WASHINGTON - Bankers are diversifying their political assets this week at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles but the tone is unlikely to match the enthusiasm extended to the other side of the Congressional aisle.
Bankers and their trade groups are forgoing spending big bucks on donations to the Democrats. Commercial banks have given five times more money - $1.16 million versus $213,850, as of July 1 - to Republican nominee George W. Bush than to Vice President Al Gore, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan political watchdog.
Democrats were noticeably lower down on the dance card of the American Bankers Association, which in Philadelphia teamed up with five big banks to host a reception for the 11 Republican members of the Senate Banking Committee.
In L.A., the banking trade group is hosting three or four dinners for members of Congress. Chief lobbyist Edward L. Yingling would not name them, saying only that they "are not necessarily Banking Committee members."
Mr. Yingling pointed out that it is important for banks to court all members of Congress. They "can't afford just to focus on the members of the banking committees, because we eventually have issues before almost every committee," he said.
Both presidential candidates boast big banks as top donors. The No. 1 contributor to Mr. Bush's campaign is MBNA America Bank and its political action committee, coming in with $215,400 as of July 1, the Center for Responsive Politics reports. Citigroup Inc. - headed by Clinton administration confidante Sanford I. Weill - and its PAC are the second-biggest donors to the vice president's cause, having given him $99,500 as of July 1.
There are signs the banks' public approach is different with respect to the Democrats. The industry is forgoing the usual lavish convention galas for lower-key - and lower-priced - celebrations of cultural diversity and politically correct events like neighborhood cleanups and literacy campaigns. Washington Mutual and Freddie Mac are inviting delegates, candidates, and their own employees to spend Tuesday morning cleaning up a decaying Hollywood neighborhood.
The country's largest thrift is also making sure L.A. youth know why Democrats are converging on their town - by funding lessons that use art to teach civics. The kids' paintings are on display at convention venues around the city.
Sallie Mae has taken a bookish approach to both the Republican and Democratic gatherings with a drive that puts the two parties in stiff competition for more than just the White House. The student loan provider asked delegates from both parties to donate books to library literacy programs. Republicans set the mark by bringing 15,000 volumes to Philadelphia.
The Credit Union National Association plans to get in on the charitable act Monday by inviting Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and a handful of lawmakers to observe a class on the basics of managing money it is sponsoring at a downtown L.A. high school. The course is a demonstration of a National Endowment for Financial Education program that the association helps sponsor at schools across the country.
The credit union group also expects to score vice presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman at a reception Monday afternoon, where he'll be honored for his strong support of credit unions, particularly as a key proponent of individual development accounts, a new savings vehicle aimed at poor people without bank accounts.
Indeed, bankers will be treating Democrats to their share of traditional parties.
Cultural diversity seems to be the theme of West Coast giant Bank of America Corp.'s convention parties. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus will be honored Monday at a wine tasting and luncheon hosted by Liam McGee, president of the Charlotte, N.C., company's Southern California operations. The Congressional Black Caucus was invited to B of A's downtown headquarters for a smaller, pre-convention reception Sunday.
B of A also is hosting a breakfast Wednesday for the 26 Democrats on the House Banking Committee, local lawmakers, and L.A. community development groups at a downtown hotel.
Chase Manhattan Corp. is teaming up with Dreamworks - the film and music company founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen - to toast female candidates and members of Congress at a luncheon on the soundstage of Raleigh Studio, the oldest continuously operating movie studio in the country.
FleetBoston Financial Corp. also picked up on the partying-on-the-soundstage theme, scoring the set of the primetime TV drama "Providence" for a convention reception with six other co-sponsors. But the company was mum about who the other co-sponsors are, when the party is, or who is being honored.
Wells Fargo & Co. vice chairman and chief executive officer Les Biller was scheduled to host a pre-convention gala Sunday night in the Los Angeles County Performing Arts Center's elegant Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, complete with an authentic Wells Fargo stagecoach, the award-winning choir from the First AME Church of Los Angeles, and what it believes to be L.A.'s best mariachi band, Sol de Mexico. California Gov. Gray Davis, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and L.A. Mayor Richard J. Riordan were to serve as honorary hosts of the event.
Speaking of Banking Committee members, the top House and Senate Democrats are keeping low profiles in the City of Angels. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes is not doing anything specifically related to banking issues at the convention, though he is looking forward to visiting his daughter, who lives in L.A., the Maryland Democrat's campaign spokesman said. House Banking Committee Ranking Member John J. LaFalce was silent about his L.A. plans.