Companies Pour Cash into Convention Critics Fretting as Firms Such as Anheuser-Busch Ante Up to Gain Access
Jon Sawyer Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
THE 1,000 REPUBLICANS gathered under a pavilion tent Sunday night at the Sea World theme park for a "Salute to Newt" got convention week off to a rousing start with beef tenderloin, a salad with tequila vinaigrette and a stirring speech by House Speaker Newt Gingrich himself.
It was a rousing start as well for Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., a major sponsor of this week's convention and a vivid example of the mushrooming role of politically savvy corporations in the nation's quadrennial presidential sweepstakes.
The prominent role of companies like Anheuser-Busch is perfectly legal but nonetheless worrisome to critics. They view the commercialization of the conventions as a mockery of the campaign finance laws that were supposed to take the purchase of special access out of politics.
"Essentially, we've almost come full circle," said Anthony J. Corrado, a specialist on campaign financing at Colby College in Maine. "The types of contributions from corporations that the reforms of the 1970s sought to end have returned, with the sums more dramatic than ever."
Stephen K. Lambright, who heads Anheuser-Busch's government affairs and legal departments, says the brewery's role at the convention is just good corporate citizenship, no different from the company's high-profile presence at events like the Olympics or World Cup Soccer.
"We do it to maintain relationships," he said. "What do we get in return? Maybe an open door to an elected or government official. The only thing we ask is the chance to give our point of view - and then they do what they're going to do."
The dinner guests Sunday night got the chance to take in Sea World, one of Anheuser-Busch's top theme parks. They might also have noticed that the company was one of four sponsors for the Salute to Newt, each contributing up to $50,000 to cover the costs of one of convention week's more elegant events.
The Illinois and California delegations both held private parties at Sea World, too, courtesy of Anheuser-Busch contributions to their respect ive state parties. The brewery was also among the big corporate sponsors funding a brunch Tuesday on board a vintage ferry at San Diego's Maritime Museum.
The "goody bag" that went to every convention delegate and journalist contained a plastic beer mug that made the company's interest as clear as an ice-chilled bottle of Bud.
The mug's false bottom contains red, white and blue confetti, an elephant and a miniature can of Budweiser. Midway up the container there's a "tax fill line" and the not-so-subtle message: "Forty-three percent of the cost of every beer is hidden taxes. Roll Back Beer Taxes."
Anheuser-Busch is among the most prominent and generous corporate patrons in San Diego, but it is scarcely alone. Chrysler Corp. has a pavilion graced with its hottest new cars, General Motors Corp. has donated a fleet of automobiles for convention use, and United Airlines has contributed free and reduced-fare tickets.
The elite of the donors, those like Anheuser-Busch that have contributed upward of $100,000 each to the San Diego Host Committee, get special access to convention perks - from Gingrich's skybox above the convention floor to slots in golf tournaments and receptions where business types mingle with politicians.
Federal money, raised from the voluntary income tax checkoff, provides a total of $25 million for this year's Republican and Democratic conventions. f That much or more will come in from private donors, who, according to convention planners, have more than doubled the amount they contributed four years ago.
What it means in practical terms, as Lambright put it, is this: "You'll stumble over us all week."
The Brewery's Beef On Taxes
"I think our customers want us doing this," said Richard Keating, who directs Anheuser-Busch's Washington office, in a conversation about the brewery's role at the convention. …