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Monday, July 07, 2008

Delays and Rising Costs for Convention Raise Worries for Democrats



For all Senator Barack Obama’s success at raising money and generating excitement among voters, he faces a daunting challenge as he prepares to claim the nomination in August: a Democratic convention effort marred by costly setbacks and embarrassing delays.

With the Denver convention less than two months away, problems range from the serious — upwardly spiraling costs on key contracts still being negotiated — to the mundane, like the reluctance of local caterers to participate because of stringent rules on what delegates will be eating, down to the color of the food. At last count, plans to renovate the inside of the Pepsi Center for the Democrats are $6 million over budget, which may force convention planners to scale back on their original design or increase their fund-raising goals.

The convention is being organized by the Democratic National Committee, which is run by Howard Dean, with his chief of staff, the Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, leading the effort. Only in the last month has the Obama campaign been able to take over management of the convention planning with the candidate claiming the nomination, and his aides are increasingly frustrated, as the event nears, at organizers who they believe spent too freely, planned too slowly and underestimated actual costs.

The Obama campaign has dispatched 10 people to Denver to help “get a handle on the budget and make hard decisions” about what has to be done and how to move forward, said Bill Burton, a campaign spokesman.

With Democrats seeking to use the convention to move past the bitterness of their bruising primary fight, the gathering in Denver Aug. 25-28 is likely to draw intense interest as the Obama forces try to show a once-divided party rallying around the nominee. And their convention comes a week before the Minneapolis gathering of the Republicans, whose convention efforts have been much smoother.

Some of the Democratic missteps started soon after planning for the event began. The Democratic National Convention Committee decided not to take cheap office space and instead rented top-quality offices in downtown Denver at $100,000 a month, only to need less than half the space, which it then filled with rental furniture at $50,000 a month. And in a costly misstep, the Denver host committee, early on, told corporate donors that their contributions were not tax-deductible, rather than to encourage donations by saying that the tax-exempt application was pending and expected to be approved.

Overly ambitious environmental goals — to turn the event into a “green” convention — have backfired as only three states’ full delegations have so far agreed to participate in the program. Negotiations over where to locate demonstrators remain unsettled with members of the national news media concerned over proposals to locate the demonstrators — with their loud gatherings — next to the media tent.

And then there is the food: A 28-page contract requested by Denver organizers that caterers provide food in “at least three of the following five colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple and white.” Garnishes could not be counted toward the colors. No fried foods would be allowed. Organic and locally grown foods were mandated, and each plate had to be 50 percent fruits and vegetables. As a result, caterers are shying away.

For the Democratic Party, the danger is that a poorly run convention, or one that misses the mark financially, will reflect badly on the party and raise questions about Democratic management skills. And more worrisome for the Obama campaign is that it will be left with the bill for overruns or fund-raising shortfalls, and that the candidate will have to compete in raising money against a convention effort desperate for cash.

Natalie Wyeth, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Convention Committee in Denver, said the convention “is on track and we are confident that we are where we are supposed to be at this point in the game.”

She added, “We are exactly where we intended to be at.”

Ms. Wyeth also defended the party’s choice of office space, saying a cheaper alternative was rejected because it would have required extensive and costly improvements mandated by the city.

The Democratic convention is already running behind in its fund-raising. At last count, the convention was about $11 million short of the $40.6 million needed to stage the event — even before cost overruns were taken into consideration. This has prompted local newspapers to suggest in editorials that the Obama campaign should step in and begin to raise money for the committee.

Even more, those involved in the convention preparations portray Denver and party organizers as having squandered precious time, pushing critical decision-making into the final hours when it is more difficult to keep a lid on costs. Already, plans to have two dozen parties for the 56 delegations at locations throughout Denver were canceled, and instead there will be a single party at the city’s convention center.

“Major decisions are being settled only at the last minute,” said one convention organizer, who requested anonymity because of the confidentiality of the contracting process. “These contracts should have been out and signed last March or April. We still have no agreement on the budget or the scope of the work for the build-out at the Pepsi Center. There is no reason why it is so late, why important issues have not been addressed and why we are trying to figure these things out at the last minute.”

The Obama campaign is keeping a watchful eye on the process.

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