Cocktail weiners and checkbooks

Scott Tong May 19, 2006

CHERYL GLASER: You may not be keeping track. But you can bet folks in Congress are. There’s just six months to go ’til midterm elections. That makes it prime fundraising season in Washington. Not a bad time to be in the rubber-chicken event business, right? But some politicians are trying to rise above the mediocre when it comes to entertaining. Marketplace’s Scott Tong checked out one of the alternative events being served up.

SCOTT TONG: Serious, hardworking, boring — that’s Washington’s reputation. However . . . well actually there is no however. Here’s tax lobbyist Ken Kies on the typical D.C. fundraiser.

KEN KIES: It’s a bunch of people holding hot dogs on the end of toothpicks and, having some idle conversation.

Lobbyist Aaron Houston.

AARON HOUSTON: Somehow, all throughout Washington, all of the fundraisers have the exact same finger food. I’m not joking, it’s true.

TONG: Which is what?

HOUSTON: Steak sticks, pieces of steak on a stick, sometimes cheese puffs . . .

MONICA NOTZON: A lot of cold eggs. Slightly cold coffee breakfasts. A lot of cheese and crackers and bad wine receptions.

Political fundraiser Monica Notzon says it’s time to inject a little fun into fundraising. A few members are trying. Last night’s creative entry was “The D Street Block party.” It’s named for the street on Capitol Hill where five Republican House members are neighbors. One of them is Mark Foley.

MARK FOLEY: We joined together because five of us live on the street, but we all chose the same night to have an event. People are invited, lobbyists are invited to our homes. They don’t have to go to all five . . .

But if they had, they’d have enjoyed five different drinks.

Congressman Clay Shaw:

CLAY SHAW: At one there’s martinis, there’s scotch tasting, bourbon tasting. At one there’s coffee and dessert. Price of admission: $1,000 per visit.

I showed up outside the fundraisers, to ask the check writers how it went.

Lobbyist Larry Bory represents architecture and engineering interests:

LARRY BORY: Well, you had some excellent proscuitto-wrapped shrimp, so I ate a few of those.

Now, serving good food is just one way to stand out. Other politicians raise money at the beach, or at NASCAR races. One senator holds a SPAM event every year . . . That’s right. The meat in the can.

Fundraiser Monica Notzon says a decent event yields 30 grand or so. But the key is to get noticed. Because donors can pick and choose from dozens of fundraisers every night.

NOTZON: If you have a group of organizations that tend to support Republicans, then what you are competing for on any given night is how to get the represetntaive of that organization to come participate in your event rather than somebody’s cheese-and-cracker event down the street.

In the end, though, creative fundraising doesn’t necessarily mean effective fundraising. Marijuana lobbyist Houston says good food is a plus. But the key is, who’s the event for?

HOUSTON: I would have come anyway, because the particular representative whom I was supporting has been very strongly supportive of medical marijuana.

In other words, if you’re a powerful and popular lawmaker, serving hot dogs on toothpicks may do just fine.

In Washington, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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