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The Fat Cats' Convention Experience

by Sara Catania

"It's so important to have personal access"
Corporate attorney Ron Bell was delighted when one of his clients, International Profit Associates, decided to send him to the Democratic Convention. IPA, a suburban Chicago consulting firm that helps companies figure out how to make more money, has done very well during the Clinton years, growing from a three-desk operation in 1991 to a $100 million company with some 1,600 employees today. This year the company decided to give something back, donating upward of $100,000 to the Democrats and, in return, gaining entry to the party's Franklin Trust donors circle.

As members of the Trust, Bell and his wife, Doreen, were looking forward to some top-flight treatment during their stay in Los Angeles. They are, after all, among the deep-pocketed corporate supporters the Democratic Party has been so earnestly pursuing, in hopes of broadening its traditional big-donor base beyond the golden triangle of labor, trial lawyers and Tinseltown. "We're interested in legislation that will help our business grow," Ron said. "My client was very impressed with the prosperity during Clinton's presidency. They would like to see that continue."

Of course, IPA is also a major donor to the Republican Party. In her purse, Doreen carries a couple of snapshots from the company's 1999 Christmas party. One is a photo of Ron with former President George Bush (IPA reportedly paid him $82,000 to appear), the other, of Doreen and Bush. "He's a great, great man," Ron said. "When you get right down to it, it's not a question of which party you're affiliated with," he said, warming up. "It's all about access. It's nice to get your voice heard. It's nice to have an open door to politicians. After all, we're not a democracy. If we were, we'd have one man, one vote. We're a republic, a representative society, and the key is getting access to those representatives."

But access was not so easily got on Monday, when the Bells were forced to wait for four hours for their VIP credentials at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. "We are very, very unhappy," said Doreen as she and her husband headed back to L'Ermitage, the swank Beverly Hills hotel the Democratic National Commitee had set them up in for the duration of the festivities. Still, the couple did have passes to the exclusive Arena Club at Staples Center, as well as seats at the presidential dinner at Paramount that night and VIP passes to the party afterward. They got tickets to the Barbra Streisand concert Thursday night, and backstage passes, too.

Ron was planning to strategically distribute the business cards he'd been given, imprinted with the L'Ermitage logo along with his name and the direct line to his room. "Our clients don't want all the regulations on businesses," he said. "They don't want all the tariffs." Doreen, who had had her long nails lacquered in white stars and red and blue stripes, was particularly interested in talking with Hillary Clinton about health care. IPA, which has clients in New York state, recently held a fund-raiser for Hillary's Senate run at the home of company head John Burgess. "She is the one true voice on this issue," Doreen said. "If it weren't for her, nobody would be paying attention to all the older people who have to decide whether to buy food or medicine."

By Tuesday morning, the Bells were ready for a break. After a successful evening of elbow-rubbing at Staples on Monday -- they loved Clinton's speech, met Jack Valenti, saw Senator Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, and sat next to Jimmy Carter, whom IPA hopes to land as its Christmas-party speaker this year -- they were hit with an ugly surprise. The protests had delayed the VIP buses that were to transport them to the Paramount dinner. "We got outside, and it was like a Gothic movie, like Batman," Doreen said. "There were all these helicopters and lights flashing down. And all these people pushing and shoving to get on the VIP bus. It was scary. We ended up walking two miles to catch a taxi."

By the time they got to Paramount, all the tables were full. "We were supposed to be dining with the president," she said, "but they oversold the dinner. People were lining up behind the seats of people who were eating, waiting to sit down." At the dinner, they'd planned to meet with David Rosen, Hillary Clinton's finance manager, Ron said. "But it was so crowded, and we were hungry. So we just left." "I don't want to say anything," Doreen said, "but if this is how they're running the convention, what kind of a job are they going to do running the country?"

The Bells may have been unhappy again, but the DNC fund-raisers were certainly smiling all the way to the bank. Events like the Paramount dinner -- $10,000 a plate, according to Doreen -- have helped the Democrats raise heaps of soft money, those freewheeling dollars that skirt donation caps by going to the party rather than to specific candidates. By June 30, they'd raked in $118.6 million, compared to $65.1 million during the entire 1995-96 presidential election cycle. (Republicans bested that, raising $137 million by June 30, compared with $76 million last time around.)

To make matters worse for the Bells, they learned that they were shut out of a trip to the Getty, and weren't going to get the passes to a taping of Politically Incorrect that they'd been promised. "Not that we would have gone, necessarily," Ron said. "But it would have been nice to have the option." And he was fed up with the daytime activities arranged by convention planners. "You go to these things, and the food is no good and there's no one there you want to talk to anyway," he said. "The real access is at the convention itself."

And so, on Tuesday, the Bells considered chartering a helicopter to a Santa Barbara winery for the day, but opted instead for shopping on Rodeo Drive. "We were helping the economy in Beverly Hills," Doreen said with a giggle. Their prize purchase: two life-size bronzes, one of a horse and the other of a boy pushing a girl on a swing. "They're for the back yard," she said. The day was such a success that they decided Wednesday would be another free day, with a trip down the coast to San Diego and, possibly, Tijuana. "I want to see the ocean," Ron said. Then it would be back to work.

Ron said he would keep an open mind about Al Gore until he met him personally, either at the convention or during the candidate's scheduled trip to Chicago in September. "You can't judge someone based on their public persona," he said. "That's why it's so important to have personal access." He stopped to think for a moment, then added: "Gore, well, he roomed with Tommy Lee Jones for four years in college, so there must be more to him than just a stuffed shirt."

This article first appeared in LA Weekly

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Albion Monitor August 23, 2000 (

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