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Duke CEO Rogers rides political, corporate intrigue into DNC

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Nineteen months after he locked hands in triumph with Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx upon landing the Democratic National Convention, host committee co-chairman Jim Rogers rides a cascade of political and corporate intrigue into convention week.

The Duke Energy CEO had already agreed to raise nearly $37 million for the convention by the time he learned the Democrats had banned the corporate contributions that normally underwrite political conventions.

Then Duke’s merger with Progress Energy took unexpected twists. Federal regulators twice denied approval before signing off on it. State officials began investigations after Duke’s board dumped the Progress chief executive who had been expected to lead the combined companies.

Rogers says he has acted in the tradition of past civic leaders who boosted Charlotte. A chance to grow economic development, he added, is good for the city and therefore for Duke.

“The important point is the rules are different, we accepted the change, and we did our very best to raise money under the new rules in an environment where there is no tradition of individuals giving money to a convention,” he said. “You can imagine a steep hill becoming much steeper.”

The aftermath of the merger, which created the nation’s largest electric utility, diverted Rogers from his DNC fundraising role, although party officials say he’s still working the phone to reach big individual donors. Now critics say Duke might have been too helpful to a convention that, for the first time, banned direct corporate aid.

A onetime newspaper reporter who grew up in Kentucky, Rogers has been highly visible as Duke’s CEO, a role he took on in 2006 when Duke merged with Cincinnati-based Cinergy. He has helped lead Charlotte’s efforts to develop a hub of energy jobs.

Duke contributed money – it won’t say how much – to help attract the convention to Charlotte. It guaranteed an unusual $10 million line of credit, prompting protests outside its headquarters by conservative picketers. Stockholders would pay for any default on the credit line.

Duke also let the host and DNC committees use 53,000 square feet of vacant space it leases uptown.

“The way the Federal Elections Commission rationalizes (in-kind) corporate contributions to host committees is that they’re really promoting the city and not involved in campaigning itself,” said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

It’s also fair, he said, to question whether the growing amount of fundraising by host committees “creates something that allows companies to circumvent (federal) restrictions. It’s certainly been true the last few election cycles.”

Critics fault the financing

Craig Holman of watchdog group Public Citizen was more blunt about Rogers and his company’s involvement: “It is highly, highly improper,” he said, in light of the scope of government business on the utility’s plate. “The conventions are not supposed to be financed by Duke Energy.”

In addition to the state investigations into the Duke-Progress merger, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission still has the merger open on its docket. Before the merger, Progress had asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend the license for a crippled nuclear plant in Florida that expires in 2016.

In 2009, Duke and Progress each received $200 million in federal stimulus money to invest in a smart energy grid. A major addition to Duke’s Cliffside power plant west of Charlotte got a $125 million “advanced coal” tax credit from the Department of Energy. A second plant under construction in Indiana, Edwardsport, got $460 million in federal, state and local tax incentives.

Duke says it expects no favoritism in return for its support of the convention.

“Duke Energy has disagreed with this administration on some issues, agreed on others, agreed with the Republicans on some issues and disagreed with them on others,” said spokesman David Scanzoni. “Our focus is on what’s best for Duke Energy and its customers and shareholders.”

Federal records show Rogers has contributed to national committees and candidates of both political parties in recent years, from North Carolina’s conservative Republican Sen. Richard Burr to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig, who studies campaign finance, said Duke’s DNC aid might violate the spirit of the Democrats’ corporate-contribution ban. But, he added, as a practical matter conventions have little appeal to donors other than hometown boosters or corporations seeking access and positive relations with political leaders.

“I don’t know how you have a convention otherwise,” he said. “The fundamentals of fundraising in anything, let alone politics, are that you go where the money is.”

The CEO hired a fundraiser at his own expense more than a year ago who helps him make calls and personal visits to potential donors as he travels. He contributed $100,000 of his own money to the convention effort.

Rogers said he had won local corporate commitments for $12 million before Charlotte’s selection and was surprised by the party’s new contribution restrictions.

He will say only that fundraising is on track to reach the nearly $37 million goal the host committee has committed to raise for the convention.

Rogers said Sunday that he was continuing to raise money “right to the bitter end” and as recently as Friday.

“Jim Rogers has done the best job he could possibly do,” said Democratic fundraiser Cam Harris. He called questions about Duke’s contributions to the convention “much ado about nothing.”

Harris added about the corporate campaign restrictions: “I don’t think they’ll ever do that again. It puts too much of a strain on the people who are trying to raise money.”

Protesters criticize Duke

Greenpeace and the Coalition to March on Wall Street South, which marched in Charlotte on Sunday, call Duke a “political double-agent” for supporting both the Democratic convention and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC has recommended legislation requiring photo identification of voters, which critics say is intended to suppress minority voting. Duke underwrote ALEC’s May meeting in Charlotte with a $50,000 donation.

“Part of our argument is that ALEC as a right-wing think tank really functions to undermine a bunch of principles that the Democratic Party has stood for,” said Monica Embrey, a Greenpeace organizer in Charlotte. “It becomes a very tricky thing when you’re accepting contributions from a group that is also undermining your principles.”

Duke has said it does not support all of ALEC’s positions but likes to be aware of policy discussions. Duke gives to several other policy groups with a wide spectrum of positions, it has said.

Despite the turmoil of recent months, Duke spokesmen say Rogers has cleared his schedule for the convention and will appear all over town at nonpolitical functions.

Party officials say he’ll be warmly welcomed. Apart from his fundraising role, Rogers has been credited with invigorating Charlotte’s energy sector and has earned the gravitas of an elder statesman on energy issues.

Rogers regularly – but not this year – mingles with world economic leaders at an annual summit in Davos, Switzerland. He’s quoted on energy by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and got former President Bill Clinton to host two DNC fundraisers.

He spoke at a Global Shapers event at the top of the Duke Energy Center on Sunday and at a National Democratic Institutions forum Monday. On Wednesday he will give brief remarks at a Forum on American Competitiveness featuring former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former presidential adviser David Gergen. He’s also having a Wednesday lunch for Reid and other senators.

“Duke’s goal from the very beginning was to promote Charlotte to the world and to drive economic development and job creation in Charlotte and the whole region,” Scanzoni said. “Getting thousands of journalists and officials from around the world is a once in a lifetime opportunity. These are seeds that can hopefully be planted, and in the years ahead hopefully Charlotte will be on their radar screen.

“We’re staying out of the politics.”

Staff writers Andrew Dunn and Jim Morrill contributed.

Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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