Politics

It's Pretty Hard for Cities to Raise Money for Political Conventions

by | March 18, 2014

By Todd J. Gillman

Just six weeks before the opening gavel at the 2012 Republican convention, the Tampa, Fla., host committee was still short nearly $30 million. Half the funds the city had promised to raise from civic boosters, party bigwigs and business interests hadn't materialized.

Invoices were piling up. Thousands of delegates and other visitors were on the way. A party that can't pay its bills isn't likely to engender voter trust. This was a potential crisis _ severe enough for Mitt Romney's campaign to step in.

"We asked for their help. We were concerned," said the host committee chairman, Al Austin, a Tampa developer and top financier among Florida Republicans. "Listen, lemme tell you something. There were a lot of anxious moments."

GOP officials say avoiding that sort of heartburn in 2016 is their No. 1 priority in choosing their next convention city. That could bode well for Dallas, one of eight cities in the contest and, as it happens, a capital of both corporate America and the Republican donor class.

Backers of the Dallas bid are confident they can raise $60 million or more. But even that may not be enough. Last week, Congress ramped up the pressure when it stripped $18 million earmarked for each party's convention _ a huge budget hole that the next host cities may need to plug, somehow.

Party officials familiar with the selection process say it's impossible to overstate the emphasis being put on ironclad financial assurances. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus suggested earlier this month that he didn't care whether a city was in an electoral battleground state or a GOP stronghold. "First: finances. Second: transportation, hotels, delegate experience," he said. "It's a business decision."

And the financial challenge is nothing to take lightly.

"The Tampa host committee, maybe what they didn't fully appreciate is, it was hard for them to go sell and raise money on behalf of Mitt Romney the nominee, when in fact they didn't represent Mitt Romney," said Romney's national finance chairman, Spencer Zwick. "Any city looking at the convention _ they really have to understand how they raise the money."

So far, details of the Dallas financing plan remain hidden from the public.

Some of the funds would come from a state program that carves out sales tax revenue attributable to a major event.

The bid effort, led by Mayor Mike Rawlings and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, hasn't released a list of pledges, potential donors or members of the host committee. Some of that will probably emerge Friday, when they make their pitch to GOP officials in Washington, along with Phillip Jones, chief executive of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Dave Brown, general manager of American Airlines Center.

Las Vegas and Cincinnati also will make their cases to the GOP on Friday. The other five cities _ Kansas City, Phoenix, Denver, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio _ made their presentations on March 3. It's likely that only Las Vegas can match Dallas' financial muscle. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a prime mover behind the Vegas bid, was among the saviors of the Tampa convention. The chief executive of Las Vegas Sands Corp. cut a $5 million check _ the biggest single donation _ three weeks before delegates arrived.

Other cities have GOP whales in their corner, too. In Denver, beer baron Pete Coors took over that city's bid committee this month. In Dallas, major Republican donors, among them developer Harlan Crow, are ready to step up.

"I certainly will support the effort," he said. He said he had spoken with Rawlings and others involved in the bid, but "I haven't been asked for a specific pledge, and I haven't made one."

As for rivals, Crow said: "Las Vegas is a wonderful place. A wonderful American city. But there is that dimension of Las Vegas which may not be what the best calling card for either party would be in terms of a political convention.

"That's about as politically correct as I can make that," he added. In the end, the Tampa host committee raised $56.8 million. Getting there wasn't easy.

Six weeks before the convention began, only half that had come in. Nearly $10 million was raised after the event was over.

The fundraising plan had assumed that nearly half the funds needed would come from within the state, from business interests and others who viewed this as a way to promote tourism and investment. In the end, Florida donors accounted for only about $15.3 million _ a far smaller share than anyone had projected.

The plan also assumed more generosity from GOP donors. Austin, a former finance chairman for the Florida Republican Party, had a strong network, as did others on the host committee. That didn't pan out, either.

"Conventions don't raise as much enthusiasm with the big-pocketed guys that you need to make this happen. Few of them have ever attended one, and they don't particularly care about being delegates," Austin said. "We encountered far ... less enthusiasm than we thought we would."

(c)2014 The Dallas Morning News

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