Inside the ‘other’ DNC where the corporation is king

Democracy Spring protesters attempt to block access to the Wells Fargo on Broad Street during the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

The scene downstairs at Del Frisco’s steak house was the kind of party that busting out all across Center City this week.

If you know the right people. And where to look.

On this Tuesday afternoon, it was the Congressional Black Caucus being feted, with an assist from Philadelphia City Council members. Wine glasses clinked. Smooth jazz flowed from a band playing before a glittery curtain, illuminated in shades of red, white and blue. Servers with trays of hors d'oeuvres struggled to push through.

Mayor Kenney stopped by and delivered a stemwinder of a short speech on inequality – social inequality – in America, a high-energy version of what we’ve been hearing from the podium at the Democratic National Convention. Why, the mayor asked a predominantly black crowd, would America want to elect Donald Trump when he’s promising “to take us back to ‘the good old days’ – you remember them. don’t you?... Sitting at a lunch counter, trying to get a sandwich. Trying to sit in the front of a bus.”

Then the event’s MC – Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke – took back the mic to thank the sponsors of the event, including the powerful and politically wired global law firm DLA Piper, the ride-sharing company Lyft, and the fast-growing vacation rental site Airbnb. You know, the same Airbnb that’s come under fire after Harvard researchers found it’s harder for blacks to book rentals (the firm says it’s working to fix that), created a housing shortage in places like San Francisco and New York that are already unaffordable for the middle class, and riled some unions that represent hotel workers, which include many non-whites.

These are the Democrats, right?

Anyway, the music swelled again, and some of the guests started moving toward the next party, a bash at the Barnes Foundation art museum honoring Vice President Joe Biden that was hosted by Comcast, the Philadelphia-based cable giant with a tangled web of regulatory issues before Congress and the next president.

Welcome to the shadow convention – the swank parties where the pathways of roving lobbyists are greased with vodka and shrimp cocktail sauce. All the talk inside the Wells Fargo Center is about shattering glass ceilings and showcasing a Democratic Party that’s been more welcoming to women, blacks, Latinos, the LGBTQ community, and the disabled than Brand X (or at least Brand X’s current standard bearer). But head a few miles north to the tonier addresses of The 19106, and you’ll still be toasting the status quo in a nation where income inequality has soared for 35 years under Republican governments…and Democratic ones.

Nothing fuels the anger that you’ve seen up and down South Broad Street all week than this: The American system’s failure to offer voters candidates who don’t come tainted by their ties to billionaire bankers and hedge-fund traders. The protesters here in Philadelphia are frustrated that Sen. Bernie Sanders – who not only talked the talk of banning corporate dollars from politics but walked the walk by funding his campaign with millions of small donations from regular citizens – didn’t topple this system. And they don’t trust Hillary Clinton – who along with her ex-president husband became multi-millionaires largely through speeches to banks, corporations and Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs.

“People are awake now that the system is rigged – they can see what happened to Bernie Sanders,” Ashley Bays, a 29-year-old activist from Boston wearing a bright red “Tax the Rich” T-shirt told me on Wednesday afternoon in South Philly’s Marconi Plaza, where she and two dozen others from the group Democracy Spring were planning another day of protest activities against corporate influence. “Both parties are controlled by the millionaire class.”

Protesters are even more worked up – if that’s possible – over the hacked Democratic National Committee emails that showed how high-ranking party officials spent so of their work day catering to multi-millionaire donors who wanted direct access to government officials or to be added to elite “expert” panels.

Over the last few election cycles, conventions in both parties have been paths of least resistance for tens of millions of dollars flowing from corporations eager to find new and better ways to rub elbows in July with the policy makers who’ll be able to give them a hand in January.  We know that the DNC host committee – led by the likes of Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen, a special adviser, and Independence Blue Cross CEO Daniel Hilferty, its finance chair (when he’s not lobbying on Obamacare issues) – sought to raise as much as $60 million in cash from private donors. But we still don’t know who those donors are, thanks to the host committee’s extraordinary efforts to fight a judge’s order and keep its fundraising records secret.

The arrogance is stunning – but it’s all too typical. Arguably the most visible corporation at the DNC has been Uber. That’s the high-flying ride sharing firm run by ruthless billionaire Travis Kalanick that was caught trying to smear its critics and which, importantly, may crush the taxi industry that has long been a place for strivers – especially immigrants – to work their way into the middle class. All week, with little fanfare, cab drivers have been out protesting against a new law giving Uber (and Lyft) legal status for the DNC, against alleged favoritism for Uber at the Wells Fargo Center pick-up lines --  and for higher wages for drivers.

There are millions of people in this country – taxi drivers and hotel cleaning crews, for example – that need one of America’s major political parties to fight for them. That’s supposed to be the Democrat’s role – but what we’ve seen in Philadelphia is that they’re flubbing their one job.

It’s true that you’ll hear more common sense in a few minutes – on things like climate change, or equal pay for women – than was uttered during the entire freak show in Cleveland. But why were just a couple of union leaders hidden in non-prime-time slots, and where is the talk about lunch-bucket issues like the minimum wage? And why do most of the people fighting for blue-collar America seem to be on the outside of that tall black security fence? The DNC is running out of time to answer these questions – but at least they’re not running out of shrimp cocktail and chardonnay.