She Snags the Invites But Not the Parties

Posted August 26, 2008 at 4:40pm

Nancy Watzman will be attending as many parties as she can at the Democratic and Republican conventions, but she’s not going for the good times. She’ll be keeping track of who’s feting whom and blogging about what she sees — provided she gets into the parties, of course.

“I think of myself as the party hostess who no one wants at their party,” Watzman joked. “I’m the unpopular one.”

That’s probably because Watzman has made a career of connecting the dots between lavish fundraisers and how they benefit both their honorees and their hosts. Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area with a father who worked as a journalist and for the State Department, Watzman developed an interest in government and journalism. She carved a niche for herself tracking money in politics while working for the Center for Responsive Politics and Public Campaign before becoming a consultant for the bipartisan watchdog Sunlight Foundation. Her latest venture is working for Party Time, a Sunlight Foundation project aimed at shedding light on the “influence matrix” between Congress, lobbyists and special interests.

Party Time is an online database of fundraising events held by and for Senators and House Members. The goal is to provide some transparency for reporters, activists and the public, offering a glimpse into a murky fundraising system. The average person can’t afford the hefty entrance price for many of these events, and Watzman said this usually means that the interests of wealthy corporations and lobbying groups carry more weight than those of most constituents.

“Do I get as much access as these big-time lobbyists and politicos?” she said. “My guess is no.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, at least not according to Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation. Although he says fundraising creates a “tilted field” that favors lobbyists and special-interest groups, if the public were to become involved, that field could be leveled.

“Members do care about their constituents,” he said. If people take note of whom their representatives are working with and whose interests they are advocating, they can raise concerns and work to push their own issues to the forefront.

Party Time is one way for them to do that. The foundation receives copies of invitations to these events from a variety of sources who are invited to the parties, often people who work or used to work for lobbying firms. The foundation welcomes them from anywhere, though, especially those for fundraisers being held outside Washington, which can be harder to come by. There are more than 2,000 invites posted at politicalpartytime.org for events that were held from 2006 to 2008. By identifying the type of event and who benefits, Allison hopes people can sort out where the influence and money are concentrated.

The site launched Aug. 18, and Watzman will be updating its blog every day of the conventions. The launch being so close to the beginning of the Democratic National Convention was fortuitous timing, Allison said, but the scope of the project goes beyond this election season. The conventions provide a unique opportunity to publicize the site, and Watzman said she will be encouraging people to submit news of the goings-on at different parties, as well as linking to other relevant information from the blog.

Watzman doesn’t have formal invitations to any of the parties, but she’s going to see how many she can talk her way into, ideally three to four a day.

And if she gets turned away at the door, that’s OK. She’ll blog about that, too.

Watzman was already hard at work the first day of the convention, writing that she was told “in no uncertain terms” that she wouldn’t be getting into a Blue Dogs party hosted by AT&T and Genworth Financial. She was politely declined at a party held by the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck lobbying firm, too.

It’s not all bad, though. Watzman and her 3-year-old son did manage to score some free nuts and a strawberry smoothie being handed out by the Huffington Post.