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The Democratic Convention

Fundraisers Earn Premium Access

For top money-makers, the perks of the convention include the best hotels, special policy sessions and late-night parties.

July 29, 2004|Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Every morning here, Washington powerhouse couple Tony and Heather Podesta collect the 14 convention credentials they've earned as big Democratic fundraisers and try to decide which of their lobbying clients, colleagues and other political friends will get them.

"If you want to see a negotiation, you should see the two of us try to divvy up the 14," said Heather Miller Podesta, a lawyer-lobbyist at Blank Rome. She married Tony, one of Washington's best-connected lobbyists, a little more than a year ago.

"You were more reasonable today than yesterday. You wanted them all," he griped.

The 2004 Democratic National Convention is a way for the party to say "thank you" to the Podestas and other fundraisers who have amassed record amounts of money for both the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party. Because of the new ban on contributions from corporations and unions, the parties have come to rely on fundraisers, who are adept at raising money from individuals.

The fundraisers generally stay at the best convention hotels and get special transportation around town and tickets to exclusive events, such as a panel discussion Wednesday afternoon titled "Funny But True: Important Issues in 2004." The panel included Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Rob Reiner, Esai Morales, Al Franken, Dee Dee Myers and Paul Begala.

The 90-minute event was both funny and serious, as its star-studded panel discussed issues as varied as Sept. 11 and the media's pouncing on Teresa Heinz Kerry for telling an editorial writer to "shove it" -- which Affleck called a "Sesame Street epithet."

At one point, Reiner joked about Bush's pronunciation of the word nuclear. "You don't have a problem with a guy whose finger is on the button and can't pronounce it?" he said, as the audience roared.

When the session ended, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe told the packed crowd of fundraisers that there would not be a Democratic Party without their extraordinary efforts. "What we wanted to do for you this year, besides hosting parties, was have substantive events like this," he said.

The DNC hosted a two-hour policy session with former President Clinton on Tuesday that some fundraisers said was the highlight of the convention.

To the amazement of the political world, the Democratic Party has raised $125 million this year. The Kerry campaign raised an additional $203 million, with the help of 564 people who raised more than $50,000 in individual contributions of $2,000 or less.

There are 1,400 fundraisers at the convention -- the DNC calls them "finance honored guests" -- compared with 1,000 top donors at the 2000 convention in Los Angeles. Some, such as Tony Podesta, 60, are veterans at raising money. Others, such as his wife, Heather, 34, are newcomers.

"I am so frustrated by the current administration. The way I vent that frustration is by raising money," she said.

The Podestas have raised more than $200,000 for the Kerry campaign and the DNC, $280,000 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $180,000 for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

What they get in exchange are credentials -- and access. Each day, they are allotted passes to a skybox at the FleetCenter, which gives them a premium view of the stage, and tickets to events planned just for fundraisers.

But compared with past conventions, the parties for the fundraisers are much less elaborate in scale. Without corporate or union money to spend, the DNC and the Senate and congressional committees are loath to use their hard-earned individual donations on flashy bashes.

Gone this year are parties such as the late-night Senate committee concert with Sheryl Crow that was paid for by BellSouth Corp., US West Inc., EchoStar Communications Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. in Los Angeles. This year's late-night party for the Senate committee's top moneymakers was held at a nightclub, co-hosted with the DCCC.

Although lavish events and parties have been cut back, Rep. Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento, who is chairman of the DCCC, said: "Our principal goal at this convention is to make sure that the major donors and House members are handled in a way that they get most of the benefits of the convention."

Fundraisers who collected at least $100,000 for the House committee got access to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's skybox, for instance. They also got premium hotel rooms, daily convention briefings and special invitations to VIP events.

Nigel Palmer, 71, of Marblehead, Mass., said the parties were "the least important" thing to him, though it's been fun to "rub shoulders with important people." Palmer's wife, Maureen Shay-Palmer, has raised more than $200,000 for Kerry.

Victoria Hopper, the wife of actor Dennis Hopper, said she started raising money for the Kerry campaign after she gave birth to a daughter and felt "the stakes went up." She has raised about $200,000. This is her first convention.

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