Here at the RNC, the breadth of extracurricular activities available to you depends largely on how many zeros are at the end of the check you write to the Republican Party. Sinful liberal media heathens like me have the option of RSVP'ing for media parties or wandering around and getting hissed at by possums as they walk home alone from Chilis at 7:30 pm. Cheering cowboy hat-wearing delegates chanting on the convention center floor have team building beach party field trips. But the really big donors? They get parties that would make Louis XIV proud.
That money buys political access is no secret, but there are few places where that money is more blatantly the same thing as an all-access pass than a political convention. Specifically, this year's Republican National Convention, a convention where the party added to its platform a plank in opposition to donor transparency. A place where there's no limit to how much money an individual donor can give.
Liz Bartolomeo works for the Sunlight Foundation, a non profit investigative organization that seeks to follow political money and inform the public of who is pulling the strings. She and a colleague came here for the convention to see who was writing checks, who was getting to rub elbows with candidates, where they were doing it. This has involved an awful lot of investigative reporting, which actually is a really nice way of saying "mild stalking." And Bartolomeo's colleague has mildly stalked his wealthy, well-connected quarry to some pretty banging soirees.
Don't even try to get in if you're not on the list. Unless you've got a few hundred thousand dollars lying around.
Bartolomeo told me that she and her colleagues think of this as a "pyramid convention," a gathering of people stratified by the size of their wallets. At the top, she explains, are the "super donors" — your Sheldon Adelsons, your Koch brothers, your giant soulless corporations that rent out fancy restaurants for the entire week so they can use the space to woo politicians to vote in ways that are favorable to their industry (AT&T did this, very secretively, with a local establishment called Jackson's Bistro). The people responsible for flying so many private jets into Tampa that local airports ran out of space to park them.
And when they get here, they party like it's 1929. The other night, an ex-Boehner chief of staff hosted a warehouse party, a super exclusive gathering for young, hip Republicans (LOL) held in big empty industrial spaces. There was a working carousel and a giant replica elephant provided for hilarious photo ops. According to Bartolomeo's colleague, a VIP section hosted several partying Congressmen, tightly ringed by security.
But insults to the memory of rave culture aren't the only entertainment option for wealthy donors and their well-connected friends. Because Tampa's a port, it's a convenient place to park boats. And nothing says "Republican party" like a party on a bigass boat. The other night, a team of ABC reporters followed several high rollers into St. Petersburg, where they boarded a yacht flying the flag of the Cayman Islands. It's like walking right into a political cartoon! Complete with giant elephant.