Party time! Guests will be wined, dined (and lobbied) at more than 180 bashes during GOP convention

Paul Ridgeway, party planner extraordinaire, will transform the Minneapolis Depot into an agriculture showcase for the big AgNite party during the GOP convention.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Paul Ridgeway, party planner extraordinaire, will transform the Minneapolis Depot into an agriculture showcase for the big AgNite party during the GOP convention.

We already know the outcome of the two major political conventions that will formally make Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain the presidential standard-bearers of their parties.

What the public may never know, however, are the sorts of deals that will come down as a result of the lavish parties that will surround the convention venues in Denver and St. Paul.

But it’s safe to assume that such companies as AT&T, Eli Lilly, Honeywell, Anheuser Busch, Google and such organizations as the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council aren’t spending millions of dollars on parties in the convention cities simply because they want to celebrate democracy.

Despite half-hearted attempts by Congress to regulate the cash flow at conventions, the related parties and sponsored events keep getting ever more elaborate. (These “efforts” date to at least the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon was caught on tape arranging deals with International Telephone and Telegraph for convention money in exchange for favors.)

Convention will spawn more than 180 specialty parties
In all, there will be more than 180 parties thrown by companies and organizations throughout the Twin Cities when the Republicans nominate McCain at their national convention, which runs Sept. 1-4.

Google, for example, will host a party, with Vanity Fair, at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center on the final night of the convention for invited guests only. There will be a glow-in-the-dark dance floor. Catering will be done by the Walker’s (and America’s) well-known chef, Wolfgang Puck.

Who’s invited? Not the humble delegates to the Republican convention. They aren’t the real players at the convention.

“We have invited press, newsmakers, political leaders and executives to attend the party,” said Google spokeswoman Niki Fenwick in an email.

Why?

“To celebrate how the Internet is changing the way strategists are running campaigns and voters are participating in elections,” Fenwick responded.

Hmmm.

Getting a complete list of parties is difficult, because neither the nonpartisan Host Committee, which has raised more than $39 million to sponsor the convention, nor the partisan Committee on Arrangements, says it has such a list.

Agri-Growth Council’s AgNite among the biggest bashes
But one of the biggest bashes at the Republican Convention is being thrown by the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, http://www.agrigrowth.org/ a nonpartisan organization that advocates for Minnesota’s ag industry. The council is fairly open about its event, but it will not say how much is being spent to feed and entertain as many as 4,000 invited guests. (The Council is not throwing a similar party at the Democratic National Convention, although other ag groups will be hosting a big spread, meaning the industry will be fertilizing shakers and movers with food and booze in a nonpartisan fashion.)  

But consider some of the details of AgNite:

Planning for an event that will run from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sept. 2 has been going on for a year and a half. The event will fill 60,000 square feet in the Minneapolis Depot, on the edge of downtown. The headline entertainment will be the popular ’70s/’80s rock band Styx.

To put the party together, Agri-Growth hired Paul Ridgeway, who has coordinated planning for many mega-events, including 17 Super Bowls, Pope John Paul’s 1993 trip to Denver and the 1990 Twin Cities visit of then-Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

“This is even bigger than the Gorby visit!” said Ridgeway, who always speaks in exclamation marks.

Ridgeway promises that the invited guests — a carefully selected mix of business, political and media players — will be “overwhelmed!” by the Depot on AgNite.

Starting from the moment they enter through a barn-like structure created over the entrance of the Depot, guests will be bombarded with Minnesota farm scenes (though not all farm odors). There will be three 700-pound wheels of cheese. Corn, soybeans and wheat will be used as floral decorations. There almost certainly will be butter sculptures (Ridgeway wasn’t willing to ‘fess up on that). And multimedia displays of Minnesota farms.

Ridgeway had planned to bring in some livestock to complete the farming ambience. But that’s been his only disappointment so far in putting together the AgNite bash. It turns out that Minneapolis health regulations make it impossible to serve food and drink in the same venue where livestock would be roaming or grazing. So, no cows or pigs or other farm critters.

“This is a party with a purpose,” said Ridgeway, who admitted he knew next to nothing about farming until brought into this party.

