(CHARLOTTE, N.C.) — Inside the Democratic convention hall in Charlotte, N.C., this week, lobbyists and special interests took a rhetorical beating from the party that has tried to carry the mantle of Washington reform.
“If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote,” President Obama said as he accepted his party’s nomination Thursday night.
But outside the hall, lobbyists and their friends in Congress were the toast of Charlotte, just as they had been in Tampa, Fla., during the Republican convention.
At the Mint Museum, a global art museum with a modern flair, top Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta received a steady stream of guests — senior Democratic senators, ranking members of the House, and the congressional staffers and insiders who play key roles in the legislative process.
“We’re happy to entertain our friends and guests,” said Podesta, whose clients include BP Oil, Wal-Mart and dozens of other corporations with major issues in Washington.
When Charlotte was named as the convention host city, the Democratic National Committee said they wanted a different kind of political event — one that would be in keeping with Obama’s vision for diminishing the role of special interests and corporate lobbyists.
When he announced his White House bid in 2007, Obama complained that lobbyists “think they own this government. But we’re here today to take it back. The time for that politics is over. It’s time to turn the page.”
In the convention hall, lobbyists were enemy number one.
“American families didn’t have an army of lobbyists on our side,” said the Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, to lusty applause, as she described the fight to create a new consumer financial protection agency. “And when the lobbyists were closing in for the kill, Barack Obama squared his shoulders, planted his feet, and stood firm. And that’s how we won.”
But by the time the 2012 convention launched this week, the goal of a convention free from lobbyist money had been significantly watered down. One of the major sponsors donating to an entity formed to help pay for the festivities was McGuireWoods LLP, a firm registered to lobby for Duke Energy, the NBA, and others.
Lobbyists were an even greater presence outside the official convention events — at restaurants and other party venues around town. Lobbyists for electric utilities rented out the historic Duke Mansion in Charlotte’s oldest residential neighborhood, and entertained Democratic governors with a string quartet and open bar. Casualty insurance lobbyists held court at a nightclub called Tilt, where drinks flowed and music pounded.
There is a reason the lobbyists have blanketed Charlotte, even in the face of the harsh rhetoric aimed in their direction, said Jack Abramoff, the one-time super-lobbyist who became an advocate for reform after he served a prison term for bribery.
“It gives a lobbyist an opportunity to be displayed in a setting of political importance for the members of Congress, and for the others who will be, perhaps, in the administration,” Abramoff told ABC News. “And I think the more the lobbyists are seen in the context of important events and hobnobbing with people who are important, the more their stock goes up.”
While many of the events were closed to the media, Podesta was one of the few members of his trade who didn’t feel the need to hide his efforts in Charlotte. ABC News spotted five U.S. senators at one of his daytime events, among them: Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy.
Podesta said he was happy not to be hit up for money to support the convention host committee.
“It enables us to be able to do wonderful parties like this instead of spending money on fencing and security so we thank the president for his direction of our activities more to events like this,” he said.
Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia said he did not feel compelled to defend his decision to attend Podesta’s event.
“It’s still a free country and people can network with people of their choosing,” he said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Brian Stelter, CNN
Jim Acosta and Greg Clary, CNN