Singing the Blues with Sen. Baucus at a Big-Dollar Political Bash

One reporter, after finding his way into a private political convention party, witnessed actual lobbyists sitting at tables, talking, and, holy cow, a fun-loving senator sing a Johnny Cash song onstage.

Sen. Max Baucus (Democrat of Montana) loves Johnny Cash’s classic bluesy tunes.

So this is how I happened to stand in front of a stage in a nightclub in downtown Denver during the Democratic National Convention while Sen. Max Baucus belted out a rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

What to make of it? That’s harder to say.

I should mention that to be a journalist within the scripted confines of the national political conventions is, mostly, to gin up controversies (Will Hillary’s die-hard supporters fall into line?), be spoon-fed story lines (Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin walks the walk) and be turned away from the private big-money bashes where tongues are loosened by drink and the lobbyists mix with lawmakers and delegates.

If you do try to get in, you’re briskly removed. That’s what happened to me when I attempted to get into one lunchtime venue. Once outside, I heard what became a common refrain, in this instance uttered by Jonathan Selib, chief of staff for Sen. Max Baucus of Montana: “This is not a reportable event.”

Let me be clear. As I stood in the bright sunshine on the pavement in downtown Denver, being denied by Selib, I didn’t imagine money and favors were changing hands inside. Corruption isn’t that obvious, at least as far as I know. More to the point, I figured an excellent lunch was probably underway.

Hey, I’m into participatory journalism, especially if we’re talking food.

Truthfully, though, I’m unsure what I thought I’d witness. Mostly the Democratic Convention in Denver seemed like clumps of people in business attire talking to each other, and I caught mere snippets of the conversations. I had never reported on anything quite like this. I was curious. And irritated. Mostly for having been bounced before I could even glance around inside.

To give some context to these events, I telephoned Denver-based Nancy Watzman of the Sunlight Foundation, who said Democrats and Republicans alike solicit huge sums from corporate donors, unions, trade associations and other groups to hold private bashes. Unlike with individual political contributions, which are cataloged and made public by sites like OpenSecrets.org, there are no data warehouses with breakdowns of the tabs for stuff like huckleberry martinis and elk burger sliders. The money for these parties generally goes unreported. “There’s a chance that something might be reported six months from now, in a lobbyist disclosure, but I’m not holding my breath that they’ll be all that comprehensive,” Watzman said.

The tangle of rules governing money and influence in politics is full of ambiguities and, conversely, tightly worded phrases that party planners can easily get around. For instance, legislation in 2007 cracked down on parties at political conventions, but it’s obvious looking at the Sunlight Foundation’s party register that that didn’t work.

And those tightly worded rules? Those create distinct loopholes. For instance, there’s the so-called “toothpick rule,” which means members of Congress can mingle with lobbyists at a party, if they’re eating finger food rather than table fare. There’s also the “widely attended event” exemption, which a Republican party planner actually printed on a big legal sign near the entrance of a bash in Minneapolis, Watzman said.

Waltzman said not to get too caught up with the particulars.

“Frankly you can get a little bit lost in the thicket of the laws. The big picture is they had this big party,” she said.

Why?

The donors, said Steve Carpinelli of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, shell out the coinage to get important business done, that is, to build relationships with high-powered elected officials “when they’re letting their hair down,” he said.

That was it, really. I wanted to witness some high-powered elected officials cutting loose, preferably in the presence of real lobbyists.

So Tuesday night, after I filed my story on Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s surprise hit of a speech (“Get off your hind end!”), I found myself walking across a darkened parking lot sometime after 10 o’clock. A mass of would-be attendees was packed onto the steps of the Jackson All-American Sports Grill, which had been decked out in banners for the Big Sky Night. I joined them. A bouncer asked if I was on the list. Nope. Turned away again.

All bets are off, I thought, and, moments later, I was inside, getting an official wristband—that old party staple—and then I was standing with a few of Montana’s convention delegates, a Big Sky ale in my hand. There was a long list of party sponsors but I could get no bead on either the overall take or the actual cost of the event.

(Montana Democratic Party spokesman Kevin O’Brien said the state party had nothing to do with the Big Sky Night party, and neither the party itself nor any Montana Democratic candidates received any money from it. He said the volunteer organizers of the party didn’t want to talk to the press.)

Inside the party, I had my own business to attend to. I was hungry as hell, having only eaten a few mini-burritos and a strange meat stick sometime that afternoon while charging my laptop on a couch in the Media Matters lounge. I entered the Jackson barroom in search of a bite, which I found beneath a flat screen television showing a tape loop with a moose cavorting in a green meadow, some mangy bison on a grassy hillside and a bubbling brook. It was good stuff: a plateful of elk bison sliders was arranged next to crackers and cheese and other bite-sized fare. (Remember the “toothpick rule?”)

A waiter brought me another beer—the bar was wide open. And a few other scruffy attendees and I wolfed down those mini-burgers. (I took advantage of the cheese plates and nearby greenery—as well as huckleberry ketchup—to transform my bare elk patties into deluxe ungulate burgerettes.) Most of the attendees wore suits or other professional attire. Bingo, I thought. Lobbyists. I started asking people where they were from. Most were lobbyists. Not Montana. I did meet one actual Montana lobbyist, from PPL, the power company. Great guy.

Then, instead of that happy moose, the flat screen above my head featured Dennis McDonald, chairman of the Montana Democrats, wearing an enormous cowboy hat and giving an incomprehensible speech.

A fresh pint in hand, I searched for McDonald. After peering into one room and then another, I found a flight of stairs going up, and then a spacious dance floor and a stage, on which McDonald continued his wordy introduction for the live act, the Drive-By Truckers. Who are awesome.

Moments later the Truckers broke into a cool Southern rock song, and Baucus walked past. I shouted a hello. He didn’t notice, but moved on to talk with Schweitzer, a few feet away, who stood with a cluster of other senators and similar looking guys.

Everything seemed mellow, and then Baucus was approaching the stage, and then he was on it, inexplicably singing “Folsom Prison Blues.”

After crowding toward the stage, I managed to get a few photographs. I saw some people recording the entire song on digital cameras. (Would someone post it here, please?)

I watched the performance, and, I’ll admit, I sang along and hooted.

(About the event, Baucus’ spokesman Barrett Kaiser said, “It wasn’t our party.”)

Half an hour after the Truckers resumed their set, I was on the street, walking toward the light-rail station, knowing I had witnessed something significant, something strange.

(This first appeared on Sept. 9, 2008.)

 

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