DEMOCRATS’ PARTY CENTRAL: It was 8 p.m. Wednesday in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Democratic National Convention was half-way through and anticipation was high for Bill Clinton. In the heart of downtown, people awaited the speech at two congregation spots directly across from each other, like East and West Berlin.
At the Ritz-Carlton, Sen. John Kerry held court in a booth at the B.L.T. Steakhouse, where Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan, trade representative Ron Kirk and former Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty clustered near the door. Nearby, Sean Eldridge, husband of Facebook co-founder and major Democratic donor Chris Hughes, chatted with an older gentleman; Hughes is in town also. Former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. stalked the sprawling and busy lobby, politely rebuffing reporters.
At the CNN Grill, former New York Gov. David Paterson and CNN’s Erin Burnett were the most well-known faces among a scrum of rank-and-file reporters climbing over each other to catch the bartenders’ attention for free food and “CNN Brew,” a kind of beer. Paterson was still there an hour later.
The Grill was one of several week-long lounges media outlets erected in Tampa and Charlotte — there was also the Bloomberg Link, the Politico Hub, and the Huffington Post Oasis. They attracted media people — reporters, on–air talent, some politicians — Jesse Jackson showed up at the Grill several times. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote these places are further proof the conventions are just by and for the media.
At the conventions, everyone thinks they’re card-carrying members of their own exclusive, power orbits. The CNN Grill had daily credentials, which were available to nearly all reporters who RSVP’ed in advance, everyone from the New York Times to the National Law Journal.
The Ritz was where Super PAC donors, national politicians, and other machers stayed and their groupies hung out. A few hours before Clinton, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin made his way through the Ritz’ lobby to a party hosted by Jane Hartley, ceo of the Observatory Group and a major donor. Word had it billionaire and mega Obama donor Elon Musk threw an exclusive party later in the night at the hotel’s rooftop. (Donors were also guests at The Omni and Hilton hotels.)
“What you get here are the deals that are being done. And the other places you get people that are looking for something free,” said Ritz guest Kevin Hooks, an executive vice president at Weber Shandwick, a behemoth public relations firm.
The Ritz and the Grill were not unlike “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
“When I say it’s a different caliber here, it’s a nice way of saying the people with money that are the actual donors. The CNN Grill is obviously the staff,” said Teresa Sena, an Obama administration staffer who’d left the Grill earlier.
NBC News president Steve Capus and Howard Fineman, editorial director of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group were at also seen the Ritz. The Grill had Anderson Cooper, Star Jones and Time columnist Joel Stein.
The hotel’s guests enjoyed being surrounded by like-minded company, recreating New York and D.C. social rituals. Late-night Thursday, Fineman shared a booth with Kerry. Earlier during lunch, Caroline Kennedy sat within earshot of Bloomberg News columnist Margaret Carlson.
And where the money hangs, so do the lawyers, strategists, fixers aiming for their business.
“You look for the business reason to make a connection,” said Hooks. “Some of the connections I’ve made have been for people that work in my industry, marketing communications. Some are in public policy.You have to know your stuff to schmooze here.”
Not all conversation was heavy. The Ritz’ lobby and restaurant also attracted those who appreciated proximity to influence and high-powered flirting.
“This is more chi chi. It’s more classy,” said Jennifer Weintraub, a fortysomething blonde who described herself as a DJ and dance instructor. The CNN Grill had David Paterson? “So what, we have the mayor of Washington D.C. John Kerry’s here,” she said.
An impressed Weintraub showed off the business card of Michael J. Gottlieb. “Look who he is,” she said. “Special assistant to the President. That’s pretty cool.”
Meghan Browne, a Charlotte stylist, was there with Hope Politis, another perky local and buyer with the Southern store chain Belk. They are regulars at the hotel, already a Charlotte networkers’ heaven. “You can’t beat the Ritz,” Politis said.
“This is a good stomping ground,” Browne said. “And there’s hot guys, hello?”
Browne hadn’t met anyone yet. But, thanks to the convention, she was optimistic.
“Give me a couple of hours,” she said. “We’re always prowling and this is a good week to prowl.”