It's all about some exposure

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2008 - 9:19 AM

A lot of groups are paying to be seen this week.

If the weather is nice Monday evening, about 1,500 delegates to the Republican National Convention will gather under the stars on the Fridley campus of Medtronic Inc. for high-end hors d'oeuvres, Broadway-inspired music and an exhibit of the medical device maker's wares.

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council will host about 4,000 GOP officials in the train shed of the historic Milwaukee Depot in downtown Minneapolis for a sampling of Minnesota's agricultural best, accompanied by the veteran rock band Styx.

On Wednesday, Target Corp. will use the same venue to co-present the Charlie Daniels Band with the Creative Coalition, an arts awareness group known for its must-attend convention gatherings.

"What better way to spotlight Minnesota?" said Karyn Gruenberg, vice president of marketing for Meet Minneapolis, the convention and visitors bureau. "We couldn't pay for that kind of exposure."

Actually, a lot of organizations are paying handsomely to be seen during the next four days.

In some respects, a national political convention is like a trade show where corporations strut their best stuff, wining and dining and spending significant sums of cash for access to party officials and visibility among policy decisionmakers.

On top of the parties and receptions, nearly 90 organizations ponied up $58 million to underwrite the convention itself, a third of which are Minnesota-based companies.

Contribution levels sought by the 2008 Host Committee ranged from $50,000 to $5 million, and offered different points of access to the convention, VIP accouterments and face time with party leaders, as well as marketing opportunities.

That 5 million bucks buys the title of "Finance Co-chair," and comes with luxury convention seating, access to special hospitality suites, customized tours of the Twin Cities and commemorative golf shirts. A mere $50,000 confers "Viking" status, and brings invitations to special host committee leadership events plus a sponsorship listing in committee guides and on the website.

The host committee won't itemize its contributions and expenditures until October, under federal election reporting regulations. The cost of private events is not reported publicly.

Republican organizations are attempting to take advantage of the convention spirit as well for campaign fundraising efforts.

The Republican Governors Association offered its own list of donor packages, which contain tickets to various VIP events, including lunch with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and an afternoon at the Mill City Museum listening to country singer Clay Walker and the band of former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

The association's elite, $250,000 Lake Minnetonka Package includes six hotel rooms, while the $5,000 Brownie Lake Package includes two tickets each to a handful of receptions.

The link between convention support and political support is tight.

Under federal election guidelines, the conventions in Denver and St. Paul were given $16.4 million each in public financing and allowed to raise $112 million combined from private organizations, primarily corporations. Nonprofit, local host committees collected the donations.

Favors can bring access

"This is a way to deliver a big favor directly from the corporate treasury," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit agency. "It's great when you need access and you need a friend in Washington," she said.

Donor organizations, through political action committees and their executives and employees, have contributed $180 million to federal candidates and political parties since 2005, according to the report by the center and the Campaign Finance Institute. "Large convention donations may give the donors' lobbyists more clout with those they seek to influence," it said.

Minnesota organizations taking part in the 2008 GOP convention say they're motivated by both political expediency and civic pride.

"We wanted to showcase our industry," said Daryn McBeth, president of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. "It's not your grandfather's agriculture anymore. Our membership is diverse, progressive and proactive."

AgNite, as the council's Tuesday event is billed, will cover 60,000 square feet of shed, pavilion and ballroom space at the Depot at a cost to the Agri-Growth Council and its 50 sponsors easily into six figures.

Companies view the events they host as investments.

Medtronic is playing host to convention delegations from Minnesota and four other states where it has a substantial presence in manufacturing, education or research and development.

"We have 18,000 employees in those states," Medtronic spokesman Charles Grothaus said. "This is about generating more interest and awareness in what we do."

It was hoped that the media party Saturday night along the Mississippi River at the Guthrie Theater would set the stage for Minnesota's image to the world, as convention organizers expect 15,000 journalists to be in town this week. One of the sponsors for the media party was Minneapolis St. Paul More to Life, a corporate-funded campaign to improve the images of the Twin Cities. The effort has a $700,000 annual budget. (The Star Tribune is among its "media sponsors.")

Not all of the events involving Minnesota companies involve parties and entertainment.

Best Buy Co. Inc. is co-hosting a screening of "14 Women," a documentary about the female members of the U.S. Senate from 2004 to 2006. Visa and the Minnesota Vikings are promoting a program for helping teens learn how to better manage money. And Thrivent Financial for Lutherans has invited delegates and party officials to visit its Eastside Financial Center in St. Paul where it provides counseling and helps people start savings plans.

"This is not your typical cocktail event," Thrivent spokesman Dave Rustad said. "This is more like a coffee and cookie event."

John Himle, a public affairs consultant and former state Republican legislator, said the convention could help demonstrate that the Twin Cities and Minnesota are not "on the edge of the tundra."

"The greatest benefit we have here is the opportunity to tell our story. You can talk to people from major companies and government," Himle said. "This serves the purpose of developing relationships, selling products or discussing issues."

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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