GOP money men get ready to roll
By DAVID KARP and BILL ADAIR
Eight months before the 2000 Republican National Convention opened in Philadelphia, fundraisers turned to taxpayers for help.
The Philadelphia host committee had fallen behind the fundraising schedule it promised to meet. They needed a $3-million interest-free loan from the city to make up the difference.
Philadelphia readily agreed to help. But the experience taught the national party a lesson it will remember this month when it picks the host city for the 2004 Republican National Convention.
Whether Republicans pick Tampa, New York or long-shot New Orleans as the site, the hosts better be able to pay the tab.
That's why Tampa Bay Republicans, who traveled to the White House last week to make a final pitch for the convention, sought to convince party leaders that they can raise $50-million without a glitch.
"I feel totally confident this is not an issue, and I think they do, too," said Al Austin, the finance chairman of the Florida Republican Party, who is leading the area's host committee.
Raising money is much easier now that Republicans control the presidency, Congress, the Florida Legislature and the governor's office, he said.
"There were times, years ago, when it was tough to raise money," Austin said. "But it isn't near as hard as it used to be."
But even Austin's fundraising skills will be put to a test.
The national party does not doubt New York's ability to raise big bucks. But Tampa and St. Petersburg have never hosted a national political convention. Local fundraisers will need to raise millions for the 2004 convention and millions more for a U.S. Senate race, President Bush's re-election campaign and state legislative races.
To raise money for the convention, the host committee would turn to a core group of money men: Austin, developer Dick Beard, developer Al Hoffman, media executive J. Patrick "Rick" Michaels and Outback Steakhouse co-founder Robert Basham.
Just as fundraisers did in Philadelphia, they will call on corporations, most with headquarters outside the Tampa Bay area, to finance more than half the convention's $50-million cost.
"The amount that comes out of the local community is pretty small," said Michaels, who raised money for the Philadelphia convention.
But not every city has the people who can coax CEOs, who must answer to shareholders in tough economic times, to open their wallets.
"You have to be able to call them," Michaels said. "Who makes the call is very important."
How it's done
When Republicans began raising money to host the 2000 Republican National Convention, they came up with a pecking order.
For $50,000, donors would get a limited-edition Philadelphia 2000 lapel pin and six commemorative golf shirts.
For $100,000, donors could receive a "VIP golf outing," a reservation at a choice hotel, and the right to host a reception for a state delegation, which typically included the state's governor and congressional members.
A $1-million donation bought exclusive dinners with Washington dignitaries and face time with the presidential nominee.
Many of the companies that donated had scores of business issues before the federal government. The list included Philip Morris, AT&T, Lockheed Martin, Ernst & Young, General Motors, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Enron.
Bell Atlantic contributed about $3-million to the Philadelphia convention and won the contract to build the convention's $4.5-million telecommunications network. That contract enabled Bell Atlantic to lay miles of fiber-optic cable across Philadelphia and compete for new business after the convention left.
Comcast Corp. also became a major corporate sponsor. Comcast's president was one of the convention's co-chairs, and 250 Comcast employees volunteered at the convention. The nation's largest cable operator also paid $250,000 to publish a convention media guide, and hosted a reception for the congressman who championed the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
Corporate money wasn't supposed to be a factor at political conventions.
After the Watergate scandals, Congress provided public financing for conventions so corporations wouldn't use the events to buy influence. But the Federal Election Commission has allowed corporations to give money to local "host committees," which now provide the bulk of the financing for the conventions.
Technically, "host committees" are only supposed to spend money on economic development. But most of the host committee's expenses, including paying for the convention site, benefit the political parties.
At the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, for example, the federal government provided about $13.5-million in public financing while private donors contributed more than $25-million.
"Conventions have become free-for-all, soft-money orgies where you have all this corporate money flooding in," said Don Simon, acting president of Common Cause, a watchdog group. "It's this Wild West scene, a free-fire zone for the sale of political access."
Even with all the corporate backing, cities have fallen short before.
When fundraising slowed for the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe abandoned plans to become ambassador to Britain so he could raise money.
Philadelphia hit a few bumps because its mayor, Edward Rendell, was a Democratic Party leader. The GOP needed to send national fundraisers to help the local committee, Michaels said. Fundraisers also needed an interest-free loan from the city, which also gave about $7-million in direct cash.
Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker haven't been willing to do that. Both pledged in-kind services but won't give direct money.
That's why much of the pressure would fall on Austin.
"I don't have any doubt about his abilities," said Van Poole, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
Floridians gave $5.7-million to the Bush campaign in 2000, more than every state but Texas and California, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. New Yorkers gave $4.8-million.
The Sunshine State also ranked No. 4 in giving to national and state Republican parties, contributing $37.3-million in the 2000 elections. New York gave about $400,000 more than Florida.
"I think we can compete with anybody," Poole said. "We have proven that over the years."
The fundraising team includes Hoffman, a former national finance chairman of the Republican Party, and Michaels, a media executive who was past chairman of the Republican Regents, a group of large donors to the national party. Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer who now is ambassador to Italy, was also a past national finance chairman.
If Tampa wins the bid, the group will "absolutely" need Gov. Jeb Bush to help with fundraising, said Michaels.
Still, Tampa Bay does not have the corporate base that New York enjoys. A glance at the companies listed as "revenue sources" for Tampa Bay's bid shows the disparity.
Florida companies who sent letters of support for Tampa's bid include Outback Steakhouse, Publix, TECO Energy, Lazydays RV Center and Highwood Properties.
New York's host committee includes Jack Hennessy, who served as CEO of Credit Suisse First Boston, and Roland Betts, chairman and founder of Chelsea Piers LP.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has wooed GOP site selection committee members with autographed photographs and books, is committee chairman.
Last week, according to the New York Post, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki got another chance to make their case at a New York fundraiser at the Hotel Mark, where Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was to appear.
"I think it's not going to be a slam dunk, but it's certainly a hurdle Florida is capable of overcoming," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a West Palm Beach Republican.
"We are talking about raising money with one of the most popular presidents in modern times and a state where his brother is a very, very popular re-elected governor," Foley said. "We're not trying to start from scratch. We've got a huge base."
-- Times news researchers Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires.
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