By NBC’s Michael Isikoff
The Democratic Party’s decision to move President Obama’s acceptance speech to the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte has surprised some party activists — and stirred criticism — over the use of a venue named for a company that has been at the center of the financial crisis.
“God almighty, I can’t believe it.” said one top Democratic fundraiser when he learned of the decision to move the speech to Bank of America stadium, where the NFL Carolina Panthers play their football games. “This is an amateur’s mistake.”
Convention officials vigorously defended the decision today, saying the use of the open-air 74,000 seat stadium would help excite supporters and enable far more people to see the speech, “That allows for greater participation by Americans from all walks of life,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
But party officials privately confirmed that the move can help with fundraising despite what one called “an obvious optics” problem. And the use of a stadium — whose naming rights belong to a bank that has been engulfed in controversies over foreclosures, bank fees and bailouts — was denounced by some watchdog groups.
“It’s a surprising and disappointing choice,” said Mary Boyle, vice president of Common Cause. “Bank of America is the poster child for corporate greed and corporations out-of-control. The president would be better served by choosing a large public space with no corporate logo attached to it.”
Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a group that lobbies against corporate influence, added: “Speaking at a stadium named for one of the financial firms that plunged our country into deep recession, we can only hope that Barack Obama will counter the optics by laying out a meaningful plan to control the Wall Street giants.”
“The president turned the economy around making sure that everyone, from Wall Street to Main Street, plays by the same rules,” Kristie Greco, spokeswoman for the Democratic convention, emailed in response. “His record and his policies are not impacted by the name on the stadium.”
Greco pointed out that the Democrats’ licensing agreement that will allow use of the stadium is with the Carolina Panthers, which actually owns the stadium, not Bank of America itself. In an arrangement similar to those with many other professional sports teams, Bank of America acquired naming rights to the Panthers stadium in 2004 as part of a reported $140 million agreement over 20 years. (A Bank of America spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.)
But the choice will enable the Charlotte Host Committee — which is charged with raising the $36 million needed to pay for the convention — to offer access to the stadium’s plush skyboxes as part of a package deal of perks it has put together to entice wealthy donors and fundraisers.
Suzi Emmerling, a spokeswoman for the host committee, confirmed a Bloomberg report that those deals — presented to Washington lobbyists last month — include an escalating menu of packages starting with the $1 million “presidential” level. Those who buy in will receive a “premier uptown hotel room,” a “platinum events package and “concierge services.” Another $500,000 “Gold Rush” level includes hotel room, credentials and a “premiere events package.”
Democratic officials have emphasized for months that this year’s convention won’t accept money from lobbyists and corporations. “This year, we are setting a new standard for how conventions are funded. No longer will it be sponsored with money from corporations, special interests, lobbyists and political action committees,” the host committee states on its website.
But those seemingly strict rules appear to have some loopholes. While the convention committee itself won’t accept cash donations from corporations, it is taking “in kind” contributions from corporations, such as food, beverages, and equipment — costs that can often add up into the millions.
A separate convention “Hospitality” committee — operating under the name New American City Foundation — is also directly accepting corporate and lobbyists’ money to pay for the parties and other events that are often attended en masse by delegates, members of Congress and reporters.
In addition, the host committee itself is still accepting big donations of up to $100,000 a piece. “Nobody gets to rent a skybox for a million dollars,” said Emmerling.