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'People Power' May Lead To Low-Wattage Event

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Workers set up Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte in preparation for the Democratic National Convention.

This article originally appeared in the CQ Weekly 2012 Democratic Convention Guide

In setting out to pay for a $37 million "people's convention" with low-dollar citizen donations instead of big corporate checks, Democrats have either embarked on a fool's errand, a bold experiment or both.

Convention organizers drew few accolades and much skepticism when they announced last year that they would accept no contributions from lobbyists, corporations, political action committees or donors giving more than $100,000. The ban rang especially hollow when reports surfaced that Bank of America Corp., Duke Energy Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. had donated to a nonprofit civic league that is paying for overhead and promoting the city of Charlotte.

For all that, campaign finance watchdogs nonetheless hailed the Democrats' fundraising limits as an unprecedented step. In recent decades, national party conventions have become notorious as rules-free zones where big, special-interest donors are rewarded exclusive access to government officials. The Democrats' new rules at least attempt to change that, watchdogs say.

"I give them a great deal of credit," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the advocacy group Public Citizen. "This has never been done before for a convention, and it's going to have an impact."

The most immediate effect has been to make it painfully difficult for the Democratic National Committee and its affiliated host organization, known as Charlotte in 2012, to squeeze the needed millions from a shrunken pool of donors. President Obama and the DNC are struggling to keep pace with the money-raising efforts of Republican nominee Mitt Romney and with several well-financed conservative super PACs and other groups that are spending millions in unrestricted money to back the GOP ticket.

"The big push so far has really been to raise money for the campaign, and it should be," says Don Peebles, chairman and chief executive of the New York City real estate development firm, the Peebles Corp., and a member of Obama's national finance committee. In the fundraising pecking order, the convention ranks as a poor stepchild to the presidential race and the DNC.

"The president has imposed limitations well beyond what is mandated by law," Peebles says. "So, it makes it more difficult, and the pool of potential donors is smaller for the convention. So, it makes the dollars harder to come by."

That said, prominent officials are still rounding up checks from deep-pocketed corporate donors. As in past years, big money is underwriting events in Charlotte this week, thanks to a complicated fundraising apparatus that relies on unrestricted nonprofits to do some of the heavy lifting. The definition of "convention" has also proved somewhat fluid, with such events as a kickoff street festival and a lavish welcome party for the news media falling outside the definition of what constitutes an official event.

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