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Duck of the Bay?

Borrowing a page from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Senate Democrats are combining a children’s charity and a big-dollar event for elite donors during their national convention in Boston this summer. And like DeLay, the Democrats, led by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), who is chairing the event, are drawing scrutiny from campaign-finance watchdog groups for their activities.

The main sponsors of the July 28 Democratic concert include AFLAC Inc., the Georgia-based insurance company, Atlanta energy giant the Southern Co., and a number of other Peach State companies. The firms are working in conjunction with the National Childhood Cancer Foundation and the Wakem Group of Alexandria, Va., to help put together the concert, and the NCCF hopes to net as much as $250,000 from the event.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) will be hosting a similar soiree honoring Georgia Republicans during the GOP convention in New York City. That event will be sponsored by AFLAC and the Southern Co. as well, and will take place on Aug. 30. Proceeds from that fundraiser will go to Camp Sunshine, an Atlanta-based facility for siblings of children with cancer that is affiliated with the AFLAC Cancer Center. Donor packages will range in price up to $50,000, said a source familiar with the event.

In addition to its charitable activities at the conventions, AFLAC is also a “Bronze Benefactor” for the Democratic convention, meaning it has agreed to contribute $100,000 to $250,000 to help underwrite the nearly $40 million cost of the Democratic gathering. In addition, AFLAC executives have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for President Bush’s re-election campaign.

Donor packages for the July 28 Democratic concert, called “Rockin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” cost up to $100,000 for those corporations, trade associations and individuals who want to take part. The late-night concert at The Roxy nightclub will honor seven Southern Democratic Senators including John Breaux (La.), John Edwards (N.C.), Bob Graham (Fla.), Fritz Hollings (S.C.)., Mary Landrieu (La.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.).

According to a brochure for the Democratic concert, a $100,000 donation, known as a “Bay Access Pass,” will get you eight backstage passes and a photo op “with major talent,” 25 VIP lounge passes which include “private balcony access, premium bar, seated viewing, and personal wait staff,” 100 more general admission tickets and “Headliner Visibility in promotional materials and event signage.” Other donor packages include the “Inner Harbor Pass” ($50,000), the “Channel Pass” ($25,000), “River Pass” ($10,000), “Pier Pass” ($5,000), and last but not least, the “Dock Pass” ($2,500). Who exactly the “major talent” is going to be is apparently not yet determined.

The brochure also includes a disclaimer stating: “Rockin’ on the Dock of the Bay is a private, invitation-only event not connected with or sanctioned by the Democratic National Party or any official committee of the 2004 National Party Convention.” Under federal law, Senators and Members may not raise or solicit soft-money contributions, although they may be “honored” at such events.

Fred Wertheimer of the watchdog group Democracy 21 said he “is going to take a hard look” at the Democratic event to make sure it meets the federal ban on soft-money fundraising.

But according to Wertheimer, there are major differences between what Senate Democrats and DeLay are attempting to do. DeLay, who has raised millions of dollars for foster children during his political career, actually set up a new charity called Celebrations for Children Inc. to host events during the Republican convention in the Big Apple. Wertheimer believes the DeLay charity “was created in part to help fund his weeklong political operation” in the Big Apple, replicating the kind of events that DeLay sponsored during the GOP convention in Philadelphia four years ago, but which would be much harder to do in a hard-money world. Danielle DeLay Ferro, the Texas Republican’s daughter and campaign manager, is one of the directors of Celebrations for Children, and top donors get tickets to Broadway shows, yacht cruises and rounds of golf at a prestigious Long Island course, as well as dinner with Tom and Christine DeLay.

Steve Patterson, Lincoln’s campaign manager, rejected any comparison for what his boss is doing and what DeLay wants to do. “This pales in comparison to what DeLay is doing, from what I’ve read,” said Patterson. “The benefits that are being bartered here are only to this specific event.”

AFLAC officials also defended their involvement in the conventions as part of the company’s overall charity work. “Our philanthropic commitment is to cancer research and treatment,” said Laura Kane, AFLAC’s public relations manager. “We’ve given nearly $30 million over the last decade. And we’ve been doing a wide variety of fundraisers. That’s a large part of the way we do this kind of work.”

Ripken Bats Right. Baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. will be a special guest at an upcoming fundraiser for House Financial Services Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) at Camden Yards.

Ripken will headline the May 26 dinner for Oxley, who is seeking a 13th term in the House this November. Tickets to the events go for up to $5,000 for those who want to be designated as a “host,” while PACs get charged $1,000 and individual attendees have to kick in $500. There’s even a $3,000 “Family Special” for the event, which will take place prior to a Baltimore Orioles-New York Yankees game. What the “Family Special” includes is unclear, but HOH senses the presence of clowns and balloons. Oxley, a baseball fanatic, has more than $1 million in cash on hand, according to the latest campaign reports.

Ripken remains enormously popular in Baltimore, although he has not had any discernible interest in politics before. The Orioles’ legend, who retired after the 2001 season, has never donated to any federal candidate as far as can be determined. Oxley’s campaign did not return a call seeking comment.

A Real Daredevil. Movie star Ben Affleck will join Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) as well as Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders at a press conference Thursday to unveil a new bill to raise the federal minimum wage. The Democrats want to raise the minimum wage to $7 per hour from its current $5.15 per hour level within a two-year period.

Affleck’s father was a janitor and his mother a cleaning woman at Harvard University, and he and Kennedy successfully teamed up two years ago with activist groups to lead a campaign to raise workers’ pay at the university. Senate Democrats have threatened to attach their minimum-wage increase proposal to any legislation that looks like it’s moving through the Senate this year, although at the rate things are going in that body now, they won’t have much to aim for.

“Hopefully a little star power is going to help Senate Democrats to break the logjam,” said Jim Manley, Kennedy’s spokesman. “And then we’ll finally get a much-needed increase in the minimum wage.”

One More Celebrity Item. HOH will sell out and go for a third celebrity item in one column today. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and former U.S. Ambassador to Portugal Elizabeth Frawley Bagley will be hosting a fundraiser for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) at Bagley’s Georgetown home this Wednesday evening featuring singer Carole King. According to an invitation, tickets to the event are $2,000 if you’re a sponsor, but only $1,000 if you’re a “friend.” Friend of whom it doesn’t say, but HOH wants everyone to know he is very friendly. Hurry — space is limited to just 60 people.

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