From left, Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan and lobbyist Tony Podesta.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At a reception brunch just a block away from where the Democratic National Convention officially starts Tuesday night, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) pressed a camera to his face and leaned back to photograph Tony Podesta, a lobbyist who runs the Podesta Group.
Next to Leahy stood a cameraman for ABC News, who had kept his video camera trained on Podesta as he greeted the crowd of corporate bigwigs from Nestle and Wal-Mart and more than a dozen members of Congress, including Democratic sens. Christopher Coons (Del.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.).
"It's a fun opportunity to convene and have our friends meet each other," said Podesta, who wore a tan suit and his trademark red sneakers, sans laces. He quipped that "We had a NAFTA meeting over here," noting that the Mexican and Canadian ambassadors were in the crowd.
The party was among the first of many hosted by law firms and lobbyist groups in Charlotte this week in the venues surrounding the arena and stadium where President Barack Obama will accept his party's nomination for the White House on Thursday.
Other events include a September 4 dinner at a posh steakhouse with attorneys from Alston & Bird, which has a big presence in Charlotte; a late-night bash the same evening for the Democratic Governors Association sponsored by McGuireWoods; and a closed-press reception Honoring Pro-Civil Justice Democrats put on by the American Association for Justice (formerly the Trial Lawyers of America).
The Charlotte office of K&L Gates is going a different route, hosting two policy forums Wednesday and Thursday about the economy for the American Sustainable Business Council.
While the Obama administration has officially not been friendly toward lobbyists — the president tightened lobbying rules and doesn’t accept campaign donations from them — the parties offer a chance for lawyers and lobbyists to get face-to-face time with Democratic leaders.
The Podesta reception, co-hosted by his wife, Heather, who runs lobbying firm Podesta Partners, drew its crowd based on the duo's deep connections on Capitol Hill and business communities rather than lavish food or celebrity appearances. Other attendees included Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Reps. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and John Larson (D-Conn.).
Held at a museum's small café, the brunch featured "farmhouse chic" finger food like crab cakes and "catdaddy moonshine" served in mason jars. The politicians there seemed to be purposely avoiding eating.
Whitehouse said he came because he knows the Podestas — Tony, Heather and Tony’s brother John, a former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. The party was a way to say thank you and socialize. "John has done really good stuff for me, particularly on arcane issues like healthcare delivery system reform, so I definitely want to show the flag for him and his family," Whitehouse said.