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Duke Energy Gives Democratic Convention Backing

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The Democratic Party will hold its national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012, and when it does, one company will be front and center. Duke Energy has taken unusual steps to back the convention -even offering its assets as a financial safety net.

From member station WFAE in Charlotte, Julie Rose reports.

JULIE ROSE: Nominating conventions are a splashy blitz of political power media attention, culminating in the all-important speech by a presidential nominee.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

President BARACK OBAMA: Thank you.

Unidentified Group: President, president, president, president.

ROSE: Remember Barack Obama in Denver? These conventions carry a hefty price tag, and the host committees in each city are responsible for paying the bills.

Organizers of the 2008 Democratic convention raised $55 million, including some corporate gifts of more than a million dollars. But there was one thing Denver's host committee CEO Mike Dino couldn't get: a line of credit to keep paying the bills if donors were slow to step up.

Mr. MIKE DINO: Everybody said, you know, a letter of credit is essentially a donation to the convention. We will make a donation to the convention effort, but we will not be doing it to the tune that you need a letter of credit that, you know, is in the several-million-dollar range.

ROSE: Denver wasn't unusual. Democratic Party officials say none of their convention cities has managed to secure a line of credit, nor have they needed one. Republican officials say their host cities haven't looked to private business for a credit guarantee, either.

But for 2012, the Democratic Party has changed its rules and will prohibit cash donations from corporations. So Charlotte leaders figured they could stand out against other cities bidding for the convention if they could get a $10 million line of credit. And they turned to their top corporate cheerleader.

Mr. JIM ROGERS (Chief Executive Officer, Duke Energy): This is going to be one of the greatest conventions ever held in this country. And we can do it.

(Soundbite of applause)

ROSE: Jim Rogers is CEO of Duke Energy, a major utility headquartered in Charlotte. Not only is he leading the effort to raise more than $36 million for the convention, he's also volunteered the assets of his company to guarantee that $10 million line of credit.

The arrangement has drawn some 13,000 signatures to an online petition at FireJimRogers.com organized by conservative activists. They were already upset with Rogers' outspoken support for legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Now they say he's putting Duke's shareholders at risk with the line of credit.

Tom Borelli of the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research says the risk is political, as much as financial.

Mr. TOM BORELLI (National Center for Public Policy): What happens in the next election if Republicans sweep? Here you have Rogers who's putting all his eggs in - from my view - in with the Democratic Party.

ROSE: Duke Energy sees it differently. Here's spokesman Tom Williams.

Mr. TOM WILLIAMS (Spokesman, Duke Energy): What we're doing is putting eggs in our hometown's basket. It's certainly not partisan. It's just all about showcasing our headquarter city and our region and our state.

ROSE: Conventions do bring a bright, if temporary, spotlight and millions of tourism dollars. But to say that Duke's support is purely nonpartisan seems a stretch to Dave Levinthal. He's with the political money watchdog Open Secrets.org.

Mr. DAVE LEVINTHAL (Open Secrets.org): If they didn't lobby the federal government to the tune of the millions of dollars that they do every year, they might be able to say: Well this is purely out of civic pride and for civic reasons. But there is a political gain to be had here.

ROSE: Disclosure records compiled by Open Secrets show Duke Energy spent more lobbying Congress last year than ever before: six and a half million dollars. Duke's political action committee also beat its previous spending records, giving nearly one and a half million dollars to both major parties.

Levinthal says going the extra mile to support the Democratic National Convention is bound to pay off.

Mr. LEVINTHAL: If Duke Energy is in its time of need going forward, they're going to be a better position to ask for a little bit of help from Democrats for having made this gesture, even if they don't ultimately tap the funds that are being put on the table.

ROSE: And the new ban on corporate cash donations for the convention means Duke Energy will likely have a higher profile than any other business when the Democratic elite come to town next year.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.