At Manny's Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis, general manager Randy Stanley shows off his empty kitchen during a quiet lunch hour. Manny's is a dinner-only operation. But Stanley plans to expand hours, serving breakfast and lunch, during next year's Republican National Convention.
"Our expectation level is to help introduce the Twin Cities to a national crowd," Stanley said. "If we can get people who entertain nationally frequently, it helps spread the word about what a charming and wonderful place Minnesota is."
Stanley says Manny's has entered into an exclusive relationship with Take '08 Events Unlimited. The new St. Paul company will coordinate wining and dining at dozens of locations during the GOP convention.
"We're doing our very small part to make sure that the convention goes really well," said Ryan Kelly, director of client services for Take '08 Events Unlimited.
The firm was started by Sen. Norm Coleman's former chief of staff, Erich Mische. Kelly, who's the son of former St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, described the company as as a one-stop shop for corporations, national trade associations and other organizations that might be unfamiliar with the Twin Cities.
"What we're doing is helping those folks who have a great need for services, venues, party planning, lodging, transportation and all that kind of stuff," Kelly said. "We're helping connect them with local venues, vendors and all that so they can have an exceptionally good convention-going experience and prepare for that stuff ahead of time."
“It's almost like paying to have somebody run a dating service. “Prof. David Schultz, Hamline University
The GOP convention will draw an estimated 30,000 people. And many special interest groups will spend lavishly to spread their message.
Steve Knuth, the owner of a St. Paul government relations firm, teamed up with other veteran lobbyists to form "GOP Convention Strategies." Knuth said the Twin Cities area has less capacity than other convention cities. He said visiting business leaders will need help.
"We're interested in making sure that our corporate clients get the most bang for their buck when they come to be part of the convention," Knuth said. "We want to make sure that they have the best possible experience that they can have in the Twin Cities. And most of them not familiar with the Twin Cities want to make sure they have someone on the ground to facilitate the events that they're planning and make sure they maximize their opportunity here."
These self-proclaimed convention specialists are selling who they know as much as what they know. And knowing the right Republicans could open doors.
Joe Weber said his enterprise, known as Twin Cities Strategies, offers a large network of relationships. Weber, who owns a St. Paul public affairs company, has teamed up with his brother and former congressman Vin Weber. Jack Meeks, a longtime national GOP committeeman, is also involved. Weber said potential clients don't just want to throw big parties. He said they also want media coverage and time with key lawmakers.
"What we're seeing in our conversations with potential clients is that they like the PR opportunities that are presented and also some of the lobbying opportunities, where we've got all of these politicians captive in one place for a long weekend," Weber said.
Weber and his competing consultants are charging for a service that lobbyists have routinely provided in past conventions.
Hamline University Professor David Schultz is not surprised by the new strategy. Schultz said the brokering of political connections is a valuable skill.
"It appears that there are people who are willing to pay big money to be able to have these kind of people get people together," Schultz said. "It's almost like paying to have somebody run a dating service. You would think people would be able to find people to date on their own, but they go to dating services to make it easier to be able to connect."
Schultz says he's troubled that millions of dollars will be spent on such services without public scrutiny. Convention-related spending is largely exempt from campaign finance laws.