NEW YORK — A cowboy hat atop his head, Texas Rep. Joe Barton took center stage at the Roseland Ballroom to introduce country singer Clint Black, the star attraction at a “honky-tonk salute” to honor the congressman.
The Tuesday evening party was paid for by the energy industry — its way of showing appreciation for Barton, the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Partygoers wearing flashing red, white and blue Texas flags on their lapels — a party favor — took turns riding a mechanical bull. Others munched on Texas-style chili and barbecue while downing beer or any other drink of their choice. Several took to the dance floor for the two-step.
“They said I was going to play for a bunch of politicians,” Black told the crowd. “But I’m playing for a bunch of party animals!”
Corporate invitation-only parties have become a staple of political conventions. And one big player serving as party host this year in Boston, where the Democrats gathered last month, and in New York, where the Republicans are meeting, is the energy industry.
The party for Barton was paid for by the Edison Electric Institute, the American Gas Assn., the National Mining Assn. and the Nuclear Energy Institute.
In the presidential race, energy campaign dollars have gone overwhelmingly to President Bush. But the money spent on corporate parties at conventions is unregulated and its use more nuanced.
The industries see convention parties as a tool to promote their products in a more relaxed social setting and to build relationships with lawmakers.
“You really don’t lobby or conduct any business to speak of,” said Martin E. Edwards III, vice president for legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Assn. of America. “It’s kind of an opportunity to socialize with policymakers and politically active folks.”
One energy lobbyist said he had gone to five events each day — a breakfast, a lunch, a dinner, a pre-convention reception and a post-convention party. His days begin at 8 a.m. and last until 3 a.m.
At a party honoring New York Gov. George E. Pataki and the New York delegation — paid for by the gas association, KeySpan Energy and other energy firms — scantily clad female acrobats hung from the ceiling, while guests dined on cold shrimp and drank mojitos.
On Monday, the gas association sponsored a trap shoot tournament for members of Congress; a Wildcatter’s Ball honoring Oklahoma Sen. James M.Inhofe, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee; and a late-night concert to honor California Rep. Richard Pombo and other members of the House Resources Committee, which he heads.
“It’s all about branding, getting people to know your industry,” said gas association lobbyist Kyle Rogers.
The Bush administration doesn’t necessarily need corporate parties to nurture good relationships with the energy industry. Both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are former oil executives. And several Interior Department officials had energy ties prior to their appointments.
Following up on a 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign pledge to increase domestic energy production, the vice president headed a Cabinet-level task force that met with industry representatives as well as environmental groups.
In three years, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 262 million acres of federal land, has approved record numbers of drilling permits for oil and gas.
The Bush administration has helped utilities as well, ruling that older power plants did not have to install costly pollution controls when they made modifications. Bush pushed Congress for an energy bill that would have used more than $25.7 billion in tax breaks over 10 years to increase domestic energy production, though the bill has languished in the Senate.
The Bush-Cheney campaign has collected about $2.1 million from energy, utilities and mining — about 10 times more than Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry raised from the same groups, according to an analysis by Dwight L. Morris & Associates.
Millions more are being poured this week into privately sponsored parties, which do not have to be reported as contributions. Wall Street firms, pharmaceutical companies, defense contractors and other interests are also spending money on parties.
Southern Co. hosted a Saturday evening reception for the state leaders of the Bush-Cheney campaign.
One of the utility’s top executives, Dwight Evans, is among the 34 Bush Rangers and Pioneers — those raising at least $100,000 for the president’s campaign — who have ties to the energy industry.
Critics complain that the parties, often closed to the news media, are a way for corporations to win favor with politicians.
“In essence, you have two conventions going on: the convention that you see on TV at night that is aimed at the viewers, and then you have the second convention that goes on at breakfast, lunch and after the convention, where networks are created and access is bought,” said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
“That’s the convention that they don’t want the public to see.”
But energy lobbyist Frank Maisano says the parties are mostly social.
“When we’re in Washington, we’re all focused on voting, legislation and the activities of Congress. This is a real respite from that,” he said.
Maisano acknowledged that issues that are important to his law firm might come up over a round of drinks and appetizers.
“I didn’t come here to talk to someone about MTBE liability,” he said, referring to a gasoline additive blamed for contaminating water supplies.
“But that may come up in a conversation that starts with, ‘How are your kids? What parties did you go to?’ “