CHARLOTTE — Democrats are calling it the “people’s convention,” a four-day September gathering that, if all goes as they intend, will catapult President Obama to a sweep of this battleground territory and a second term in office.
Planners of the Democratic National Convention say they’re aiming for the most “open and accessible” event in modern history. The festivities kick off with a Labor Day rally for thousands of families at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sept. 3 and conclude with Obama’s nomination acceptance speech at the 74,000-seat Bank of America Stadium on Sept. 6.
Perhaps most consequentially, the convention fundraising comes with a populist twist: Although the host committee needs to raise $37 million, it is banned, under new rules imposed by the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party, from accepting corporate cash and individual donations of more than $100,000 — for the first time in history.
“There is a bit of charting new territory in the sense of doing fundraising this way,” said Dan Murrey, executive director of the host committee. The strategy “is designed to enlist as many individual participants as we can get.”
But behind the scenes, those lofty aims are giving way to a more complicated reality.
The fundraising constraints have left organizers struggling to meet their goals. Four years ago in Denver, organizers raised 72 percent of the total $61 million from donations of $250,000 or more, including a dozen gifts of at least $1 million. This time, organizers in Charlotte are scrambling to raise smaller amounts from more people — and, it appears, to find loopholes in order to finance the festivities.
Convention officials are allowing in-kind corporate donations and unlimited gifts from charitable foundations. And, as Bloomberg News first reported, registered lobbyists, though banned from making direct donations, have been encouraged to raise up to $1 million in bundled donations. They and others who reach such fundraising goals will receive the same type of exclusive access — premium hotel suites and event credentials — that the new rules were intended to prevent.
Furthermore, the host committee has established a second fund — independent of the $37 million— that is not subject to the ban on corporate money. The second fund will be used to stage events that are not part of the official convention activities. That includes the speedway rally, which organizers have declared a “nonpartisan” event — even though the Obama campaign will be allowed to rent space to enlist volunteers for a major fall push in North Carolina and Virginia.
Convention officials reject the idea that they have compromised their rules to beef up fundraising. They point to grass-roots efforts to generate support, including a barbecue sauce competition, a poster contest and an online gift shop hawking Charlotte memorabilia.
Anthony Foxx, mayor of Charlotte and co-chair of the host committee, said he focuses on selling the benefits of economic development in Charlotte and the virtues of the city in making his pitch to potential donors.
Last month, when Obama made fundraising swings to Southern California and South Florida, Foxx tagged along to make his own case to donors. Although he focuses on selling the merits of his home city, Foxx acknowledged that his pitch includes “educating people in terms of what help means.”
The new rules are “not as unusual as one might otherwise think,” the mayor said in an interview. “The president’s inauguration was supported in the same way, with slightly different voluntary limits on individual giving. It’s the same principle.”
But the regulations have perplexed some donors. Clarence Avant, a Hollywood-based music mogul and major Obama supporter, had dinner with Foxx during the mayor’s trip to California last month. Avant said he expressed surprise when Foxx asked him to help raise convention cash.
“I asked why he did not have corporate sponsors like they’ve always done it,” Avant recalled. “He said it was the president’s idea and we needed to help him.”
Avant said he told Foxx that the Democrats were overly concerned about appearances. “Sometimes you can be a little too correct.”
Recently, the Charlotte organizers have collaborated with the Obama campaign. Michelle Obama headlined a March 2 convention fundraiser at Charlotte’s Ballantyne Hotel. Singer James Taylor warmed up a standing-room-only crowd of 450 that included North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) and Sen. Kay Hagan (D).
“I know the convention team has been reaching out to people online, asking folks to share their ideas about how we can make this whole process the most open and accessible for people,” the first lady told the crowd. “And like Mayor Foxx said, the funding for all of these efforts comes only through the support of people like all of you.”
Not necessarily. Jim Rogers, the chief executive of Charlotte-based Duke Energy who is co-chairing the host committee with Foxx, has offered to provide a $10 million credit line lest the committee fall behind on its bills.
Tom Williams, a company spokesman, said Rogers has been calling longtime colleagues in North Carolina to solicit donations by hailing the economic benefits to the state, and he recently hired an assistant to help make the pitch.
Rogers was in the audience when the president addressed supporters at a fundraiser at the ABC Kitchen in New York City on March 1. Rogers, Obama told the crowd, is going to “make sure Carolina is blue again.”
Murrey said any money withdrawn from the Duke Energy credit line would be paid back with interest.
“It is part of the master contract, part of our bid negotiations, that we have access to a line of credit to smooth out cash flow,” he said.
Republicans, who are raising $55 million for their convention in Tampa, have no restrictions on donations beyond the Federal Election Commission’s requirements. James Davis, a spokesman for the GOP convention, said there is no need for a line of credit.
Despite the occasional skeptic, Foxx says he has not lost any enthusiasm for his job preparing Charlotte for the national stage.
“It’s an event that we only have once every four years,” the mayor said. “People get it. I’ve found many people are very excited.”