What’s the purpose?

“To tell the story of agriculture,” said Ridgeway, “where it is today, and taking it into the future.”

AgStar Financial Services, CHS (once known as Cenex), Hormel and Land O’Lakes are the “platinum” sponsors of all of this. Scores of other huge ag businesses also have contributed.

Understand, this is not of, or for, the farmer with 400 acres of corn and a John Deere tractor parked behind the red barn. This is about such companies as Syngenta Global, a sponsor of the event. Snygenta is headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, and did $9.2 billion in sales in 2007.

Still, John Himle, of Himle Horner Public Relations and Public Affairs, says AgNite will benefit Minnesota and the everyday farmer.

“This is a rare opportunity to tell the story of what’s going on in the Midwest,” said Himle, who noted that the last Midwest political convention was in 1976 in Kansas City.

Himle Horner is coordinating public relations for the party. Himle also is working on the all-important guest list. Twin Cities Strategies, headed by Republican Party player Vin Weber, also is helping determine the guest list.

“This is a chance to bring influential people from around the world together,” Himle said.

All of this for six hours. The ag party — the 700-pound wheels of cheese, the replica barn — all will have to be removed quickly. The night after AgNite, Target takes over the Depot to sponsor an event called the “Creative Coalition Gala Concert,” which will feature the Charlie Daniels Band.

Free food and booze will flow nightly for select guests
Night after night, venue after venue, the players will meet, and free food and free booze will flow.

It should be noted that there will be a bash for the 2,380 delegates and 2,227 alternates to the convention on Aug. 31 at the site of CivicFest at the Minneapolis Convention Center. For those who have not been following each detail of convention happenings, CivicFest is the open-to-all political museum and entertainment venue that will run throughout the convention across the river from the official business at Xcel Energy Center. The host committee has lined up sponsors for the delegate event, traditionally one of the largest — and most democratic — of the celebrations. The committee is not saying how much this event will cost.

There’s another big event for the 15,000 media expected for the convention. Finding a sponsor for that event proved far more difficult than it would have been in the past, when the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune would have stepped forward with the cash for a media party. But in such financially hard times, the newspapers no longer are players for basically national events that have little local benefit for the bucks spent.

There are some party poopers among us — those who suspect that corporations aren’t pouring money into the conventions and events surrounding them as acts of good citizenship.

Some worry about special interests’ influence
State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, for example, finds the mix of politics and private money an ugly brew that Congress has no real desire to end. “It’s an orgy with special interests trying to buy officials,” he says.

Marty points out that Congress was forced to act on the cash around conventions following disclosures about President Nixon’s deals with ITT to get the 1972 Republican National Convention held in San Diego. At the time, San Diego wasn’t interested in spending to attract the RNC. So Nixon did a deal: He got ITT to come up with money to help land the convention there, and a few days later, Nixon’s Justice Department dropped an anti-trust suit against the conglomerate.

At that time, Congress came up with a law requiring the public to fund the conventions. In fact, taxpayers do pony up $14.9 million for each of the conventions. But that’s petty cash for the spectacles the conventions have become.

Congress, after growing pressure from several clean-government organizations, tightened up what can go on at the private parties around the conventions. No more, for example, can a corporation hold a party to honor a specific politician, as has been the case in the past. But there’s nothing wrong with “honoring” a group of pols, such as the Congressional Black Caucus.

But these parties, Marty points out, will still be about giving powerful business leaders a chance to have one-on-one contact with powerful pols, who will be the special invitees.

“It’s all about access,” said Marty. “I’m not saying you’re going to buy somebody’s vote because you’ve got some band playing and free food. But these events can just change your way of thinking. You go to a lavish party, you talk with executives, you’re treated royally, and when you leave, you might be a little more sympathetic, or at least a little less opposed, than you were before. It’s subconscious.”

Clearly, a lot of companies think a chance to tweak the subconscious is worth a lot of money.

Or maybe that’s not the motive at all. Maybe they just like throwing millions of dollars into parties for their friends. Or they like the cooking of Wolfgang Puck.

Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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