Controversy won’t stop the parties at Donald Trump’s convention

Workers erect the main stage for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in this June 28, 2016, photo.

WASHINGTON — Republican Donald Trump will secure his party’s nomination at what could be one of the most unconventional political conventions in decades, but this month’s gathering in Cleveland will be mostly business as usual for at least one sector: the trade associations and lobbyists seeking to shape government policy.

The Distilled Spirits Council will be there to offer whiskey tastings and specialty cocktails to the hundreds of convention delegates, elected officials and “opinion leaders” the council’s senior vice president Frank Coleman expects at the association’s “Spirit of Cleveland” party on the convention’s opening night.

Boat manufacturers will take delegates and other officials on short rides on Lake Erie to demonstrate their products during the receptions it will hold at a Cleveland marina. And the political arm of the National School Boards Association is offering up a “dessert reception” for convention-goers at a downtown chocolate and martini bar a few hours before Trump is slated to accept the nomination.

Trump’s convention promises to be a different affair than recent gatherings of the GOP faithful.

As convention nears, Republicans seek identity in an era of Trump.

For starters, some of the nation’s best-known businesses, including Apple and Coca-Cola, are withholding or reducing corporate sponsorship of the Republican National Convention over activists’ complaints about Trump’s harsh rhetoric about women, Latinos and Muslims. A constellation of groups, ranging from anti-war group Code Pink to members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, plan protests. Top Republicans, including former President George W. Bush and a growing list of vulnerable Republican senators, plan to avoid Cleveland. Some rogue Republican delegates still are plotting last-ditch efforts to stop Trump’s nomination. And the real-estate magnate himself is promising to upend tradition by having celebrities and sports figures populate the convention stage.

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However, the quadrennial get-together still offers corporations and the trade groups that represent them the chance to mingle with the roughly 50,000 people –including 2,472 delegates and some 15,000 journalists — expected to descend on Cleveland for the four-day event.

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“The Republicans are creating a stir, but, by and large, because all politics is local, associations will be attending,” said John Graham, president and CEO American Society of Association Executives, an organization that represents some 22,000 people who help run associations.

“When you have members of Congress there and you have elites of both parties there, it’s important that associations be there, too, because what associations need first is access,” Graham said.

Election watchdogs warn that this year’s conventions offer even more opportunities for industries with business before Congress, state and local governments to exert influence. For the first time since the Watergate era, both conventions will be funded entirely with private money provided by wealthy individuals, companies and unions.

In 2014, Congress ended public funding for the conventions, with the exception of $50 million granted to each for security costs. Host committees in each city are working to raise a combined $124 million to stage the events.

“That ethos of taxpayer money and taxpayer accountability is all out of the window now,” said Craig Holman of the liberal-leaning Public Citizen watchdog group. “It’s just one big soiree for special interests.”.

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Some big trade groups, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, do not plan to participate at the conventions. (In a statement, officials with the manufacturers’ group say they plan to take their message “straight to the manufacturing voters who will decide this election” rather than sponsor convention events.).

But in interviews, several association groups said they planned to make a showing at both gatherings even as they steer clear of the politics inside the convention halls in Cleveland and Philadelphia, where Democrats will meet July 25-28.

“This year, a lot of people had to make some tough decisions,” said Nicole Vasilaros, vice president of federal and legal affairs for the 1,500-member National Marine Manufacturers Association.

“For us, it’s a platform to tell our story,” she said. “We don’t get involved politically at the presidential level, but delegates at the local, state and federal level will be there. If we can use that platform to showcase our products and talk about our industry, we see that there’s value in that.”.

The group plans events to promote the boat manufacturing industry in Cleveland at a downtown marina and in Philadelphia at a maritime museum along the Delaware River.

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In some cases, elected officials are using the events to reach other current and potential officeholders. JoDee Sundberg, a school board member in Alpine, Utah, is president of the National School Boards Action Center.

The group, which represents 90,000 school board members, is sponsoring afternoon dessert receptions for convention-goers in Cleveland at the Chocolate Bar and in Philadelphia at Max Brenner, a chocolate-themed restaurant and store where the menu includes a chocolate fondue tower.

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Sundberg said the group wants to put a spotlight on public schools, which educate 90% of the school-age population. Priorities include preserving federal education funding and limiting the spread of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools that she says “siphon off the resources” needed for public education. Board members also want to learn more about how the next president will implement a sweeping new federal education law President Obama signed last year.

Sundberg said those issues have received scant attention so far in the presidential contest between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton and the group wants to “keep the pressure on public education as a priority for the next president and the next Congress.”.

Why the emphasis on sweet treats?

“Who doesn’t like a little dessert?” Said Charlotte Blane, a spokeswoman for the group.

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