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A Fine Convention It Will Be … and Not Cheap

Alabaster podiums, plasma television screens, state-of-the-art security and an electronic voting system for delegates: This year’s Democratic National Convention promises to be the most dazzling, and expensive, Democratic nominating extravaganza ever.

The lease on Boston’s Fleet Center alone is a whopping $3.5 million, and Boston 2004 Inc., the event’s host committee, is doling out another $5.7 million to provide workspaces for the 15,000 members of the media who will cover the event.

Other large items on the tab, according to the host committee’s statement of projected expenditures, include $3.95 million for insurance; a $350,000 electronic voting system for delegates; $750,000 for convention parking; $2.1 million budgeted for “hospitality events and activities”; and $885,000 for volunteer and outreach services.

And that’s not the entire tab.

With final construction and production costs expected to exceed original estimates by at least $10 million, the overall cost of the event — which is shared between the host committee and the Democratic National Convention Committee — has grown from an estimated $64.5 million in late 2002 to more than $70 million in June.

That’s nearly double the $38 million that Democrats spent mounting their 1992 convention in New York City.

“It’s mind-boggling,” former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler said recently. “It’s a theatrical production for television, and the cost of that has mushroomed.”

Organizers say the record spending is simply the price of putting the party’s best face on view.

Boston 2004 Host Committee President David Passafaro told the Boston Globe in June that the increased cost of the gala is being “driven by the [Democratic National Committee’s] desire to have a better production, their drive to attract additional and new voters to the process, and their hope that they can best show their candidate to the public.”

Just how much has the cost of such productions ballooned in the past decade or so?

According to Fowler, who has been a convention chairman himself, preparation of the convention hall for the Democrats’ 1988 nominating convention in Atlanta cost about $7 million.

This year, Fowler estimated that lighting, sound equipment, stage preparation and decorations at the Fleet Center will cost a minimum of $14 million but will most likely run much higher.

Fowler estimated that the DNCC’s security costs will be approximately $5 million or $6 million, not including Secret Service protection. The transportation tab will be around $5 million, and housing costs for “hosting party royalty” will come to about $3.5 million.

Mammoth expenses aside, convention planners say the results will be nothing short of spectacular.

Six weeks in the making, this year’s cutting-edge, interactive set can accommodate more than 200 people on stage at any one time during the proceedings.

The main stage will also be centered along one side of the Fleet Center’s auditorium.

A 17-foot-tall video screen will be centered over the main stage, plus 34 additional plasma screens, two wood-and-alabaster podiums that can be raised and lowered on lifts to adjust for individual speakers, and a 55-foot-wide American flag overlooking the sprawling set.

The stage also includes an additional 24 plasma screens (each 42-inch models) and 10 50-inch plasma screens that can be lifted into view or hidden out of sight depending on the action on stage. A system with five projectors has been designed to seamlessly light the massive main screen from behind, while more than 600 feet of electrical lights illuminate scenic panels and 1,000 theatrical lights shine from positions around the arena.

“If you’re one of those people who go into a Best Buy and just stare at all the television sets and dream of having a plasma screen in every room and would if your wife didn’t stop you by taking all of your credit cards away (ok, that’s me), then you will love this stage,” a writer for the official DNCC Blog excitedly reported just last week when the finishing touches were put on the set.

It’s not just all for show. Gadget-head euphoria aside, convention officials hope that the set will translate into energy for their nominee.

“Our inclusiveness is reflected in the open, dynamic environment we’ve created on our stage and throughout the Convention hall,” Rod O’Connor, CEO of the DNCC, said in a statement. He said that such a stage is an “ extraordinary and fitting backdrop for John Kerry and John Edwards to address the nation and accept the nomination” for president and vice president.

Some specialists in campaign finance note that such massive spending seems out of sync with the decreased public interest in following the two parties’ national political conventions.

“In a sense, the committees are building the stage props for a television production, with the costs going up even as hours of major network television coverage and average audience ratings have skidded,” Steve Weissman and Ruth Hassan wrote in a recent report on convention financing for the Campaign Finance Institute.

Indeed, a recent survey by the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy found that only 31 percent of those polled July 14-18 said they planned to watch most or even part of the Democratic convention.