The Hollywood money machine

Even as their platform calls for an end to special interests, Democratic Party leaders happily imbibe free drinks from fat-cat corporate donors at swank parties.

By Jake Tapper
Published August 17, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

Bounding around his "Mardi Gras Goes Hollywood" fjte in tights, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., was in rare, reveling form Tuesday night.

But Breaux's leotard was just one of the oddities in yet another convention party that embraced the gluttony and excess known not only in New Orleans, but wherever and whenever campaign finance law loopholes stand as stark as a drunk Tulane co-ed trying to score some beads.

The ragin' Cajun held his bon temps on the Paramount Lot off of Melrose Avenue, in the "downtown streets" fagade familiar to viewers of ABC's "NYPD Blue" as the only intersection in New York City where, apparently, anything at all goes down.

Famous Louisiana natives like Terry Bradshaw and former Miss USA Ali Landry (the chick from that Doritos Puffs commercial with the two dudes in the laundromat) were the rage, schooling Education Secretary Dick Riley and Labor Secretary Alexis Herman on jambalaya and gumbo while grooving to the tunes of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Rockin' Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters. Mardis Gras floats were shipped in to capture the spirit, while revelers were thrown beads and medallions. One of the plastic necklaces even sported a rather spooky facial carving of Breaux, eyes-a-poppin'.

The event's sponsors read like a roll call of companies with interests before the Senate committees Breaux serves on and stands to lead if his party reclaims the Senate majority in November.

All perfectly common and legal, of course. But still as dank and skanky as your average bayou.

Breaux -- who was reelected in 1998 with 64 percent of the vote and received 100 PAC contributions for every one his opponent got -- has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from these industries for his campaign coffers, all the while establishing himself as a pro-business New Democrat, writing and voting on laws that directly effect the companies who then turn around and give him some of the cash back.

On Tuesday night, these contributors included tobacco giant Brown & Williamson; telecom giants AT&T, SBC Communications and Bell South; energy interests Edison Electric Institute, Enron, Florida Power, Ocean Energy and Texaco; defense giant Lockheed Martin, pharmaceutical company Merck; and trash powerhouse Waste Management.

"That's obviously a Who's Who of corporate America and people who have interests before Congress," says Jeff Cronin, spokesman for public interest group Common Cause. "It's not as if there's a spontaneous outpouring of civic pride; these are people who are clearly trying to get access and influence no matter who wins the election."

Several hundred miles away in Vegas, gamblers are throwing caution to the wind; here in Los Angeles, all bets are hedged.

Wheeee! Laissez les bon temps roulez! The bars here this week have been as open as the corporate wallets pouring cash to the convention -- laws against corporate money going to pols, passed in 1907, or labor dollars, passed in 1947, don't affect "soft" money donations, or those to conventions, or those to honor the men who, as senior Democrats of their committees, wield power and will stand to wield a good deal more if the House or Senate is recaptured. And pols and lobbies alike have been eager to court the cash.

Like House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who is sitting on the precipice of Speakerdom, who was fed Sunday night by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and serenaded by Stephen Stills and applauded at Beverly Hills' famed Spago restaurant, paid for, in part, by BellSouth, AT&T and the Walt Disney Co.

Or the conservative Blue Dog Democrat coalition, whose members suffered the taunts and chants of angry protestors as they chowed and bogeyed on the Santa Monica pier Sunday night, paid for in part by the National Rifle Association, Philip Morris and U.S. Tobacco.

Or Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., whose shamelessness and various ethical quandaries were celebrated at Spago, the tab picked up by UPS and AOL.

Or Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., ranking member of the House Commerce Committee, who will be honored Wednesday night at the House of Blues by the American Gas Association, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the National Mining Association, among others.

Of course, Democrats like to say they're different from Republicans when it comes to the relationship between cash and Congress. The Democratic platform even declares that this election is about, in part, Americans deciding "who's running their country: the people or the special interests. ... We must restore American's [sic] faith in their own democracy by providing real and comprehensive campaign finance reform ... breaking the link between special interests and political influence."

But how does this declaration, however sloppily copy edited, square with this week's various fjtes? "Certainly, milling about the hotel lobbies in Los Angeles, it's virtually identical to the convention in Philadelphia," says Cronin. "It's a giant trade show for politicians and corporations. There's probably a little bit of a disconnect between the rhetoric on stage and what's happening around town."

Like the setting of Breaux's party -- the Paramount Lot city street fagades, where Ally McBeal, Frasier Crane and detective Andy Sipowicz live their lives -- the appearance of foundation doesn't indicate much about the sturdiness of the establishment.

Hooray for Hollywood!

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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