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At Convention, There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch

August 16, 1988

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ With fetes and eats and welcoming arms, in hotels and meeting halls and restaurants across this convention-consumed city, business is buddying up to the Republican Party.

Try Suite 2886 of the Hilton hotel, where the Food Marketing Institute beckons with free liquor, hors d’oeuvres and a river view. The catch so far: a hundred bites, with Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois as the biggest fish.

Uninterested in tales of the travails of the nation’s supermarkets? Try the Delta Airlines hospitality suite. Hit BellSouth’s free food at Windsor Court. Drop by the reception sponsored by Middle South Utilities.

The enticements are many. The official convention calendar lists more than 50 corporate-sponsored parties for delegates, party and elected leaders and aides this week. Many more events did not make the list.

Such affairs are nothing new to the political scene; many of the same companies held similar parties for the Democrats in Atlanta last month. Their credo: Ideology aside, in politics, goodwill is good business.

″There’s no arm twisting, no hard sell. It’s primarily meet and greet and make friends,″ said Raymond Friedlob, a delegate from Denver. ″They have a chance to tell their story to an audience that’s willing to listen.″

As straightforward as it may seem, however, the corporate presence is troubling to some delegates who fear having the GOP tagged as the party of big business.

″The whole issue is how organizations - corporations, associations of interest groups - finance candidates and do favors for candidates. I find it a disturbing one,″ said Sherry Nemmers, an alternate delegate from Portland, Maine. ″My concern is appearances.″

″You have a lot of money flowing around,″ she said. ″The source of that money is always going to be open to question about its intended purpose.″

Nemmers nonetheless attended a BellSouth reception for Elizabeth and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas at a posh hotel this week - because, she said, it was her only chance to see them in an intimate setting.

The free spread included champagne and bloody Marys, eggs Benedict and sliced kiwis. Were she running for public office back in Maine, Nemmers was quick to say, ″I’d have avoided it like the plague.″

Another elected official, Dole himself, did not share those reservations about corporate sponsorships, though both he and his wife were defensive in commenting on the business-backed events.

″We know all the people anyway. It’s nice,″ Dole said. ‴They live here and they have business here and they want to be welcomed and I think it’s great. Nothing sinister about it.″

″I don’t know anything about that really. ... I was not in on any of the planning of the events,″ said Mrs. Dole, the former U.S. transportation secretary. ″They asked to be hosts. ... People are enjoying it and the idea is to have a good time. So I don’t see that there’s any problem with that.″

One or both of the Doles were listed on the official schedule for eight business-sponsored receptions and lunches this week, courtesy of groups from the American Trucking Association and General Motors to Avon.

One of the biggest corporate players is BellSouth: The regional phone company is sponsoring a dozen events this week, including a brunch for 150 Congress members, state GOP chairmen and executives. BellSouth also runs a free lunchroom for the news media.

″We’re a major player in the telecommunications industry,″ said Dan Mattoon, a BellSouth lobbyist. ″We want to be involved with members of Congress and others who are involved in our issues.″

There are other ways for corporations to spread good will at political conventions. Many donated to the fund New Orleans established to defray its costs; others are paying up to $100,000 for tables at a gala fund-raiser for the Republican Party this week. While corporations can’t give directly to political candidates, they can give to the party - and sponsor parties.

Take Delta Airlines. It’s running two hospitality suites, one equipped with first-class airplane seats for visitors who want a snooze. It’s buying lunch for the Utah delegation - Salt Lake City is the hub of Western Airlines, which Delta took over last year - and it’s laying out a six-course luncheon at Arnaud’s, a French quarter restaurant, for 200 guests, led by lawmakers with a hand in transportation policy.

″If somebody knows you they can believe what you’re saying,″ said Delta spokesman William D. Berry. ″They can come to you and say, ‘Delta, this bill is surfacing, what do you think of it? Is it good for the industry or bad?’

″We like that input. We need that input. This is a chance for us to be known by these people, and for us to know them.″

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