A Bloody Mary in the morning, champagne flutes in the afternoon and paté at night. Funded by special interests, enjoyed by politicians and hidden from public view.
At hotel lobbies and dive bars and shiny museums far from the floor of the Democratic National Convention in South Philadelphia, democracy is getting fat — and wasted — this week.
Some of the action isn’t unique to this year’s convention. Politicos have wooed millionaire donors in back rooms for ages. But this year at the DNC, the scenes are more notable, given the Bernie Sanders candidacy, which centered on how moneyed special interests corrupt the political system.
On Tuesday, across the street from the Philadelphia gathering point for pro-Sanders protests, the well-heeled and phenomenally dressed political elite streamed into the neoclassical Ritz-Carlton Hotel for an event headlined by Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Dozens of Democratic congressional representatives were in attendance, as were the actor who played Fitzgerald Grant III in ABC’s “Scandal” and the woman who sings “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen.”
Afterwards they gathered in the hotel’s plush lobby over oysters and cocktails, openly discussing candidacies and campaign donations. The phrase “making it rain” was overheard.
“This is where the convention is,” former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, who is mulling a political comeback, told me. He said if he stayed in the Ritz-Carlton lobby long enough he would see the entire Democratic leadership of the country.
“Oh, there’s Daschle!” he said, spotting former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, now a lobbyist. “Excuse me.”
At the state level, New Jersey Democrats have concocted a new system to fund this fun and decrease transparency, making it harder for the public to know which companies and unions are subsidizing high-end food and top-shelf liquor for their delegates and elected officials.
The New Jersey Democrats’ new nonprofit, Celebrate New Jersey Now, is a 501(c)4 “social welfare” group that is technically nonpolitical, organizers told me. It is just intended to promote “New Jersey commerce and the electoral process,” and to that end state universities were invited to set up booths in the hotel lobby. But in sponsoring breakfasts, mid-morning receptions, mid-afternoon parties and late-night extravaganzas for political players attending the convention, the group effectively represents a loophole for the state’s campaign finance regulations.
For a nominal fee of $125, convention-goers get transportation from their hotel to the convention site and all the food and drinks they can consume over four days. But most of the money for Celebrate New Jersey Now — what one source familiar with the group’s finances estimated to be a half-million dollars — come from companies, utilities, lobbyists, trade unions, public unions and law firms that do business with New Jersey government. That means lobbyists are essentially paying for politicians to eat and drink, and because all of this is funneled through a nonprofit group, it is impossible to track how the money may have influenced the politicians.
(Celebrate New Jersey Now shouldn’t be confused with Choose New Jersey, the group that Republican Gov. Chris Christie ostensibly set up to promote the state but became known for collecting corporate money that paid for his travels around the world.)
Why couldn’t the New Jersey Democratic State Committee just pay for all of this? Several reasons, all related to ensuring that the public knows as little as possible about the way money buys government influence and political access:
- Federal law bars companies from giving to political groups at federal events like the Democratic National Convention. By funneling the money to a nonprofit, companies like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Suez Environment (the three biggest corporate sponsors for the week) can get around this rule.
- Unlike politicians and political parties, Celebrate New Jersey Now is not required to disclose its donors — although the group’s officials said they would do so within the month. Since the group will continue to exist after the convention, that policy could change in the future.
- Once the donors are known, the information will be incomplete. A journalist or citizen seeking to see if state laws may have been influenced by a company that funded Celebrate New Jersey Now won’t be able to find out because the meals and drinks consumed this week by legislators will never be public information. That runs counter to the state’s pay-to-play law, which requires lobbyists file public paperwork every time they buy something for a politician.
- State and federal laws cap the amount of money a business or lobbyist can give to a politician or a political party, but such rules do not apply to Celebrate New Jersey Now. A source familiar with the group’s finances said some contributions are as high as $75,000 — far more than the normal limits. The two top sponsors are a major trade union tied to the South Jersey Democratic machine, the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, and the utility PSE&G.
- Speaking of PSE&G… The state’s largest gas and electric utility is barred by state law from making contributions to politicians in New Jersey. Such limits are clearly documented on its web site: “PSEG [is]…prohibited from supporting New Jersey state or local candidates.” But on Wednesday this regulated industry paid for breakfast for scores of state legislators and their staffers at a cost of $50,000. The names of those legislators are not required to be released.
What does Celebrate New Jersey Now do with all this money? It creates what one politician here described to me as a cruise: nonstop food and drink at the New Jersey hotel and at bars throughout the city. I joined the group for trips to two bars on Tuesday — at the first, there were free empanadas; at the second, a waitress brought around free shots. Afterwards the delegation went to a reception at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia’s science museum, where they enjoyed a top-shelf open bar and paté around a giant statue of Benjamin Franklin.
The only time there isn’t free booze this week seems to be between 2 am and 10 am, when the Bloody Mary bar opens. The make-your-own-Bloodies were part of an elaborate mid-morning reception featuring jumbo shrimp paid for by Gibbons, P.C., a major lobbying firm that employs both Democrats and Republicans (like Bill Palatucci, Christie’s consigliere) who have some of the deepest relationships in the statehouse. Gibbons was also the largest beneficiary of outside counsel work from the Christie Administration last year — $3.2 million. The cost for Wednesday’s 10 am post-breakfast reception? According to my source: $15,000.
Several Gibbons lobbyists were also at the Republican National Convention last week. But there were fewer corporate sponsors and elected officials in Cleveland this year, due in large part to discomfort with Donald Trump’s candidacy. So New Jersey special interests appear to be spending more money at the DNC — there are more people here, the crowd is younger and parties harder, and power brokers are betting on Democrats to take over the governor’s office next year.
As for that governor’s race, all five of the leading Democratic candidates are in Philadelphia this week. They hung banners in the reception area at the hotel and handed out swag to the convention-goers. And three of them sponsored breakfasts, which means they had to pay $50,000 or raise the money from outside groups. But none of that fundraising would show up on the candidates’ fundraising reports, because it goes directly to Celebrate New Jersey Now.
On Thursday, unelected Democratic power broker George Norcross is throwing a concert in Camden for Democratic delegates from around the country. It is free, and the names of those financing the concert — costing an estimated $3 million — haven’t been released. A ticket to the show says that Lady Gaga and Lenny Kravitz will peform, and lists the “special guest” as U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, George’s brother.
George Norcross is in charge of doling out tickets and choosing seating assignments, sources said, with about 2,000 earmarked for nonprofits in the struggling city of Camden.
The event is closed to reporters, which a spokesman blamed on the preference of the performers.
State campaign finance regulators are eyeing such new forms of financing politicians. “Certainly it’s in the public interest for the citizens, for the voters, to determine who is funding the groups and how much they’re spending,” said Jeffrey Brindle of the Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Brindle said there are proposals to expand state pay-to-play laws to cover such groups. One bill is sponsored by Assemblyman Troy Singleton, a Democrat.
Singleton is also a board member of Celebrate New Jersey Now.