NEW YORK -- Does the banking industry take politics seriously enough?

At the Democratic convention here this week, bankers were few and far between. But their competitors were out in force.

The Securities Industry Association, for example, seemed to be entertaining hourly, sponsoring a number of high-profile receptions in the evening and picking up the tab for breakfast buffets in the hotel where Democratic senators were staying.

At the time same time, Goldman Sachs & Co.'s chairman, Robert E. Rubin, garnered an introduction from the podium by Democratic national chairman Ronald Brown for heading the committee that planned the convention.

And Jonathan Sallet, the Washington lawyer who represents the insurance industry in its turf battles with banking, was counsel to the Democratic Party's platform, credentials, and rules committee.

A Single Luncheon

By contrast, only one bank, Chemical Banking Corp., held a major event - a luncheon for senators.

Of the major bank industry trade groups, only the American Bankers Association fielded a team: three lobbyists and the organization's incoming president. The senior lobbyists of BankAmerica Corp., Nations-Bank Corp., and J.P. Morgan & Co. were there, but most others skipped the event.

Some veteran observers think bankers missed an opportunity to build ties to lawmakers and party insiders that could pay off when the industry next faces off with rivals.

Working the Podium

"I think it would be very productive for the banking industry to have a presence here," said Washington lawyer Sheldon Harris, a Democratic Party insider with a bank and tax law practice.

Mr. Harris spent the first night of the convention working on the podium, a prized spot.

Mr. Harris was there to help smooth the path for party luminaries who lacked the proper credentials or elected officials who wanted to show a spouse the platform overlooking the floor.

While the job was modest, it put him at the center of the evening's events and helped him maintain his ties to the party that had dominated Congress since World War II.

"You can build a lot of good-will when you are here, not asking anyone for anything, and sharing in a common experience," he said.

Stephen C. Driesler, senior vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Realtors, also cited the "atmosphere of good will."

Four years ago, the Realtors spent about $250,000 on a campaign to enlist members to run for delegate posts. This year, with budgets tighter, the formal effort was scrapped. Even so, about 90 of the elected delegates here are member of the association, Mr. Driesler said.

"It's important that we continue to show our commitment," Mr. Driesler said.

More Participation Urged

Thomas L. Ashley, president of the Association of Bank Holding Companies, said the banking industry would be better served if it participated more in the affairs of the two parties. "These are the people who make the laws we have to live with," he said.

But cost is clearly a factor. He said his group skipped the convention because "it's expensive and we're not in a position to make a contribution."

Edward L. Yingling, executive director of government relations for the American Bankers Association, said his organization may be the only industry association of sufficient size to maintain a presence at the convention.

"To participate, you have to be a fairly major contributor," he said, noting that the ABA gives $15,000 in each election cycle to the three major Democratic Party campaign organizations.

Hopes for Higher Profile

William H. Brandon Jr., incoming president of the association, hopes the industry will be able to elevate its profile at future conventions.

"It would be helpful if the banking associations did everything in their power to be here," said Mr. Brandon, who is also president and chief executive officer of First National Bank of Phillips County, Helena, Ark. "It's a good time for us to say that the banking industry agrees on 90% of the issues and is working together."

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