Politics

GOOD WILL BUNTING: IF THE CONVENTIONS ARE AS MEANINGLESS AS MANY CLAIM, THEN WHY ARE SO MANY PEOPLE ATTENDING?

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • -
  • July 2004

by Karen Feld

Everyone’s got their hustle,” says Robin Bronk, executive director of The Creative Coalition, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

To look at what The Creative Coalition—a high-visibility assemblage principally of Hollywood actors, directors and producers—is planning, for both conventions, is to see how the function and purpose of political conventions has changed. As Bronk says, “A lot of the business going on at the convention has nothing to do with the convention itself.” The organization has its headquarters in New York, but also works from offices in Washington, D.C., and (of course) West Coast posts in Pasadena, California, and San Francisco.

There was a time, now quickly receding into history, when the presidential and vice presidential nominations were decided on the floor of the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Not any longer.

“Now there’s no news value,” says Ken Rudin, political editor for National Public Radio. But, he adds, “the political movers ’n’ shakers are there.”

And this is one reason—probably the reason—some 15,000 journalists will converge upon the conventions this summer. For the first time they will include representatives of nontraditional media, such as “bloggers” (personal Web loggers), credentialed to cover the festivities. For the Democrats those festivities will revolve around the FleetCenter in Boston, July 26–29. The Republicans will congregate at Madison Square Garden in New York, August 30–September 2.

The business the politicos once did on the convention floor is now more a formality. As the element of nomination surprise is all but eradicated, the focus of conventions has shifted off-floor. And with such a large assembly of politicians listening to appeals and making promises, and a huge contingent of media recording them, it would be unnatural if a third group weren’t present to take full advantage.

Political conventions are “the World Series of politics for a lobbyist,” says Mike Ferrell, a lawyer and lobbyist who chairs the legislative practice for Washington, D.C.–based Venable, Baejter & Howard LLP. “It’s positioning and moving the ball north.”

For The Creative Coalition, founded 15 years ago by actors Ron Silver, Susan Sarandon, Christopher Reeve and Stephen Collins, “moving the ball north” means influencing the climate in which major issues affecting the entertainment industry are debated and decided. Currently headed by actors and co-presidents Joe Pantoliano and Tony Goldwyn, The Creative Coalition knows how the system works.

On one level it operates as the go-between for Hollywood with both the Democratic and the Republican national committees. Since politicians are drawn by the magnetism of Hollywood and vice versa, the conventions are primary targets for the group. The Creative Coalition has an agenda packed with issues such as funding for arts education, bringing film and TV production back into the United States, and protecting First Amendment rights. The group relies on the cachet of celebrities such as Helen Hunt, Sean Astin, Kate Mulgrew, Mandy Patinkin, the Baldwin brothers—Billy and Alec—and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein to spread their message. These stars appear at the political conventions as volunteers to the nonprofit Creative Coalition—unpaid for their time and services. Working with The Creative Coalition does not make them official, voting delegates. But their presence is newsworthy. After all, entertainment news now competes with political news for headlines in the traditional media, and it often wins the lion’s share of attention. So combined, they’re a double-header.

“America has a fascination with the power of celebrity,” Bronk says. “We try to focus it and make sure it’s used responsibly. The political conventions are gatherings of the most prominent leaders in the country and a time where we can promote our stand and get something done both in terms of fund raising and issue awareness.”

So what specifically will they be doing?

Like many organizations, including a number of Fortune 500 corporations, The Creative Coalition is hosting several mirror-image events each day at the two conventions. To each of the two it will be bringing in 15 to 25 celebrity delegates, who will attend parties and panels as well as the convention itself.

The price of mingling with elected officials and entertainers at The Creative Coalition events runs from $1,000 to $50,000.
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DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION EVENTS

In Boston, The Creative Coalition is scheduled to host these events:

  • a lavish tented gala for 1,000 people, co-hosted with the Recording Industry Association of America and Esquire magazine, at Louis Boston, the upscale clothing store and restaurant;
  • an award ceremony and lunch, co-hosted with Congressional Quarterly; at this event, a retiring Democratic member of Congress will be honored with The Shining Star award for outstanding public service;
  • a party at Boston’s largest nightclub, Avalon, which has an oxygen bar to revive conventioneers partying ’round the clock;
  • a lunch with CNBC for congressional leaders;
  • late-night hospitality with the best and brightest of American leadership, who will play Monday-morning quarterback regarding the day’s activities;
  • an arts panel about public funding, featuring Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-New York), co-chairman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, and moderated by Andrew Cuomo;
  • an event at the Boston Harbor Hotel with the Democratic governors.

REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION EVENTS

In New York, The Creative Coalition is hosting a similar panoply of events. At press time, the schedule was less developed, as the convention is further in the future. But interested Republicans may already be marking their calendars with these Creative Coalition events:

  • an arts panel discussion about public funding, featuring Hilary Rosen, former CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, and others at the HBO screening room in New York;
  • a second Shining Star award luncheon, this time honoring a retiring Republican member of Congress;
  • additional galas, late-night parties and other gatherings. The Creative Coalition will have plenty of time for events because the Republicans have scheduled the convention’s sessions in mornings and evenings, leaving afternoons free.

Don’t think this isn’t serious business, at both conventions. The Creative Coalition also schedules closed-door meetings with officials and leaders to put forth its agenda. Like many other groups, it will have a bigger presence even than four years ago.

The general perception of those in the entertainment industry is that they’re predominantly Democrats. But whichever party they prefer, no one with a stake in the government’s decisions can simply ignore the other one. “We have established important relationships with both the Republican and the Democratic leadership,” says Fred Cannon, senior vice president, government relations, of BMI (the American performing rights organization that represents songwriters, composers and music publishers). “Working with both political parties is crucial in the survival of the copyright law and the protection of intellectual property.”

Just vary the critical issues, and you’ll know why so many corporations, trade groups and special-interest groups attend both conventions, tailoring their agendas to the attending suits, and contribute to both parties.

But how do they measure their successes?

“We’re continually growing stronger and are more of a force in issues we take a stand on,” says Bronk. “We can promote our issues better.” But the cost-benefit ratio is not immediately clear. It can take years to measure the results of efforts at the conventions. “It lays the groundwork for our issues for the next four years,” says Bronk, referring to this approach as building “bricks and mortar.”

And the coalition wouldn’t dream of not being there, nor would any advocacy group worth its salt. As lobbyist Ferrell puts it, “If you’re not there, it’s like having your star player not show up. You have to be on the field to make a difference.”