Party Fixers Relish Convention Role

Posted June 2, 2004 at 6:56pm

Rob Jennings may not seem like a guy to turn to for advice about New York City’s trendy club scene.

The Republican fundraiser and Wyoming native wakes up well before many hipster clubs stop serving Red Bull and vodkas. An aspiring weightlifter, he works out every day during work. And he hasn’t had a drink in more than a year.

But as this summer’s Republican and Democratic political conventions approach, Jennings finds himself as popular as a Glowstick at a rave.

As one of the few Washington insiders with experience throwing flashy convention-week galas, the 35-year-old is among a select group of political pros who are in high demand by corporations, trade associations and Members of Congress looking to plan parties, concerts and receptions at the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer.

Washington’s newest set of power players are essentially middlemen, with one foot in event-organizing and the other in the world of politics and influence. They are political consultants, lobbyists, fundraisers and party loyalists whose skills at party planning have become vital this year, thanks to an obscure offshoot of campaign-finance reform.

In prior years, politicians and political parties mounted extravagant parties during the conventions by directly charging corporations, trade associations and wealthy individuals up to $100,000 — typically in unregulated “soft money” — to bankroll the events.

Now that the use of soft money has been outlawed, political parties and Members of Congress are turning to a small group of party loyalists like Jennings. These planners organize the parties on their own, and — thanks to their nominally independent status — can legally solicit the money needed from corporations and individuals.

“It’s a microcosm of the broader consequences of banning soft money,” said a veteran Democratic fundraiser. “It pushes power from the political parties to unaccountable outside groups.”

Though Members of Congress no longer control the events directly, the parties serve the exact same function. Lawmakers will still attend — and corporations will foot the bill — because such events are staged to honor particular House members and Senators.

“Because you can no longer throw a party to raise money for the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, [independent groups are planning] the events that the national parties have traditionally put together,” said Brandon Winfrey, a Republican fundraiser who is organizing several marquee events at this year’s convention.

“There are fewer ways to get noticed at a convention because of campaign-finance reform,” Winfrey added, “so people are looking for opportunities to attach their names to fun events.”

In all, independent party planners will throw some 50 major parties and private concerts that cost at least $100,000, said Drew Pompilio, a promoter for Clear Channel Communications who is helping to book bands for the conventions.

In New York, where Republicans will convene, Wall Street firms are rolling out the red carpet for Financial Services Committee Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) and electric utilities are throwing a bash to honor Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas). At the Democratic convention in Boston, telecommunications firms plan to fete Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and other lawmakers who have jurisdiction over technology policy.

To pull off the parties, corporations and trade associations turn to party loyalists like Jennings.

During the week-long Republican convention in August, Jennings will stage a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert to honor Southern Republicans, a major bash for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) at the Hammerstein Ballroom and separate welcoming receptions for the Texas and Wyoming delegations at the Chelsea Piers and the New York Stock Exchange.

“A lot of what these parties are about is posturing and presence,” Jennings said. “Very few of them will actually leave a lasting impression. But the ones that do will be remembered for years to come.”

In the meantime, GOP lobbyist John Green will host after-hours parties at B.B. King’s nightclub on the Monday and Wednesday of the convention. The events will feature ZZ Top, the Marshall Tucker Band, Dicky Betts and Super Diamond.

“We wanted to offer our friends an opportunity to listen to good live music after they have been at the convention all night,” said Green, a former aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) who is now a lobbyist with the Federalist Group.

Also active this year are the “founding fathers” of popular convention parties: Republican lobbyists Bruce Gates and Henry Gandy.

Gates and Gandy, who are planning late-night dance parties each night of convention week in New York City, revolutionized convention parties during the 1996 GOP convention in San Diego. While corporations, interest groups and lobbyists have thrown private parties at the political conventions for years, Gates and Gandy organized the first of what became known as the infamous “Warehouse” parties in San Diego.

The pair rented out a warehouse near the waterfront convention center, stocked a few bars and hired popular cover band Duck Soup to play into the early morning hours. The parties became the hottest ticket in town.

The inaugural party was held to honor Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was then the chairman of the House Republican Conference, and the parties have been “loosely affiliated” with Boehner ever since, Gates said.

Gates and Gandy repeated the trick four years later during the GOP convention in Philadelphia.

But by then, others had caught on.

For the 2000 convention, Jennings and Winfrey added a new twist to the “warehouse” model by signing up a big-name national band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, to play at a similar party.

This year, dozens of party planners hope to duplicate their model.

“There are more in the works now than there were in Philly, and there were more in Philly than there were in San Diego,” said Gates, a lobbyist with the firm Washington Council Ernst & Young. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Ironically, Congress’s decision to ban soft money is one of the reasons that the number of expensive convention parties has ballooned.

In past conventions, political parties assigned box tickets and convention access based in large part on the size of the soft-money checks written by corporations, trade association and individuals.

Without soft money, companies have found that sponsoring an exclusive party is a prime way to exhibit party loyalty and score access to the floor, prime hotel rooms and sky boxes.

“Without soft money you have to do something to make a statement,” said one Republican fundraiser.

“The competition is intense,” added Pompilio, the Clear Channel promoter. “What you thought might have been great four years ago is the standard now. People want their parties to be bigger and badder than last time.”