Coors, Denver-based firms pony up just 40 percent of Dem convention dollars

Coors donated more money this year to the Democratic National Convention host committee than to its Republican counterpart in Minnesota. No, the notoriously conservative brewer is not changing its stripes under new ownership. Like many other local corporate donors, Coors attributes its $1 million donation to one thing: hometown pride.

Some large corporations with Colorado ties and more than 70 smaller, local businesses have donated varying levels of cash to the Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee in what the companies say is an effort to help Denver put its best foot forward Aug. 25-28 as it hosts politicians and media from around the globe.

“This is focused on supporting the host city. It was to support Denver and our home community," said a Molson Coors spokesperson, adding that the company will make a significantly smaller contribution to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

Despite local pride and dollars, fundraisers expect less than 40 percent of cash and in-kind donations to come from Colorado companies, thanks to what critics call a campaign finance loophole that allows corporations with no ties to the community to donate to host committees.

The Denver host committee won’t report a complete list of donors, or the amounts they gave to fund the presidential nominating convention, until Oct. 15, said spokesman Chris Lopez. Lopez said he doesn’t know how much of the money comes from local sources interested in supporting the convention’s success and a positive image of Denver versus companies with a national presence, which, in many cases, have contributed to both conventions.

In addition to the larger corporations sponsoring the DNC host committee, a secondary group of sponsors ranging from local law firms to restaurants also contributed.

The committee has not outlined the levels of sponsorship, but of the more than 100 primary sponsors included on its Web site and contacted by Colorado Independent, the smallest reported donation was $25,000. Local businesses have also been offered a chance to become members of the “Summit Club” by giving $5,280 — a dollar for every foot of Denver’s elevation.

By multiplying the number of Summit Club members listed on the site by the $5,280 price of admission, the local fundraising total must be at least $370,000, a relatively small percentage of the host committee’s stated $40 million fundraising goal.

Campaign finance watchdogs say the bulk of the convention funding will come from corporations with no ties to host committee towns. The trend toward national donors began when the Federal Election Commission loosened donation restrictions in 1994, according to a report by the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), a Washington, D.C.-based group that tracks campaign donations and expenditures.

Convention fundraisers expect $35 million in donations to come from outside of Colorado , according to the report. While the $40 million is the DNC’s stated goal, the CFI report projects the committee will raise a total of $55 million when in-kind donations are included.

The FEC exempts host committees from campaign finance restrictions because of their so-called civic motive of enhancing the economy of the host city rather than campaigning for a political cause or hoping to garner influence.

That rubs Steve Weissman, CFI’s associate director for policy, the wrong way.

“The reason this loophole was not closed when the Federal Election Commission considered it in 2003 was that the political parties that dominated the commission wanted the loophole to continue to support what is the biggest campaign ad of the election,” Weissman said. “It was even expanded to include businesses that had no local connection whatsoever to the host city.”

In part, Weissman argues, the problem is that large donations from corporate America fuel large convention-related expenditures rather than supporting the host committee’s mission of hosting local welcoming events and showcasing its hometown.

But that hasn’t stifled the enthusiasm of many Summit Club members, who say their companies wanted to help Denver do its best during the four days that national attention will be focused on the Mile High City.

Arcadis, a Denver-based business consulting company, donated $5,280 to the host committee.

“It’s just the level we thought would be appropriate to be a good corporate citizen in our hometown,” said Jeanna Blatt, a spokeswoman for Arcadis.

The next level convention organizers sought was $500,000, which made the Mile High amount an easy choice, Blatt added.

Other Summit-level donors see the convention paying off for the metro area’s economy in both the short and long term.

Convention organizers have said the event could have an immediate economic impact on Denver by bringing in between $160 million and $200 million to the area.

With 50,000 visitors expected to flood into Denver for the convention, local boosters see a rare opportunity to showcase the city.

“It’s a great marketing opportunity for the metro area,” said Dick Hinson, vice president of the Aurora Economic Development Council, a public-private partnership that isn’t a stranger to sponsoring influential groups’ Denver-area festivities.

Two years ago the Urban Land Institute, a large group of community developers that usually holds its gatherings in much larger cities, hosted a convention in Denver, and the AEDC donated $5,000 to that event, only $280 less than its DNCC donation, Hinson said.

August’s convention is also a unique opportunity to expose decision-makers to the metro area’s strengths and potential, he added.

Many of the larger Colorado-based donors also said their company was motivated by the desire to be a hometown booster, writing a check simply because of the convention’s Denver location and not because of any political persuasion.

For example, Broomfield-based packaging supplier Ball gave $250,000 to Denver’s host committee.

“[The donation] was not because it was the Democrats, it was because it was in Denver,” said Scott McCarty, a spokesman for the company.

Staples, the Massachusetts-based official office product supplier of the convention that recently entered the Denver market, donated an undisclosed amount to the DNC host committee but is not supporting the RNC host committee, according to a spokesman.

“Sponsoring the (Denver) host committee gives us a great platform to demonstrate our commitment to the city and its small business community, as well as to showcase our environmental initiatives,” said Paul Capelli, vice president for Staples public relations.

Vail Resorts acted from a similar rationale. The company donated $500,000 to the Denver host committee because it wanted to help fulfill its environmentally friendly mission, according to a spokeswoman. Vail did not give to the RNC’s host committee.

Some hometown companies preferred to cover all their political bases by donating to both conventions. Minnesota-based Xcel Energy donated $1.1 million to both conventions.

Minneapolis-based UnitedHealth Group gave the Denver convention $1 million and the Republicans $1.5 million, according to a spokeswoman.

– Reporter Naomi Zeveloff contributed to this story.

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