Who says it won’t be an open convention?
Sure, what goes on inside Madison Square Garden at this year’s Republican National Convention will be choreographed right down to the number of red, white and blue balloons, and the nomination is hardly in question.
But the real competition will bubble morning, afternoon and especially night at hundreds of parties around the city. Corporations, advocates and lobbyists will vie to attract the most powerful legislators and most senior administration officials before and after the official sessions of the convention, which runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.
Many party plans remain tentative, but preparations already have been laid for everything from a massive reception for the media in Brooklyn to discreet gatherings at lobbyists’ suites in the Plaza Hotel. Corporations have reserved the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while state delegations plan barbecues at Bridgewater’s at the South Street Seaport. And early plans indicate that New Yorkers shouldn’t hold Republicans to their straight-laced stereotype. Taxi drivers take note: Scores of Republicans will be making their way home around 2 a.m. from the Central Park Zoo, Boathouse and Tavern on the Green each night, as after-parties wind to a close.
In contrast to the unanimity inside the Garden, insiders expect a champagne-soaked delegate battle between the three big New York Republicans: Governor George Pataki, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and current Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The first two appear to have their eyes on a future Republican Presidential nomination. Mr. Bloomberg, up for re-election in a heavily Democratic city, promises to play the role of nonpartisan booster, but he is leading the city’s own lavish plans. Mr. Giuliani’s star status means he’s guaranteed a prominent role at the convention, but Mr. Pataki controls the state party and a powerful fund-raising network. His aides already have made plans for a slew of events, according to people familiar with the preparations. They include an Ellis Island gala on Sunday with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mr. Giuliani; breakfast at Tiffany’s with his wife, Libby, on Monday; and a Hispanic-themed bash at the Copacabana the night before Mr. Bush is officially nominated.
The former Republican Staten Island borough president, Guy Molinari, summed up the scene:
“It’s going to be mass confusion,” he said. “There’s going to be so many events in every part of the Big Apple, it’ll be one of the busiest conventions we’ve ever witnessed.”
The convention parties aren’t just for fun. Indeed, with the outcome inside the Garden already decided, they’re where the real business gets done. The proliferation of corporate parties has led to accusations that conventions are little more than festivals of corporate influence-peddling. If not for influence, why, exactly, would PepsiCo plunk down $50,000 to reserve the Metropolitan Museum for one evening? Certainly, many groups make no bones about their hopes for influencing legislation.
“A lot of work gets done with these parties,” said Robin Bronk, the executive director of the Creative Coalition, a star-studded group-Harvey Weinstein and Liev Schreiber will be among its emissaries to this year’s conventions-that lobbies for arts funding and against censorship. The coalition will open both conventions this year with Sunday-night concerts titled “Seconding the First” and consisting of performances of banned materials.
“It’s not just meet and greet. It’s meet and greet and then what?” Ms. Bronk said.
The Republican official in charge of the convention, Bill Harris, denies that the parties are anything but a pleasant sideshow from the main event: the Presidential nomination.
“I know that there are a lot of pseudo-intellectuals who like to talk about that, and like to complain about the lobbyists and the fund-raisers,” he said in an interview at his office over the Garden. “I think that is very superficial.”
Mr. Harris, a pleasant, careful 56-year-old Alabamian whose tasseled loafers are the only clue that he works as a lobbyist in the off-season, said the heart of the convention remains defining the party and choosing the President.
“When you’re talking about that in the context that this is the most important country that’s existed ever in the history of the world right now, and that this will be the most powerful man in the most powerful country in the history of the world, it seems a little superficial to say these aren’t important tasks to be carried on,” he said.
Still, he added, you can’t ignore the parties.
“From a political perspective, it is not just what happens in the hall,” he said. “It’s what happens everywhere else as well.”
Life of the Party
Planners expect roughly 50,000 people to come in the convention’s wake. (That number doesn’t include perhaps twice as many protesters, with their “counter-convention” and, no doubt, counter-parties.) Among the Republicans’ guests will be between 15,000 and 16,000 members of the media, a group that both the New York City Host Committee-a nonpartisan, boosterish group-and the Republican convention planners see as key to their missions. So the media will benefit from some of the largest events, starting Saturday night with the party for as many as 10,000 people in the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, between the Brooklyn and the Manhattan bridges in the hip Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO, according to planners. The event could include fireworks from the Brooklyn Bridge and entertainment on a barge parked in the river, a person familiar with planning said.
The charm offensive continues Sunday night at the East Side media shrine Elaine’s, where the New York State party is planning a smaller reception for the press, a Republican fund-raiser said.
Meanwhile, the city is considering a plan to charm the out-of-town press-and gin up some extra tourism-with a set of tours aimed at reporters and camera crews. The tours would include introductions to the city’s neighborhoods and cultural institutions and perhaps even a Sex and the City tour.
Lavishing attention on the media is a convention tradition, but this time around it’s the smaller outlets-local television affiliates and hometown newspapers-that should expect the best service. In war and in peace, the Bush administration has sought to undercut the power networks and big newspapers-which the President has called the “filter”-and the convention will be no exception, Mr. Harris said.
“We think that the more interviews we can conduct at the local level, the better off we are,” Mr. Harris continued, calling the local outlets “as important to us, if not more important, than the networks.”
The main festivities, however, will be focused on the 4,853 delegates and alternates and, more important, the Republican members of Congress, governors and other officials in New York. Mayor Bloomberg isn’t planning to host a party of his own-Bloomberg L.P. is even forgoing its usual lavish convention bash-and has generally chosen to play the role of a New Yorker, not a Republican, for the week. But the city’s host committee is kicking the convention off with a “night out on Broadway” on Sunday night, during which more than 12,000 Republicans will pack the city’s 10 largest theaters for special early performances of Broadway shows.
