The Democratic National Convention, a three-day extravaganza in Charlotte designed to celebrate President Obama and boost his reelection campaign, is falling short of its fundraising goals.
So with less than two months left before the kickoff and people with knowledge of the operation saying that just over half of the money needed has been collected, some are starting to cast blame. Those fingers are being pointed at the business executive long seen as the convention’s greatest potential rainmaker.
Many had hoped that Jim Rogers, chief executive of Duke Energy, the giant utility headquartered in downtown Charlotte, would be able to leverage his local credibility and national business connections to bring in the tens of millions of dollars needed to put on the event in early September.
Instead, several people with close working knowledge of convention planning said this week that Rogers, consumed with his company’s $26 billion merger with Progress Energy and an ensuing corporate controversy, has been too distracted to devote sufficient time to the convention.
A spokesman for Rogers, Tom Williams, dismissed the criticism. Williams said Tuesday that Rogers has put in a substantial effort, hiring a fundraising aide on his personal dime and enlisting former president Bill Clinton to headline events.
The Duke-Progress merger won approval by North Carolina regulators last month but immediately drew more scrutiny when a mysterious chief executive shuffle put Rogers, who was thought to be close to retirement, back in charge of the new energy behemoth.
The sudden change prompted regulators and the state’s attorney general to launch investigations, and Rogers spent much of Tuesday afternoon in Raleigh, the state capital, being grilled by the state utility commission about the merger.
Rogers’s convention critics spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive internal discussions. They said in interviews this week that Rogers’s focus on the Duke-Progress deal in recent months had left a void in the top ranks of the Charlotte host committee, the group tasked with raising the event’s $36.65 million price tag. That, according to the critics, has added to the burden on other less-well-connected local leaders, including the city’s young mayor, Anthony Foxx, to try to make up the difference.
Williams said Rogers had moved early to secure $10 million to $11 million in corporate contributions, which were directed into a separate account being used to produce a Labor Day street festival and other activities designed to promote the city and has raised “substantial” sums for the main convention event. “He’s doing what he can when he can,” Williams said. Still, Williams added: “He’s also committed to Duke Energy. That’s his number one priority, as it always has been.”
Convention officials declined to comment on fundraising specifics beyond saying that fundraising is “on track.”
But several people familiar with the internal discussions say the host committee has raised about $20 million, about $16 million short of the goal for convention expenses. If the rest is not raised, Obama’s cash-strapped campaign might be forced to cut a large check to cover the difference.
Adding to the challenges are the restrictions established by top Obama aides prohibiting corporate cash contributions and limiting individual donations to $100,000, making it even harder to raise the money quickly — particularly when wealthy donors are also being asked with increasing aggressiveness to open their wallets to the campaign and the super PAC supporting the president.
“There’s been a frustration that [Rogers] likes the publicity but that he’s not been as good at actually doing the work,” said one person familiar with convention planning. Another person said Charlotte officials had been “counting on Jim Rogers carrying a heavy load raising the money, and that has not happened.”
Democratic officials declined to comment on Rogers’s role.
Suzi Emmerling, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte host committee, said Rogers has “devoted his time and energy” to raise money on behalf of the committee. “He has been a partner since the city of Charlotte bid for the convention, and we appreciate his continued engagement and support.”
Some Democrats said that blaming Rogers is unfair given the self-imposed donation cap and a growing fatigue among party donors. One Democratic strategist close to Duke, requesting anonymity, said of the critics: “Nerves are setting in, and they’re looking for a fall guy.”
The North Carolina utilities commission approved the merger June 29, and Rogers appeared to be preparing to transition to a less-demanding role on the new board that some locals hoped might give him more time to help out with the convention effort.
But almost immediately after the approval — which came after regulators had been assured that Progress chief executive Bill Johnson would lead the combined company — the new board ousted Johnson, gave him a severance deal worth about $44 million and named Rogers the top executive.
People familiar with convention planning said this week that Rogers’s new role as the head of the country’s largest utility and his role in the brewing controversy, were adding to the convention’s money concerns.
Rogers is making some fundraising calls, said one person, “but there’s no doubt that this will distract him even more.” Rogers, silver-haired with a soft, Southern twang, indicated Tuesday that leading the energy company had not necessarily been his intention. He told utility commissioners that he had already had a retirement party and was looking forward to a new life of board service at places such as the Aspen Institute and the Brookings Institution.