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'People Power' May Lead To Low-Wattage Event

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Workers set up Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte in preparation for the Democratic National Convention.

As at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week, the money comes from several pots. Both cities received a $50 million federal grant to cover security costs. The Democrats and Republicans also received about $18 million each in public money, paid for by the voluntary $3 tax return checkoff that underwrites the federal election financing system. The bulk of the money, however, is private.

Labor Opts Out

Making matters worse for Democrats, many labor unions opted not to help underwrite this week's convention in Charlotte, a venue that drew controversy from Day One because of the state's labor-unfriendly "right-to-work" laws. In 2008, five of the top 10 donors to the Democratic National Convention in Denver were unions, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, which tallied $8.3 million in donations of $100,000 or more from labor organizations.

One of the top donors in Denver was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which this year helped underwrite a labor rally in Philadelphia instead of backing the convention in Charlotte. Also among the unions stiffing the Charlotte convention are the AFL-CIO and Unite Here, which represents American and Canadian workers in the hotel, airport and other industries.

This year, the AFL-CIO "will not be making major monetary contributions to the convention or host committee for events or activities around the convention," wrote AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a July letter to top federation officials. "We won't be buying skyboxes, hosting events other than the Labor Delegates meeting or bringing a big staff contingent to the convention."

The decision reflects changes in the AFL-CIO's political program and its "desire to engage in politics in a more effective and grass-roots way," the letter went on. Since beginning an AFL-CIO super PAC in 2011, federation organizers have signaled plans to shift away from national party politics and toward building a long-term, pro-worker activist movement and ground organization.

Changing the Rules

In theory, federal election laws dating to the aftermath of the Watergate scandal require public money to underwrite the entire convention. But starting in the 1990s, increasingly relaxed Federal Election Commission regulations cleared private donors to steer unrestricted checks to committees ostensibly set up to promote the host cities.

Democrats say they've changed all that this year by signing an elaborate, restrictive "master contract" with the Charlotte in 2012 host committee. The 53-page document spells out that the committee will raise exactly $36.65 million and reject all corporate, lobbyist, PAC and unlimited cash. Donations must be screened and reported monthly to the party.

"Adopting these rules has allowed us to include more people in the process," says Joanne Peters, press secretary for the Democratic National Convention Committee. The goal "was really to include the grass roots more and make them part of this convention," she says.

The number of individual donors to the Charlotte host committee is 85 times larger than was the case for Denver four years ago, according to Suzi Emmerling, press secretary for Charlotte in 2012.

Not surprisingly, however, there are exceptions to the ostensibly tight rules. First, in-kind corporate donations are permitted. Second, a 501(c)6 civic league known as New American City Inc. faces no limits and is paying for all of the host committee's overhead costs, including staff salaries and insurance. New American City's ostensible role is to promote Charlotte, not to pay for official convention costs.

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