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A year left to sell the Democratic National Convention

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By Jim Morrill
jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com

They're wooing donors with the promise of convention credentials, choice hotel rooms and VIP tickets.

Even lapel pins.

Charlotte organizers say they're on track to raise the nearly $37 million required for next year's Democratic National Convention.

"We're doing great," says Dan Murrey, executive director of the host committee.

But seven months after landing the convention, Charlotte organizers aren't giving any progress reports.

Last month the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee announced that after 15 months, it had raised $15 million toward its $55 million goal for next year's Republican convention.

"We typically don't follow the leadership of the Republican Party," says Steve Kerrigan, CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee.

Organizers of both conventions are trying to raise money during a struggling economy and amid growing frustration with both parties. Charlotte fundraisers, unlike their Tampa counterparts, face the added hurdle of new restrictions for what the party touts as "the People's Convention."

None of the $37 million can come from corporations, registered lobbyists or personal donations over $100,000. Gone are gifts such as the $1.7 million that Cisco Systems gave Denver's 2008 convention.

Of the $61 million collected for Denver, 72 percent came from donors giving $250,000 or more, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. A dozen donors gave $1 million or more.

The new restrictions, however, don't apply to the host committee itself.

$15 million for committee

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, who co-chairs the committee, is quietly raising up to $15 million for the committee, in part from corporate contributions. That's on top of the $37 million in noncorporate contributions for the convention itself. Among other things, the money will go toward organizing and hosting events for the expected 35,000 visitors.

"We don't have the same restrictions on the host committee that are on the (convention)," says Murrey.

Wells Fargo, for example, expects to donate an unspecified amount of money to both conventions, says spokeswoman Alexandra Ball. And Belk Stores is giving the Democratic convention $100,000.

"We think it's a great opportunity for Charlotte," says Chairman and CEO Tim Belk. "It sort of puts Charlotte on a stage and we'd like to be supportive of it as much as possible."

Corporations also are permitted to give in-kind contributions, such as telecommunications equipment or vehicles. Republicans say any corporate contributions fly in the face of Democratic promises.

"Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee like to make big promises, whether it's swearing off corporate money for their convention or that they would turn our economy around," says national GOP spokesman Ryan Tronovitch.

'This is about Charlotte'

Like the economy, donor frustration could be a drag on fundraising.

"People are just down on the whole American political system," says Robert Stolz, a Charlotte businessman and former chairman of the N.C. Chamber who's raising convention money. "The debt fiasco is much more detrimental than the economy."

Stolz tells would-be donors that he's not asking for money "to re-elect the president."

"If you're a student of politics, this is an opportunity to have a front-row seat into history," he says. "This is not a commissioner of agriculture race. This is history."

Says Cameron Harris, a Charlotte businessman and longtime Democratic fundraiser, "Nobody's got a panic button going."

Fundraisers are making a simple pitch, at least to local donors: It's good for Charlotte.

"Whether you're a Republican or Democrat or other, this is about Charlotte," says Belk. "And I would hope that everybody would see it as an important thing to do."

But much of the money will come from outside North Carolina. For the Denver convention, only 15 percent of contributions of $100,000 and over came from Colorado, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.

Paul Egerman of Massachusetts, a retired software executive who gave to the last two Democratic conventions, expects to do the same for Charlotte. "The first step ... is to establish a base of support in Charlotte and North Carolina," he says. "Then I guess somebody will knock on my door."

Some 2008 donors are keeping an eye on the economy. "We'll see what the circumstances are at that time," says Shi Shailendra, a real estate executive in Atlanta who gave $40,000 to the Denver convention. "We will do what we need to do. It's not always money. It's your efforts too."

Reporting contributions

The Federal Election Commission doesn't require any financial reports on convention contributions until after it ends next September.

The DNCC's contract with host committee calls for monthly financial reports from local organizers. All contributions, it says, "shall be disclosed publicly by the Host Committee within an agreed upon regular time frame" on its website.

"We're not in a position where we want to do that," Murrey says. "I'm sure we will at some point."

Mike Dino, who chaired the Denver host committee, says his group didn't distinguish between fundraising for the convention and the host committee. He says his group faced similar reporting benchmarks to the DNCC.

"The DNCC never wanted us to share our status with the press," he says. "We did anyway." Staff writer Bruce Henderson and researcher Maria David contributed.

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