Who Will Foot Democrats' 2020 Convention Bill?

Candidates and the DNC could face new questions about funding for the party’s marquee event.

Democrats selected Milwaukee to host their 2020 national convention Monday.
AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger
March 13, 2019, 8 p.m.

Comcast. Bank of America. Facebook. Those are just a few of the companies that 2020 candidates are crusading against. They were also some of the biggest donors to the Democratic National Convention in 2016.

With more and more presidential contenders swearing off corporate contributions and political action committees, and with a new slate of progressive lawmakers protesting against the fossil-fuel industry, Wall Street, and big tech, the Democratic National Committee and the party’s eventual nominee will face a fresh set of questions about how that philosophy affects the funding of the marquee event.

Tom Steyer, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors, told National Journal that “we should not fund our national convention with contributions from the fossil-fuel industry and corporations who rig the system against everyday people,” becoming the first major party influencer to take that stance.

“The DNC should make it clear once and for all that it stands with the people, not with those who profit at their expense,” he added.

It’s well over a year until Democrats from across the country will gather in Milwaukee, which this week beat out Houston and Miami as the host city. But the DNC has already started sketching out a variety of avenues to raise convention money, and corporate funding is on the table.

Whether to accept contributions from big corporations has already come up in multiple conversations, a DNC spokesperson said. And it’s especially high on the committee’s radar as presidential candidates continue to reject multiple sources of funding in their own campaigns.

“There’s no reason Democrats have to have a convention that resembles the Academy Awards,” former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich said. “It’s a mistake this time around.”

Nearly every 2020 Democratic candidate has disavowed corporate PAC money for their campaigns. The small-dollar-donor model, popularized by Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016, has become a mainstream pledge among his Senate colleagues, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar. Elizabeth Warren, who has long expressed concerns about the corrosive nature of big money in politics, recently pushed the goalposts further, saying she will not do high-dollar fundraising events.

But when asked by National Journal about potential specific changes to the convention’s funding model—including whether their campaigns would like to see a rejection of corporate money—only two long-shot candidates took a stance, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and author Marianne Williamson. No other Democratic presidential candidate responded to multiple requests for comment or provided answers to a series of questions about corporate donations.

“The American people are over the balloon drops,” said Yang, who recently announced that he qualified for the first Democratic primary debate by hitting the DNC’s 65,000-unique-donor threshold from at least 20 states. “It’s unfortunately the case that corporate funders would naturally expect privileged access at the convention. That sends a terrible message.”

Williamson, who launched her presidential campaign early this year, agreed that the convention shouldn’t take corporate donations.

“The Democratic Party began selling its soul to corporate money decades ago, and it needs to stop,” she said. “It will never reclaim its rightful place within the hearts of Americans until it does.”

Contenders and the DNC alike could face increased pressure from liberal groups who are calling for reforms, as well as from Hill progressives who are driving national headlines.

“I would be shocked if one of the candidates didn’t call on the convention to not accept corporate money,” said Tyler Cole, legislative director of Issue One, a campaign finance-reform group. “But how high-profile that candidate is will certainly affect how seriously the party considers the request.”

“If AOC calls for it then they will all call for it,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who chaired the 2016 Philadelphia Host Committee, referring to freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

“There are eight or nine out there who may do that,” he added of the 2020 contenders.

Rendell strongly advised against banning corporate donors, noting that companies aren’t necessarily gaining special access if they give to both Democrats and Republicans. In 2016, several corporations contributed large sums of money to both conventions, according to numbers compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics: AT&T gave $4.3 million to Republicans and $1.5 million to Democrats, while Microsoft gave $1.8 million to Republicans and $650,000 to Democrats.

“There’s no way to have a full, robust convention without spending significant dollars,” Rendell said.

Another former DNC official expressed a similar sentiment. “There is no room for error on the 2020 convention,” said Adam Parkhomenko, who was the DNC’s national field director during the last presidential election.

“Anyone arguing Democrats should unilaterally disarm their fundraising options within existing campaign finance laws sound like chaos agents who want to reelect Trump."

The hesitation from Democrats to take a hard line against corporate funding for the capstone event isn’t new. Sanders dodged questions in 2016 about whether he would ask the DNC to stop raising money from corporate PACs and federal lobbyists if he were the nominee. Warren, whose campaign recently vowed to take on big tech corporations, could be pressed by activists about Facebook’s $1.5 million contribution to the 2016 convention.

And with Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives railing against fossil-fuel companies as part of the Green New Deal, contenders may be asked to call on the convention to reject funding from energy entities. Philadelphia-based utility company PECO Energy gave $1.8 million to the event in 2016.

The DNC hopes to raise approximately $20 million of the total convention fund allowed by the Federal Election Commission, a spokesperson said. In 2016, the Democratic National Convention committee maxed out at the same amount. But the event is expected to cost somewhere between $70 million and $80 million, and the rest of the funding will need to come from the 2020 Milwaukee host committee, according to the spokesperson. Federal Election Commission records indicate that in 2016, the Philadelphia host committee raised $85 million.

The DNC spokesperson said the committee is looking to tap individual donors and labor unions as major sources of funding, noting that it expects a “significant” portion of the $20 million allowance to come from labor groups based in the Midwest.

In 2016, at least 11 labor groups gave $250,000 or more to the Philadelphia convention, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers gave $2.2 million, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers gave $1.4 million, and the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters donated $800,000.

"Labor often feels that Democrats only approach them when they need something,” Parkhomenko said. “The DNC has another chance to get this right.”

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