How the Democratic Convention Became a One-Stop Shop for Corporations Seeking Political Influence

A group of activists in Philadelphia is fighting back.

Ethan Corey

Reclaim Philadelphia has staged demonstrations at the homes of DNC host committee members and occupied the host committee’s downtown Philadelphia offices. (Reclaim Philadelphia)

Since 1947, fed­er­al law has pro­hib­it­ed cor­po­rate financ­ing of polit­i­cal cam­paigns and elec­tions, includ­ing par­ty nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tions. So it might seem more than a lit­tle strange that this week’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion in Philadel­phia will be fund­ed by more than $60 mil­lion in con­tri­bu­tions from some of the Unit­ed States’ largest cor­po­ra­tions, includ­ing tele­com giants like AT&T and Com­cast, oil com­pa­nies like Chevron and Suno­co and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal man­u­fac­tur­ers AmeriSource Bergen and GlaxoSmithKline.

'The very reason companies don’t want you to know whether they’re supporting parties or conventions is the very reason we need to know that, because we can then connect their support to the influence they have and then it may generate some real calls for reform.'

This is pos­si­ble thanks in part to a series of deci­sions by the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion (FEC) over the past four decades that has all but elim­i­nat­ed the pro­hi­bi­tion on cor­po­rate con­tri­bu­tions to par­ty nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tions, accord­ing to Lar­ry Noble, gen­er­al coun­sel for the Cam­paign Legal Cen­ter, a non­par­ti­san watch­dog group, who also served as the FEC’s gen­er­al coun­sel for 13 years.

Con­ven­tion orga­niz­ers get around FEC restric­tions on cor­po­rate polit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions by rout­ing the mon­ey through con­ven­tion host com­mit­tees,” nom­i­nal­ly inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tions that are allowed to accept osten­si­bly non-polit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions from cor­po­rate donors. Host com­mit­tees began as orga­ni­za­tions intend­ed to pro­mote the host city and its busi­ness­es dur­ing the con­ven­tion, but in recent years they’ve grown to become the pri­ma­ry source of funds for par­ty nom­i­nat­ing conventions.

The Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, start­ing in the late 70s, start­ed writ­ing exemp­tions into the pro­hi­bi­tion. Orig­i­nal­ly they were small exemp­tions to allow the host com­mit­tee to entice con­ven­tions there and pro­mote local busi­ness­es,” Noble says. But over time the FEC opened up the rules fur­ther and fur­ther, until we reached a point where cor­po­ra­tions start­ed to pro­vide the vast major­i­ty of mon­ey used to put on conventions.”

As a result of these loop­holes, con­ven­tions have become a favorite tar­get for cor­po­rate con­tri­bu­tions, large­ly due to the sheer vol­ume of polit­i­cal lead­ers they bring togeth­er under one roof, says Noble. This gives cor­po­ra­tions a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to impress their mes­sage upon many deci­sion-mak­ers simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. For instance, in 2008, Wall Street firms that received bailout mon­ey from the Trou­bled Asset Relief Pro­gram (TARP) con­tributed a total of $6 mil­lion to par­ty con­ven­tions, $3.4 mil­lion for the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion and $2.6 mil­lion for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic convention.

Real­ly what they’re doing is buy­ing access,” Noble says. The cam­paigns and host com­mit­tees know this, and that’s why they offer them access.”

The DNC host com­mit­tee offers donors a tiered pack­age of incen­tives for large con­tri­bu­tions. Those who give $250,000 or more receive hotel accom­mo­da­tions in the offi­cial con­ven­tion block (putting them in close prox­im­i­ty to del­e­gates and par­ty lead­ers), invi­ta­tions to busi­ness and pol­i­cy round­ta­bles and VIP pho­to oppor­tu­ni­ties. Donors who give $500,000 get all that and more, includ­ing pri­or­i­ty access to con­ven­tion events and venues and a chance to join con­ven­tion orga­niz­ers on a VIP golf trip. Top-tier donors — those who give $1 mil­lion or more — get what might be the most valu­able gift of all: invi­ta­tions to an exclu­sive VIP par­ty open only to top donors and par­ty leaders.

But now, a group that includes for­mer Bernie Sanders staffers and vol­un­teers call­ing itself Reclaim Philadel­phia is fight­ing back against cor­po­rate influ­ence in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, start­ing with this year’s con­ven­tion. Over the past three weeks, the group has staged demon­stra­tions at the homes of DNC host com­mit­tee mem­bers and even occu­pied the host committee’s down­town Philadel­phia offices call­ing for the res­ig­na­tions of host com­mit­tee mem­bers with ties to lob­by­ing and the release of the host committee’s finan­cial records, includ­ing a full list of donors, which has not yet been made public.

