With pitched baseballs and idled rail cars, companies such as Microsoft Corp., CSX Corp. and AT&T Inc. this week put their names, representatives and issues in front of the elected officials, senior aides and delegates attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
And Microsoft and Verizon Communications Inc. helped raise $20,000 for area youth programs as delegates and lobbyists hit, threw and fielded baseballs in the domed stadium where the Tampa Bay Rays compete in the American League.
In addition to nominating former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for president, the quadrennial gathering has offered a chance for company representatives and lobbyists to gain unusual access to public officials in an array of settings, ranging from recreational to private hotel and restaurant spots.
“It’s almost like a flea market for political favors with all kinds of politicians there, all kinds of lobbyists and all kinds of special interests,” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group that’s tracking the interaction between lobbyists and delegates. “You only have once every four years that many people with power and that many people who want to use that power.”
When the Republican convention closes tonight, the same traveling band of trade groups and corporate representatives will regroup next week in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Democrats will nominate President Barack Obama for re-election.
Representative Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican, said it’s normal for people to get together at a convention. “When you have 50,000 Republicans together, it’s a great place to capitalize on that enthusiasm and interest,” she said.
CSX, headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, used two classic locomotives outfitted in the company’s blue-and-yellow color scheme to create a rail village for hosting receptions for convention delegates -- including elected officials who oversee the railroad industry.
A green carpeted platform provides access to air conditioned cars filled with food and drink -- including CSX-branded bottle water. One of the cars had a large rear platform that was used to accommodate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wheelchair; the vehicle later served as part of the funeral train for slain Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was shot during the 1968 Democratic presidential primary.
CSX, the largest eastern U.S. railroad, spent $1.9 million to lobby the federal government in the first six months of 2012 on issues such as renewing funding for surface transportation, Amtrak, and environmental regulations.
“It’s important to be part of the political dialogue,” said Gary Sease, a company spokesman. “This is an opportunity to talk about the benefits of rail with the people who will determine our future.” It’s also a chance to tout its home state, Sease said. “Tampa is an important business place for us,” he said. “We really wanted to help.”
In addition to setting up the rail village, CSX joined other railroads, the construction industry, and the airline and bus trade associations to hold a reception for members of the House and Senate committees that oversee the transportation industry.
“Co-sponsoring an event like this provides us with an excellent opportunity to explain the challenges facing construction employers across the country and to help educate convention delegates, elected officials and candidates about the need for putting in place common-sense, pro-growth tax, regulatory and infrastructure measures,” said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for Arlington, Virginia-based Associated General Contractors of America, one of the trade association sponsors.
Over at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg yesterday, signs on the floor and electronic logos on the scoreboard advertised the companies and trade groups that paid as much as $50,000 to sponsor a day at the ballpark, a charitable event held at the conventions since 1996 when the home teams are out of town.
Delegates, guests and lobbyists donned batting helmets and grabbed bats as every swing they made was displayed on the giant video screen in right field. Then they put on mitts and attempted to field other players’ hits. Former major league players Bernie Carbo, Ron LeFlore and Oscar Gamble signed autographs.
Touting “invited guests” from the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce committees, the event’s sponsors included telephone and wireless providers Monroe, Louisiana-based CenturyLink Inc. and New York-based Verizon, and the trade group for wireless companies.
Representative Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who chairs the House energy and power subcommittee, mingled with the crowd in between attendees’ swings in the cages and their catches in the outfield. Peabody Energy Corp. of St. Louis and Pepper Pike, Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp, were listed as event co-sponsors as well.
So too was Microsoft, which spent $3.8 million to lobby on issues such as immigration, cybersecurity and online piracy. “We got involved because it benefits youth charities involved in the community, plus, it’s a fun event,” said Christina Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Redmond, Washington-based company.
Lobbyists who are raising money for Romney got their own chance to brush shoulders with public officials and key aides.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer were among the politicians who were scheduled to join Romney’s top fundraisers at the convention, according to an agenda circulating on the Internet and confirmed by participants.
The logo of the largest U.S. phone company, AT&T, was printed on shirts worn by convention volunteers and bags carried by delegates from Texas, where U.S. Representative Joe Barton is a senior member of Energy and Commerce Committee. AT&T also is hosting state delegations daily at a nearby restaurant. Claudia Jones, a company spokeswoman, did not return phone calls.
AT&T spent $10.5 million to lobby during the first six months of 2012, second only to General Electric Co. among corporations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group. Dallas-based AT&T last year failed to win government approval to buy T-Mobile USA Inc.
“This is the wining and dining that is so effective when it comes to special interests,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group that favors stricter limits on lobbying. “I would call it the reciprocity principle: You give and you’ll receive.”