NEW YORK – When Harford County Executive Jim Harkins hosted a breakfast for the Maryland delegation at the Republican National Convention, he proudly announced that not a cent of public money had been spent on the meal.
The hearty Sept. 2 breakfast of eggs, bacon and home fries, and accompanying goody bags, had all been donated by state businesses.
Fiore Winery in Pylesville provided bottles of wine, and other sponsors included the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, real estate developer Clark Turner Cos. and Baltimore Steel Erectors Inc. They were just some of the Maryland companies and those doing business in the state that ponied up thousands of dollars for events honoring the Maryland Republicans.
“We’re glad to have them here,” said Louis Pope, the state’s Republican national committeeman.
Corporate money accounted for 60 percent of the $63.5 million the Republicans spent for their convention, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute at George Washington University.
And the GOP was not alone. The Campaign Finance Institute reported that the Democrats spent about $39 million for their July convention in Boston, with 61 percent corporate financing.
Dollar amounts aside, there is little difference between the parties when it comes to corporate fund raising, said Steven Weiss, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, another Washington nonprofit that tracks campaign spending.
“Both try to raise as much money as possible from corporations,” he said. “The public is more aware than ever . . . of the impact that deep-pocket interests can have on issues.”
Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane said he had “no qualms” about the sponsorship of convention parties or delegate breakfasts.
But Maryland Republicans, long the minority party in the state, did not get the VIP treatment enjoyed by solidly Republican states like Texas or battleground states like Pennsylvania or Ohio. Breakfast most days was a frugal affair consisting of several variations of egg, ham and cheese on a roll, wrapped in aluminum foil, with nary a goody bag in sight. The hotel coffee verged on undrinkable.
Money flowed, however, for parties for the state’s top Republicans, Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. Constellation Energy and Comcast, two companies that hosted events for Maryland delegates to the Democratic convention in Boston in July, picked up the tab for Ehrlich’s posh after-hours party at The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers.
With a gourmet buffet and entertainment by the 1970s R&B group the Stylistics, Kane estimated the cost of the event at $60,000.
Befitting his star status as a convention speaker, a party honoring Lt. Gov. Steele was held at the 40/40 Club, one of hippest venues on the New York party circuit. Several hundred attended the late-night affair, which featured an open bar and a VIP lounge furnished with a pool table, bed and wall-size television screen.
Sandy A. Roberts, the Washington lawyer who organized the event, refused to discuss costs, but corporate donors listed on the invitation to the Steele event included:
— PEPCO, which Senior Vice President Beverly Perry said does not contribute directly to political parties, but makes donations for events “honoring individuals who are important to our customer base.” Perry estimated the company contribution to the Steele party at “$5,000 or more.”
— Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, whose spokesman, Jeff Trewhitt, declined to comment on the amount the trade group had donated.
— O’Connor and Hannan, a mid-sized Washington law firm that lists its areas of practice as campaign finance, government ethics, and lobbying.
— Valley Proteins, a Virginia-based firm that processes cooking grease and animal carcasses to produce liquid fats and livestock meals. Its Curtis Bay, Md., plant is currently embroiled in controversy over a proposed renovation opposed by local environmentalists, based on past complaints about odors from the facility.
The Maryland Department of Environment had not decided whether to issue a permit for the renovation by the time of the convention, a department spokesman said. Phone calls to Valley Proteins were not returned.
The political impact of these companies’ donations seemed pretty much a non-topic for Maryland Republicans.
Standing on the convention floor before President Bush’s acceptance speech, Walter Hayes of Towson said that he hadn’t really “thought about it. I guess we have to compete with Heinz ketchup some way,” a reference to the inherited wealth of Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry.
Cathleen Vitale of Severna Park also said she “was not bothered by it. The governor and lieutenant governor have so much integrity, I’m not worried about influence.”
Vitale maintained that without corporate sponsorship, the convention would be “outpriced” for some delegates.
Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics sees this acceptance of corporate funding as a sign of jaded sensibilities, not only among delegates but the electorate at large.
“It’s impossible to participate in conventions without seeing special-interest money being spent and without desensitization taking place,” he said.
“And that may be happening nationally. They (voters) are more used to hearing about it,” Weiss said. “The question we can’t answer is, is that resulting in increased concern or desensitization?”
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