At The Fat Cat Buffet

Sometimes when you follow the money trail it only leads you to the carving station at the hot buffet.

An unscientific survey of some of the corporate receptions for Republican politicians meeting in Philadelphia this week for their nominating convention turned up nothing especially electrifying.

"What are these people doing here?" asked Edward Bantlow, a Philadelphia entrepreneur and political naïf who'd been invited along to the Hard Rock Café on Market Street because he is doing business with the Westin Company, which co-hosted a reception for Texas Rep. Henry Bonilla, a Latino congressman who has a high-profile role at the convention this week, and a seat on the Appropriations Committee the rest of the year.

A gathering of conservatives with a liberal door policy, the General Motors-Westin party was packed with a convivial crowd that contained many people who had been celebrating compassionate conservatism since the morning "Bienvenido a Philadelphia" Hispanic rally that George W.Bush attended upon arriving in town.

Under the watchful eyes of a stained-glass Elvis, Congressman Bonilla hung around with his jacket off, while the young crowd availed themselves of the open bar and a generous buffet of hot turkey and cold crudité.

GMAC vice president Jim Farmer, who is hosting a brunch with Bush economic advisor Larry Lindsey, said the corporations who come to the conventions to serve beer and canapés to delegates are "just underwriting the cost" of the political process, "not expecting any favors."

Farmer likened the political party go-round to cultivating journalists to get balanced coverage. "There is not much dialogue at one of these. But down the road if something came up, we'd call him. They know who is paying the bill."

"This is not reality. This is not where big decisions are made," said LaRaza president Raul Tzaguirre, who estimated he's been to about eight convention week parties thrown by corporations like Coca-Cola, Mattel and AOL.

Indeed, the only decision most of the partygoers in the their twenties and thirties were making was whether to hit the Lucent Technologies party for Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts before heading across town for, oh yeah, the convention.

"There's not very much substantive discussion" at the parties, said Tzaguirre, whose Latino advocacy group does not endorse candidates. They're mostly "small talk," but useful for "connections and contacts."

The corporations, he said, "want access to the leadership."

A few blocks away, at the invitation-only DaimlerChrysler reception for the Alabama delegation, things were a little more uptight.

"I think it's important for people to know [DaimlerChryser sales] are 1 percent of the U.S. economy," said lobbyist Rob Liberatore, in a brief interview monitored by two staffers.

One of the week's most generous entertainers, DaimlerChrysler has had a 3,000 square-foot car show installed at the downtown Philadelphia Convention Center, where many Republican meetings and rallies took place this week.

During the day, the public can stroll through, read about the company's charitable gifts to arts and education programs, and admire a dozen of the newest models including a Mercedes SUV and three 2001 Chrysler PT Cruisers, one each in red, white and blue.

The balloon-festooned atrium has hosted about eight convention week events by Liberatore's count, including a brunch honoring Michigan Governor John Engler, and a nighttime party for Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, where the Temptations performed.

The painstakingly curated displays include an interactive U.S. map detailing DaimlerChrysler's impact on local economies. In the case of Alabama: 4,638 employees and $6,337,280 in taxes paid.

That might explain why Alabama Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby turned out, if only to make a few perfunctory remarks and split.

In fairness, delegates said the carmaker is a good corporate citizen of Alabama, where the company has two plants. Birmingham Councilman Bill Johnson said the corporation has given one vehicle every year to a city program that provides transportation for families with sick children.

Just how much does all this cost?

"We don't talk about how much we spend on car shows," Liberatore said. "In the context of our marketing budget, it's a drop in the bucket. Our marketing budget is in the billions."

The watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics says GM is one of eight corporations that gave $1 million directly to the convention. DaimlerChrysler gave $250,000.