Reclaim Philadel­phia is demand­ing the res­ig­na­tion of three of the 15 mem­bers of the host com­mit­tee — for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia Gov. Ed Ren­dell, Com­cast exec­u­tive David Cohen and Inde­pen­dence Blue Cross CEO Daniel Hil­fer­ty — argu­ing that these mem­bers’ lob­by­ing ties and sup­port for cor­po­rate inter­ests under­mine the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the con­ces­sions made to pro­gres­sives in the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty platform.

After leav­ing the governor’s office in 2011, Ren­dell has served as co-chair of Fix the Debt, a lob­by­ing orga­ni­za­tion backed by Wall Street bil­lion­aire Pete Peter­son that calls for cuts to Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare in addi­tion to a ter­ri­to­r­i­al” tax­a­tion sys­tem, which would per­ma­nent­ly exempt U.S. cor­po­ra­tions’ off­shore earn­ings from tax­a­tion. Ren­dell has also served as a lob­by­ist and con­sul­tant for nat­ur­al gas firms seek­ing to expand frack­ing operations.

Cohen, mean­while, has served as a senior exec­u­tive at Com­cast over­see­ing gov­ern­ment rela­tions since 2002, dur­ing which time Com­cast has played a lead­ing role in the fight against net neu­tral­i­ty and vocif­er­ous­ly backed the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship (TPP). In 2014, Cohen worked as a fundrais­er for Pennsylvania’s Repub­li­can Gov. Tom Cor­bett, rais­ing more than $200,000 for his re-elec­tion campaign.

The third mem­ber, Daniel Hil­fer­ty, is a reg­is­tered Repub­li­can, as well as a board mem­ber of America’s Health Insur­ance Plans (AHIP), an insur­ance lob­by­ing group that spent $102.4 mil­lion in 2009 and 2010 lob­by­ing against the pas­sage of the Afford­able Care Act. Hil­fer­ty is also a major Repub­li­can donor, per­son­al­ly con­tribut­ing near­ly $80,000 to Repub­li­can con­gres­sion­al can­di­dates dur­ing the 2014 cycle.

We at Reclaim Philly would like to see sin­gle-pay­er health­care, but we like that Hillary Clin­ton has at least re-adopt­ed the idea of hav­ing a pub­lic option with­in Oba­macare,” says Alex Nagle, spokesman for Reclaim Philadel­phia. But we don’t think the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty can real­ly make a cred­i­ble pledge to enact a pol­i­cy like that when they’re giv­ing this lev­el of access to lob­by­ists who are real­ly fun­da­men­tal­ly opposed to pro­gres­sive policies.”

Reclaim Philadel­phia is also call­ing on the host com­mit­tee to release the names of the indi­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions that have donat­ed to the host committee’s con­ven­tion fund. In June, the Penn­syl­va­nia Office of Open Records approved a request for the host committee’s finan­cial records filed by local jour­nal­ist Dustin Slaugh­ter under the state’s Right-to-Know law, but the host com­mit­tee has refused to com­ply with the request, argu­ing that state law is super­seded by FEC reg­u­la­tions, which only require finan­cial dis­clo­sure 60 days after the con­ven­tion. On Mon­day after­noon, the Philadel­phia Coun­ty Court of Com­mon Pleas reject­ed a motion filed by Slaugh­ter to com­pel the release of the finan­cial records, delay­ing their release until after the convention.

Every­one will have moved on by the time they release the names in Octo­ber,” Nagle says. We need trans­paren­cy now so that we can hold them accountable.”

Argu­ing against the release of the host committee’s finan­cial records, Cohen told The Philadel­phia Inquir­er, Peo­ple out there have their own par­ti­san agen­das and if a com­pa­ny is on there … 50 demon­stra­tors show up out­side their offices because XYZ bank’ invests in fos­sil fuels or par­tic­i­pat­ed in rais­ing mon­ey for Repub­li­cans. I don’t see the pub­lic inter­est in know­ing who the donors are.”

But Noble says this is exact­ly why dis­clo­sure is nec­es­sary: The very rea­son com­pa­nies don’t want you to know whether they’re sup­port­ing par­ties or con­ven­tions is the very rea­son we need to know that, because we can then con­nect their sup­port to the influ­ence they have and then it may gen­er­ate some real calls for reform.”

Ethan Corey is a writer and researcher based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Rolling Stone and MEL magazine.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH