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Democrats in Philly: money corrupts politicians, unless we’re the ones taking it

Uber, Comcast, and a slew of other big corporate donors have left fingerprints all over the Democratic convention.
Uber, Comcast, and a slew of other big corporate donors have left fingerprints all over the Democratic convention.
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — One of the first things I see when I get off the Amtrak train in Philadelphia is a massive blue banner welcoming passengers to the Democratic National Convention — with the word "Comcast" covering the lower third.

It’s a sign of what’s to come. Comcast’s logo is all over downtown Philadelphia — buses, signs, informational brochures about various party events. The company hosts fundraisers with DNC delegates and fetes Vice President Joe Biden at an event closed to the press.

In 2012, President Barack Obama banned lobbyists from giving to DNC or paying for convention-related expenses. But this February, the DNC eliminated those rules — opening the floodgates for corporate cash to slosh through Philadelphia.

Coming off a primary in which a senator from Vermont had surprising success talking about the  disproportionate influence millionaires and billionaires have on the political process, the corporate presence is striking. Bernie Sanders lost the primary, of course, but Democrats may not be so sure his ideas have been defeated in the party.

Over three days of speaking with people at the DNC, I heard a lot of talk about how the Democratic leadership truly longs for freedom from their corporate donors and plans to overturn Citizens United at the first opportunity. If that’s true, they sure have a funny way of showing it.

Democrats: Money corrupts politicians, unless we’re the ones taking it

As Vox’s Andrew Prokop argued Wednesday, the Democratic Party leadership’s official position is that its alliance with corporate donors is the best of bad options — that the party is, in principle, in favor of reducing money in politics, but that it has to work within the confines of the existing system to have a chance of beating well-financed Republicans.

This "necessary evil" argument is one you often get from Democrats, but its coherence depends on recognizing the "evil" part — on acknowledging that big money’s web also catches the Democrats who take it.

That’s awfully hard to do for rank-and-file Democrats in Philadelphia. Corporate fingerprints are all over almost every event here, and yet the conventions are also supposed to be periods of peak loyalty — when party members, particularly those who support the presidential nominee, are unwilling to question it.

That sets up the opportunity for some awkward conversations. "I hate it when politicians get money; it has to influence their vote. It’s so insidious," says Diana Kastenbaum, a Democratic candidate for Congress in upstate New York, in an interview in downtown Philadelphia.

A couple of blocks down the street, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is holding a breakfast for the Connecticut Democratic delegation. I ask Kastenbaum if, given her fear of money in politics, she thinks the Pfizer event might make Connecticut’s Democrats go easier on a company that’s already been hit with millions in criminal fines.

"No, I don’t think so," she says. "I believe Democrats care more for the people in general, and helping them rise up. I think our party’s public servants are stronger."

The Democratic convention, basically.

A few minutes later, Jeremy Zellner, 38, the Democratic committee chair in New York’s Erie County, tells me he’s "one of the biggest opponents" of the Citizens United Supreme Court case that opened the door to big money. "Until we get a handle on the way we run elections, we all will have a very hard time governing," he says.

Still, Zellner says he thinks Comcast’s more than $10 million in donations to Democrats won’t change how the party’s lawmakers treat the company. (Comcast also donates heavily to Republicans.) "There's no influence here," he says, as he sports a lanyard with the General Motors logo. "When people write checks to help the Democratic Party, it’s because they believe what we stand for. Corporate donors don’t control this party."

Democrats make their reputations criticizing money in politics while trading on it

Sometimes the contradictions in Philadelphia are even more head-spinning, like when the very same Democrats who sound the alarm over campaign finance reform simultaneously reap big bucks for corporate influence peddling.

Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel, who used his position as Congress member to illicitly receive seven-figure private donations from corporate executives, told me at a ritzy breakfast at the Loews Hotel on Wednesday that "money is the cancer of democracy."

"Citizens United was the heaviest blow I can think about — other than the threat of communism — to our way of life," Rangel said.

Congressman Charles Rangel, found to have taken seven-figure checks from corporate executives, told me that "money is the cancer of our democracy." New York Daily News

Former Senate Majority Tom Daschle may be an even better example. Daschle has penned editorials lamenting the outsize influence of corporations in politics, and spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival about how it’s "by far the most corrosive and dangerous single factor undermining the institutions of our democratic republic today."

And yet Daschle himself became a corporate lobbyist soon after leaving Congress. He now uses his influence on the Hill to educate the Democratic caucus on the wonders of the Aetna health care giant. His firm, the Daschle Group, was hired by Japan to help craft the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Still, in an interview at the convention on Tuesday night, Daschle warned me about the danger corporate cash poses to our political system. "I think we really have to reform our campaign finance system," he said. "I’ve called for a repeal of Citizens United. We have to do it."

Does that imply that Democrats are being corrupted by the money they’re taking now?

"Well, until it happens, all we can do as a party is little things, incremental things — like transparency in reporting [donations]. But I think we need for a Supreme Court that could change things," Daschle says. "At some point. We’re not there yet."

How lobbyists get Democrats to think what they’re doing doesn’t have to do with big money

I don’t mean to single out Daschle: Most Democratic officials I’ve spoken to admitted to going to at least one fundraiser with lobbyists. And they don’t appear particularly aggrieved about doing so.

On Tuesday, I got a tip of a fundraiser at Citizens Bank Park, where the Philadelphia Phillies play. The Center for Public Integrity confirmed it: Lobbyists with Microsoft, AT&T, Monsanto, and Blue Cross Blue Shield were all there to do batting practice and rub shoulders with congressional lawmakers and their staffs.

Corporations have found ways to effectively integrate themselves into the proceedings here in Philadelphia in a way that’s genuinely fun for the attendees. "Basically every lobbyist event I’ve been to has had alcohol or an open bar," says Libby Watson, a money-in-politics expert at the Sunlight Foundation.

Watson spent the first three days of the Democratic convention crashing private fundraisers. At the National Conference of Mayors, she found every chair filled with promotional material from Xerox and free iPhone chargers with the company’s logo. The next day, she went to a private party held by a lobbying firm on a train. It was hosted by the commuter rail company CSX, which gave out bottles of sunscreen branded with its logo. (Alcohol was served.)

Corporations also get to gab with Democratic officials by hosting charitable fundraisers in their honor for good causes like fighting hunger or improving child literacy, according to Michael Beckel, a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity. "Everyone wants to be honored for a good cause, and then the lobbyists get face time with the politicians," Beckel says. "It’s a win-win-win."

Donald Trump’s best issue over Hillary Clinton is appearing free of special interests

For the past several decades, Democrats haven’t had to fear the stink of corporate donations. After all, the business community tended to be more supportive of the Republican Party than of the Democrats. The Chamber of Commerce has routinely endorsed the GOP’s presidential nominee. At worst, it was a wash — corporate donors gave roughly similar amounts to John McCain and Mitt Romney as they did to Barack Obama.

But Donald Trump’s primary run was premised on taking on the special interests in the party, and the business community has recoiled. Democrats have sensed an opportunity, and Hillary Clinton has begun going after some of Jeb Bush’s top donors in a bid to help fund her presidential run.

But this strategy has risks. Democrats aren’t just opening themselves to charges of representing the special interests and corporate donors — arguably, they are already adopting that image.

When voters are asked about why they like each candidate, Hillary Clinton crushes Trump on measures of experience, foreign policy, and preparedness for the job. But there’s one issue on which Trump does consistently beat Clinton: his willingness to take on "special interests."

Now, Clinton may regard that as ridiculous. But you don’t have to think that the Democratic Party is self-consciously lying to itself to think it’s accumulating debts in Philadelphia it may feel obliged to pay back in Washington.

After the speeches end at the Wells Fargo Arena every night at the convention, thousands of delegates, staffers, and media are herded out toward the street.

There, they can enter the "Uber tent," where they wait for the ride service to take them back to their hotel. (David Plouffe, President Obama’s former senior aide, is now a top Uber strategist and argues its drivers don’t need a union.)

The air is heavy with humidity, and the delegates are tired — the subways are jam-packed, and the only other way out is past a crush of several hundred angry protesters, waving signs and stomping feet in front of riot police.

But a man with a polo shirt comes out to say that more drivers are already arriving. The line will begin moving quickly.

"Awesome," says one woman who wears a delegate badge. "Thank God for Uber."