After a contentious Democratic primary season in which presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was accused of being too cozy with corporate interests, many such players will keep a low profile at the party’s national convention.
Major business groups and financial institutions either played coy about their plans or said they were skipping the event altogether.
The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Consumer Bankers Association and the National Association of Manufacturers had no plans for the Democratic convention, the trade groups say. Citigroup declined comment. Goldman Sachs didn’t respond to an inquiry about its role. The Financial Services Roundtable didn’t offer details, either.
But even with some of K Street’s major players either sitting out the events or keeping it on the down-low, lobbyists and an array of their clients plan to hit Philadelphia with a new sense of freedom. Unlike Barack Obama, who famously banned lobbyists from contributing to his campaigns or to the Democratic National Conventions in 2008 and 2012, lobbyists’ money is welcome again.
“There may be more sensitivities because of the primary challenge and the perceived influence of big donors and Wall Street specifically, but I don’t see any evidence of a major shift,” says Sheila Krumholz, head of the Center for Responsive Politics. “The purpose of the modern political convention is to both rally the base and fundraise like heck and to continue to stroke the donors so they continue to give.”
Though Obama’s restrictions on lobbyists led to some of them sporting, irreverently, scarlet letter Ls at the president’s first convention in Denver, such stunts aren’t likely at the off-site party scene around Philadelphia over the week.
The National Retail Federation, for one, will host a big bash at the National Constitution Center on July 27 celebrating women in the industry, says David French, the organization’s senior vice president for government relations.
“It’s not going to have an overtly partisan flavor, but it is at the convention,” says French, a one-time aide to then-Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican. “It’s a great opportunity to have a good time with friends of the industry and to acknowledge the process and to acknowledge things in retail that are very important.”
QVC, a member of the retail federation, is based in Philadelphia and will have a signature role, French notes. “We’ll invite a wide range of folks from the Hill, from the Philadelphia retail community, from the national retail community and friends all around the country,” he says.
Lobbying associations with convention plans typically try to “facilitate some kind of conversation for their industry,” explains J.P. Moery, whose Moery Co. consults for associations. “Organizations see it as important to be present in a very important time around the political and elected leaders in this country. This is the Super Bowl for those two parties, and it’s important to be present.”
Rules of the Road
For months, lawyer Kenneth Gross has fielded inquiries from clients about the dos and don’ts of hosting convention shindigs. Modest receptions and hospitality suites are usually fine, says the head of the political law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
But since not all attendees are subject to identical rules, it can get tricky. Most groups organize their events to comply with House and Senate gift rules, Gross says, but some states put even tougher restrictions on their officials, while political appointees in the Obama administration must follow strict ethics orders they signed when taking their jobs.
“It is challenging to navigate,” Gross says. “I also have people be prepared to give an amount of the value if someone wants to attend, so they could pay their own way.”
Lobbying groups that want to put on more than a reception with food and drink of nominal value may opt to host a charitable event. This allows them to host dinners, music concerts and even golf outings. As long as more than 50 percent of the proceeds go to charity, then an event likely qualifies for the charity exemption, Gross says.
Along those lines, HeadCount, a nonprofit that registers voters at concerts around the country, wanted to increase its profile among the politically savvy convention-goers this year.
So for the first time, HeadCount planned events at both conventions, including a July 25 concert benefiting the organization headlined by songwriter Grace Potter, the band Dawes and other special guests, says lobbyist Diane Blagman of the firm Greenberg Traurig.
Blagman, who serves on HeadCount’s board, says the event will take place at the iconic Electric Factory in Philadelphia. “We’re a nonpartisan organization that works with musicians to promote democracy,” says Blagman, whose lobbying clients include the Grammys.
Participating musicians include the Dave Matthews Band, Jay Z and Phish, among others. HeadCount tabulates that its network of volunteers, who travel with the bands, have registered more than 300,000 voters since starting in 2004.
Lobbyists — and more
For some K Street denizens, the official convention will steal the show. A collection of lobbyists will attend as superdelegates — casting votes that carry more weight than regular delegates on the convention floor.
Among them are former Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu. Dodd, a former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee who now runs the Motion Picture Association of America, doesn’t plan to put on any star-studded events for the Hollywood lobby, but he’s going with the Nutmeg State delegation as a Clinton supporter, a spokesman says.
Landrieu, a lobbyist with the firm Van Ness Feldman, has raised at least $45,000 for Clinton’s presidential coffers and was elected as a super delegate from her home state.
“I cannot wait to cast my vote for Hillary Clinton,” says Landrieu, a former Senate Energy chairman whose clients include Xavier University of Louisiana.
“Of course, we hope for unity among our delegates,” Landrieu says. “So far, things seem to be moving in a very good direction.”
Unity is also top of mind for another lobbyist, Marcus Sebastian Mason, a partner with The Madison Group, who confesses to being a “dreaded, maligned, often misunderstood” super delegate from California for Clinton.
“I hope the message coming out of the convention is that our party is unified and singularly focused on winning in November,” says Mason, whose clients include Google, Sberbank CIB USA Inc. and Energy Future Holdings.
Mason says his most important job at the convention is to “cast my vote for the next president of the United States. … The reality is this country has serious issues and can only be handled by serious people.”