerve to ask the president for a final favor.

"I told him we're really suffering; he's got to allow Cuban cigar imports as one of his last acts in office," Gupta said. "He said he'd see what he could do."

Of course, Republicans have their own roster of fat cats and so far have solicited substantially more than the Democrats, partly because the GOP continues to outpace its rival in corporate contributions. The Republicans threw their own lavish convention for fat cats in Philadelphia earlier this month. By then, 137 donors had each contributed at least $250,000.

But even if the Republicans continue to win the fund-raising race, it is the Democrats who--despite their historic image as the party of the downtrodden--appear to be sponsoring a more lavish convention.

Among this week's most glittering events--one attended by Gupta--was a weekend tribute to Clinton at a Mandeville Canyon estate.

In a tree-rimmed amphitheater, a succession of stars--including Toni Braxton, Shirley MacLaine and Diana Ross--performed on an open-air stage. The audience included actors Ted Danson and John Travolta and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Also rubbing elbows was Mark Walsh, chairman of the Pennsylvania-based Internet company VerticalNet Inc., who has contributed $270,000 to Democrats this election.

"Conventions have become shows," said Walsh. "And there's no place like Hollywood to put on a show."

Planning for many of the parties this week began more than a year ago. Deciding who gets to attend which events has preoccupied party finance officials for months.

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