How Much Clout Can Salmon And Free Perfume Buy, Anyway?


Three weeks before the Democratic National Convention, the Kansas delegation faced a serious problem: It couldn't afford to throw itself a party.

While most states had been approached by corporations willing to sponsor their Chicago fetes, Kansas had been passed over. That's when organizer Carol McDowell called Sprint.

At her request, the Kansas-based communications firm donated $15,000. It was enough to rent a restaurant atop Chicago's Sears Tower and entertain the state's Democratic establishment with a jazz trio and a taco bar.

From sponsoring delegate receptions to buying ad space on banners and donating equipment, America's businesses have been flaunting their bankrolls at this year's Democratic convention. So far, the money has been warmly welcomed. Organizers have praised it as a means of sparing taxpayers and allowing companies to participate in political life.

Although some Democrats complain that all this corporate money corrupts the political system, or at least gives the impression that it's buyable, they're in the minority.

Early this week, this reporter spent an evening dodging pastry tables and punch bowls at a handful of parties for state delegations. The journey began at Scoozi, an Italian restaurant where Philip Morris, the food and tobacco concern, held a reception for the Virginia and Kentucky contingents.

Outside, there was a crush of media that, despite some expert pleading, was not allowed inside. As the Clinton administration prepares to give the Food and Drug Administration more power to regulate tobacco, the spectacle of a cigarette company hosting a political event proved newsworthy.

Company spokeswoman Darienne Dennis did not deny that her company has political interests in Kentucky and Virginia. But she maintained that Philip Morris's sponsorship was not a bribe, but "part of the constitutional system" and an honest attempt to "do something to make government fair and good."

Paul Patton, Kentucky's governor, conceded that the money Philip Morris spent on the reception would buy a certain amount of access to lawmakers and a chance to be heard. But he denied that monied interests have any more influence on politicians than individual citizens - at least not on him. "I just spent a week traveling through western Kentucky and talking to voters," he says. "Anybody who wants to can talk to Paul Patton."

The next stop was Michael Jordan's restaurant, where AT&T and Lucent Technologies were entertaining the Massachusetts delegation. Here, reporters were waved in. Amid the basketball memorabilia, a blues band played over-loudly. Some delegates slapped on AT&T baseball caps they received at the door, giving the gathering the flavor of a fraternity party.

The state's Democratic Party chairwoman, Joan Menard, explains that although both sponsors have a presence in Massachusetts, she isn't really sure why they chose to finance the event. Companies that donate to the Democratic Party, she explains, were allowed to select which delegations they wanted to feed. She didn't seem to care about the corporate presence, and she was not alone.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino scoffed at the idea that the sponsors would reap any political benefits from the fried crab cakes and salmon strips they'd provided. "What corruption is a hat?" he asked, pausing between bites of rye bread slathered with clam dip. "Most of these people aren't decisionmakers anyway. Years from now, they won't have any idea who sponsored this party."

The lone holdout here was Scott Harshbarger, the state's attorney general, who called the prevalence of corporate sponsorship at the convention "unfortunate."

Saks Fifth Avenue treated the New Jersey delegation to an after-hours romp in the six-level department store. Saks has a strong presence in New Jersey, says spokeswoman Nema Ivan. Delegates mostly praised the event as they rode the escalators clutching complimentary bags of perfume samples, makeup kits, and discount coupons for ties and fur coats.

Gloria Soto, a New Jersey delegate, says the fact that the staff kept the cash registers open made her feel Saks was getting something in return other than influence.

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