Charlotte, N.C. –– The campaign pep talk for the Connecticut delegation to the Democratic National Convention came from the host, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. But the drinks were on the worldwide beverage company, Diageo.

“I’ve got to say the liquor here is not bad, either,” Malloy said Monday night. “We very much appreciate it, our friends who are supporting this event, very much appreciated. You have some of the best beers and best liquor available.”

On Tuesday, the delegates cheered Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic national chairwoman, as she decried the influence of special interest money at the GOP convention. Her audience was dining on AT&T’s tab.

Corporate underwriting is alive and well in Charlotte, just as it was in Tampa during last week’s Republican convention — though Schultz argues that the scale is different, as is transparency and public access.

AT&T is a major convention sponsor, as well as picking up the cost of smaller hospitality events for groups like the Connecticut delegation, which begins each day with a 7:30 breakfast at its hotel, the airport DoubleTree.

And that is a problem for one Connecticut delegate, William Henderson, the president of Local 1298 of the Communication Workers of America, whose members are fighting AT&T over a contract in Connecticut.

“This is one breakfast I won’t be eating,” said Henderson, who stood in the back of the function room as fellow Democrats gathered at a buffet of scrambled eggs, bacon, fresh fruit, muffins and bagels. “I won’t eat their stuff.”

Except he didn’t say stuff.

Henderson greeted delegates and guests, who included John R. Emra of Fairfield, an AT&T regional vice president in charge of lobbying the Connecticut General Assembly, with a sheet of paper that said, “AT&T, come on…bargain a fair contract!”

Some of the delegates accepted the paper with one hand, while holding a cup of AT&T’s coffee in the other. John Olsen, president of the state AFL-CIO and a former state party chairman, stood next to Henderson.

Olsen Henderson

AFL-CIO President John Olsen outside the ATT breakfast. Bill Henderson talks to a reporter behind him.

Jonathan Harris, a former state senator who is the executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party, smiled and shrugged and said, “The party is a big tent.”

(The entire convention is awkward for labor, since unions are nearly invisible in North Carolina. As are the other delegations, Connecticut is staying in a non-union hotel.)

Emra, who knows Henderson and many of the delegates, said there was no awkwardness in his leafleting the AT&T breakfast. He noted the labor dispute as he introduced a guest speaker, former Sen. Chris Dodd, who now represents the motion-picture industry in Washington.

“Bill is a colleague and a friend,” Emra said later. “I’ve always said AT&T is a better and stronger company, because it’s a union company.”

Henderson can enjoy dinner Tuesday and breakfast Wednesday and Thursday. Those meals are courtesy of United Health Care, CPV Inc. and Boehringer Ingelheim.

CPV is an electric-generating company with an office in Massachusetts. Boehringer is a drug company with a major presence in Connecticut.

Wasserman Schultz, who is a congresswoman representing the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, said the Democratic National Committee has created an event focused on the public, not special interests.

She referred to the GOP convention as “last week’s special-interest funded, corporate-infused, backroom-deals, smoke-filled room, invitation-only affair that was held in my home state.”

The Democratic convention opened with a public festival Monday, and it will close, weather permitting, with Barack Obama accepting the party’s nomination in a 73,000 seat stadium open to the public.

“There’s no comparison,” she said.

Of course, some union delegates grumble that the name on that stadium is Bank of America, a target of protests over lending practices back home by labor’s ally, the Connecticut Working Families Party.

On Monday, the bill for a Connecticut delegate barbecue at Treehouse Vineyards in Monroe, N.C., was picked up by Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, which still has a presence in Connecticut.

At Diageo’s reception, delegates sipped the beverage company’s imported beers, Harp and Red Stripe, as Malloy urged them to work not only in Connecticut, but to consider trips to New England’s battleground state, New Hampshire


Malloy (c) mingling at the Diageo cocktail party.

“Listen we all have got a lot of work to do, not just over the next couple of days, but weeks to come,” Malloy said.

He worked the room, greeting Kevin Reynolds, a lawyer who represents the Connecticut Democratic Party. Reynolds also is the lobbyist in Connecticut for Diageo.

On the outing sponsored by Pfizer, one of the hosts accompanying the group was Peter C. Smith, a former Democratic state representative still active in Democratic politics. He also is a lobbyist, whose clients include Pfizer.

U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, who has hosted his share of fundraisers as chairman of the Democratic House caucus, downplayed the corporate underwriting Tuesday as he looked over the breakfast buffet line, stabbing a piece of fruit with a fork.

“As long as it’s transparent and it’s recorded and you know where it comes from, that is a fact of life,” Larson said.

Malloy was elected as Connectiut’s first publicly financed governor, but he has not been shy about raising money from some of the same sponsors in his role as finance chairman for the Democratic Governors Association.

Like Larson, Malloy shrugged off the role of corporate sponsors, calling the hospitality suites, meals and goodie bags underwritten at Charlotte a part of the fabric of political conventions.

“That’s what conventions are. It’s like baying at the moon, to some extent,” Malloy said. Then he laughed and suggested his hands are clean. “I am moving so quickly, I don’t get to eat or drink anyway, so what’s the difference?”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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