REAL POWER DEALS DURING DEMOCRATIC CONFAB WON'T BE MADE AT STAPLES ARENA

When the Democrats come to town in two months for their national convention, much of the public attention is going to be focused on Staples Center and a handful of public events in the downtown area.

But the real action is going to take place at hundreds of lavish private parties all across L.A., from studio backlots to tony Westside restaurants and even private mansions.

That's where the Hollywood elite and powerful business executives will gather to rub elbows with prominent Democrats and other VIPs from around the country, to make powerful new friends, strengthen political allegiances, and lay the foundation for future deals.

"This is going to be one giant schmoozefest, the biggest thing this town has seen in many years," said Hal Dash, president of Cerrell Associates, a prominent local lobbying and campaign firm that has long had ties to political conventions. "Every national political convention has this schmooze element, but L.A. is going to be in a league by itself because of the Hollywood connection."

The convention runs from Monday, Aug. 14 through Thursday, Aug. 17, but the partying begins with a huge official media party on the preceding Saturday night, Aug. 12, at the L.A. Department of Water & Power plaza in downtown L.A. That will be followed by 30 official delegation parties at hotels around the county on Sunday the eve of the convention.

Those affairs will play a large part in the way L.A.'s image is projected around the world. But it's the private parties that are causing the biggest buzz. They include:

- A fund-raising and voter canvassing bash for the Hispanic Unity Caucus at the Playboy Mansion;

- A party on the Hollywood backlot of Paramount Pictures hosted by California Gov. Gray Davis, dubbed "A Taste of California;"

- Another Paramount backlot party, this one hosted by Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, which will be held on a set patterned after Bourbon Street in New Orleans;

- A party at the Petersen Automotive Museum hosted by Chrysler Corp.;

- A Sony Corp.-sponsored luncheon at downtown's Union Station for Democratic governors;

- A giant block party on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills planned and produced by Wolfgang Puck's Spago for Missouri Democrat Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader, and other members of the Democratic Congressional Caucus that he chairs.

For the visiting Democrats, these parties will present the mother lode of fund-raising opportunities, since Los Angeles has traditionally been second in total political contributions to the Democratic Party behind New York City. And for the studio bosses, business execs and celebrities throwing or hosting the parties, it's a chance to influence the national political power structure.

Boon to L.A. economy

What's more, tens of millions of dollars will be poured into the pockets of local caterers, party planners, restaurants, valet services and other local businesses. The cost to put on one of these parties can range from $20,000 to more than $200,000, depending on the size of the event and the number of guests.

"You will see a tremendous amount of money pumped into the economy from these parties, more even than for a Super Bowl, which lasts only one day," Dash said.

Indeed, fully $5 million is being spent by L.A. Convention 2000, the private-sector host committee for the convention, on special events, chiefly the official delegation parties and the huge bash being put on for the media. The media party will include high-profile entertainment and a showcase of photos of L.A. taken by children, according to L.A. Convention 2000 spokesman Ben Austin.

"The media party is going to be of immense importance because the media itself is the audience," said Michael Collins, executive vice president of the L.A. Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It will be one of the defining moments in setting up the image of L.A. that will be conveyed to the rest of the world."

But it's the private, "invitation only" events that will be the most glamorous. During Chicago's 1996 Democratic National Convention, there were several hundred such private parties, and just as many, if not more, are expected here.

"This is where the real convention is going to be, not the staged television show at the Staples Center," said one local political observer. "This is where the deals are going to be made and the contacts established."

One party that has already stirred up quite a bit of buzz is the Hispanic Unity Foundation soiree at the Playboy Mansion. The foundation, which is chaired by U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove, is designed to promote voter registration in the Latino community.

But the foundation's choice of the Playboy Mansion, where centerfold bunnies often gather for parties, has already caused controversy for Sanchez, including a series of pointed attacks from the Republican National Committee.

Playboy executives downplay the controversy.

"We are a major supporter of Loretta Sanchez," said Playboy Enterprises Executive Vice President Richard Rosenzweig. "She is a rising star in Congress and stands for many of the same things we do."

Clinton on guest lists

Party planners around town are already swamped with requests for convention-related events.

"It's huge," said Barbara Brass, head of Wolfgang Puck's special events division. "Right now, we've got about a dozen parties (booked) in the restaurant (Spago) and about the same amount outside the restaurant (that we are planning and catering)."

Those asking her to set up parties include several entertainment industry powerbrokers, as well as a number of business executives. Clients have come to her asking to do events at homes in Bel Air and Beverly Hills, while a couple of state delegations have even sought her help in finding mansions where they can hold parties.

Meanwhile another prominent party planner, Along Came Mary, is working on setting up at least 20 convention-related parties. And Merv Griffin Productions, which has produced many Oscar night parties and celebrations, is working on several events, including the city's official welcoming ceremony and the parties at the Paramount backlot.

Planning for many of the splashiest parties is still in the works. Longtime Hollywood activists like Barbra Streisand and Rob Reiner are said to be among those who may host celebrations. (Streisand, of course, has hosted fund-raisers for President Clinton on a number of occasions.)

"The hot parties are for the people with financial clout or power, and those are yet to be set," said Lisa Specht, an attorney at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips who has had long ties with prominent local Democrats.

While it's the entertainment-related parties that promise to capture most of the headlines, other industries are going to do their share of partying as well.

"I would expect a fair number of banking industry and energy industry types throwing parties here," said Cerrell's Dash. "And don't forget the high-tech industry and the dot-coms who are now looking at the possibility of government regulations down the line."

The man of the hour, presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Vice President Al Gore, may make the rounds at some of the parties, although political observers say he'll likely be tied up at his L.A. Convention headquarters much of the time, working on his acceptance speech. But President Clinton is expected to attend many of the soirees, primarily to raise funds. "This will be his swan song," Dash pointed out.

On the public front, the host committee is planning an official opening ceremony, to take place at the L.A. Convention Center on Aug. 11, to which the public is invited. A number of other official city-sponsored events are in the planning stages, according to Peter Hidalgo, spokesman for Mayor Richard Riordan.

Among them is a series of 10 free community-oriented events around the city, including a Children's Festival of Arts in Hollywood and a music festival in San Pedro. All of these events will be free to the public, or will have a minimal charge.

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