If they time it right, they’ll still be able to make the hottest event of the day: the Ellis Island reception, co-hosted by the New York State Republican Party and the California Republican Party. That’ll be the first of many stages on which Mr. Giuliani, the convention’s chairman, and Mr. Pataki, an honorary chairman, stand side by side.
“You have two national Republican Party leaders who have higher ambitions and will likely have competing agendas during the convention,” said a New Jersey Republican fund-raiser, Stephen Some. “I would welcome that-they’re the future of our party.”
Another Republican working with convention planners expects Mr. Giuliani’s national fame to put Mr. Pataki at a disadvantage.
“If you’re coming in from Idaho and you’ve got a choice of going to an event for George Pataki and for Rudy Giuliani, you’re going to the Rudy thing,” he said.
All around will be other groups with other agendas. A list of events at the Central Park Boathouse, obtained by The Observer, provides a snapshot: Already confirmed are six events, ranging from a 200-person gathering for the Republican Finance Committee on Aug. 29 to a cocktail party on the dime of the Edison Electrical Institute, an industry group. The Republican Senatorial Committee is hosting a 400-plate fund-raiser, while Senator Richard Shelby is expected to headline an event thrown by Van Scoyoc Associates, a Washington lobbying firm.
Tavern on the Green will play host to Verizon and the Mississippi delegation, said Michael Desiderio, its general manager. AT&T has reserved the Central Park Zoo, one person involved in planning said. A typical day at Chelsea Piers’ two restaurants has a brunch for the Wisconsin delegation in the morning and a party thrown by a coalition of pro-Israel groups in the evening, according to Michael Warren, the director of catering. Across the river, the loser in New Jersey’s last Senate race, Douglas Forrester, will play host to his delegation at Liberty State Park, said Susan Jester, an aide to Mr. Forrester.
But this won’t be a uniquely high-toned convention. Mr. Harris said the Committee on Arrangements, the Republican body formally in charge, is looking to place events outside Manhattan.
“They’re very sensitive to the public-relations piece,” said one event-planner working with the Republicans. “They don’t want to be seen as fat cats who are wining and dining in the city’s finest restaurants.”
Nonprofit groups around the city are already angling to participate in precious Presidential photo-ops. One is the Metropolitan Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, a recipient of a personal donation from Mr. Bush, which is hoping to bring the President to Staten Island to open a senior housing complex, its executive director, William Rapfogel, said.
In the end, though, said one official, “it’s going to be a lobbyists’ show.”
While the plans for some of the biggest gatherings are starting to trickle out, details of some of those most exclusive gatherings, like their invitations, remain closely held. Perhaps the most sought-after spot is the 20-seat wine cellar at “21,” available at a price of $450 per person. A spokeswoman for “21,” Diana Biederman, declined to say who had booked the room, but she noted that every President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has visited the legendary club-except, so far, Mr. Bush.
“The world’s four smartest lobbyists-that’s who booked” the wine cellar, said one person involved in convention planning.
Mr. Harris’ group has already released hotel assignments for the state delegations. Conspicuously missing from the list, however, were two hotels: the Plaza and the Waldorf Astoria. That, insiders say, will be where the real action is. The President is likely to stay at one of those hotels-the Waldorf would be the conventional choice-and both will be packed with the biggest Republican donors and top officials.
This will be the first Republican National Convention ever held in New York, but the Democrats came to town in 1992, when Bill Clinton made the Inter-Continental Hotel his home.
Of course, the details were a little different back then. A 20-year reunion of the George McGovern campaign was held at the club Tatou. Gay and lesbian leaders partied at B. Smith’s steakhouse. (Not this year, said Charles Francis, founder of the Republican Unity Coalition, which recently broke with the President over Mr. Bush’s support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. “We’re not feeling in a gala mood right now,” he said.)
Back in 1992, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary hosted a breakfast for Americans for Peace Now at his West Side apartment, where, The New York Times reported, he led “a hand-clapping sing-along of ‘Don’t Let the Lights Go Out.'”
This time around, expect more country, less folk. But in other ways, city officials hope, the convention could have a similar impact. The 1992 event gave a boost to a weak local economy and began events-like Restaurant Week-that have become a part of the cultural landscape.
“That’s what made the 1992 hosting so extraordinary,” said Henry Miller, the chief executive officer of that year’s local effort. “The events that were created for the 1992 convention have continued to this day. The economic impact was not just the money that was brought to town.”
The money, however, will be quite enough for many of the hosts. The Metropolitan Museum, for example, is reserved for six nights in a row-in exchange for a $50,000 donation from each group, said Emily Rafferty, the senior vice president for external affairs.
“Anything that can bring us more business, especially that time of year, is wonderful to us,” said Tavern on the Green’s Mr. Desiderio, who said he expects to take in $1 million over the course of the convention.
Many of the parties have yet to be booked, in part because the schedule of the convention itself hasn’t been finalized. Mr. Harris said that he’s considering ending sessions after 10 p.m. for West Coast television audiences, and party planners are waiting on that decision. But many midtown venues-from Cipriani’s to Gotham Hall to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum-seem almost sure to be booked.
“It’s probably going to triple my business for that week,” said Tim Hayes, the manager of special events at Times Square Studio, where Good Morning America is broadcast. Of course, he has an added inducement for visitors: “We are very good at security,” Mr. Hayes said. “The studio was designed to have heads of state. All the glass in the studio is bulletproof and it’s Threat Level 3 blastproof.”