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A journey through the 2012 Democratic National Convention

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She is steady on her feet, and her eyes are aglow. "I pledge allegiance to the flag," former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords begins, "of the United States of America."

Shot in the head by a man outside a grocery store near Tucson 20 months ago, Giffords' appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte is the emotional pinnacle of an event with multiple dramatic peaks.

Her friend Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman and the chair of the Democratic National Committee, guides Gifford to the rostrum, holds her hand and prompts her to begin.

From there, Giffords is in charge. "And to the Republic for which it stands," she sings out, "one nation, under God, indivisible."

Giffords is still relearning the process of language, and she loses one word, which makes the remaining words more memorable.

"Liberty and justice for all!"

Giffords beams. Wasserman Schultz squeezes her hand. And the convention hall explodes in tears and cheers.

Friday, Sept. 7

I'm back in Raleigh and watching an online replay of Giffords. The feeling she imparted to Pledge—one nation, indivisible; with liberty and justice—was like a tonic for a party that's also been relearning how to say what it means.

I'm a registered Democrat, and have been since George McGovern. But for much of that time, being a Democrat has caused me more irritation than pride. A few years ago, someone said that the problem with Democratic candidates is that they're afraid what would happen if people knew what they truly think. So they talk among themselves, and make bold statements about women's rights, gay rights, peace and the rest, only to go out in public and hedge their beliefs with an understanding nod to the opposite viewpoint.

That's the Democratic Party I knew. But it's not the party I saw in Charlotte.

The party I saw in Charlotte is one transformed by its diversity. Democrats aren't just talking about the benefits of inclusion; they are inclusive, and it's changed them.

And it isn't just the same old men—straight white men—saying that they want women to be equal some day, along with gays, blacks and browns. No, the Democrats in Charlotte are the party of women and gays, Latinos and African-Americans as well as straight white men, many of them young and working-class.

Democrats are transformed, too, by the gravity of the issues facing the country. And here I mean the Democrats who were outside the convention hall, marching and agitating, as well as party insiders like Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who brought the convention to its feet Tuesday night when he declared, "It is time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe.

"Quit waiting for pundits or polls or Super PACs to tell us who the next president or senator or congressman will be," Patrick shouted over the din. "We are Americans. We shape our own future."

The convention erupted.

I'd heard much the same message on the street two days earlier when I walked with 1,000 activists in their March on Wall Street South. These were folks divided between the party's left wing and other left-wingers who don't identify as Democrats because they consider both political parties corrupt.

The marchers were calling for participatory democracy, for being proactive: fighting for causes, instead of waiting for your next president, senator or congressman to furnish people with their fair share of liberty and justice.

"What has an impact is organizing on the ground and mobilizing people and really expressing our voices and making people in office be accountable to us," said Bryan Perlmutter, an N.C. State University senior and a volunteer coordinator for the march. "And not just pulling the lever once every four years or two years and expecting things to change."

A question mark coming into the convention was how President Obama would deal with the diminished hope and stifled change of his first term—a consequence of unbending Republican opposition. How, if the Republicans keep it up, can Obama hope to bring change in a second term?

The answer is, he can't.

That's what Obama said in his acceptance speech Thursday. He can't. But you—if you choose to—can. And a transformed Democratic Party can. "The election four years ago was never about me," the president said. "It was about you. You were the change."

It was as if Obama were channeling Rodstarz, a Bronx rapper I met on the march last Sunday. That's where my convention week began.

Sunday, Sept. 2

Downtown Charlotte—the Uptown—is almost deserted when I drive in at about 9 in the morning. Deserted, that is, except for hundreds of uniformed police and other officers, including Secret Service. They've closed most of the streets around the convention to ordinary traffic (large black SUVs seem to get through, however) and thrown up a security wall around the Uptown to control pedestrian traffic. It isn't that you can't get in. But you can't get in carrying a bomb.

Frazier Park, the starting and end point of the March on Wall Street South, is north of the Uptown, outside the security perimeter. When I arrive, speakers are railing against corporate corruption, environmental destruction, the plight of the jobless, and the evils of racism, sexism and homophobia.

You know, what Democrats' agenda should be.

The turnout is below organizers' expectations. But the vibe is strong and, despite 90-degree heat, people are charged up. They're negatively charged about Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, which following its takeover of Progress Energy is the nation's biggest electric and gas utility.

Duke's CEO, Jim Rogers, is co-chair of Charlotte2012, the official host committee, and he raised millions from corporate sponsors and wealthy individuals to support convention events. He's accused, along with Duke, of "dirty business practices." A Charlotte Greenpeace organizer, Monica Embrey, zeroes in on Duke's coal-burning plants that contribute to global warming, pollute the air and are supplied by destructive "mountaintop removal" mining.

"We want a movement that takes on corporate greed," Embrey tells the crowd. "We want justice for all people and for our planet!"

The march route takes us past Bank of America's headquarters (hence, the Wall Street South name) and Duke Energy. En route, I see a banner hanging from an enclosed overhead walkway. "Feel the Energy," it reads. "We Make It Possible."

It's the Charlotte2012 committee's banner, obviously referring to Duke. What surprises me is that the banner features, in the center, a wild-eyed African-American man with a huge Afro, dyed blue. Is Duke Energy touting radical change? No.

The Afro is dyed Carolina Panthers blue, and the man is clad in an official Panthers football jersey. For the Democratic convention, the energy that Duke Energy wants you to feel is for spectator sports, not political action.

Then a troupe of drummers comes up behind me, pounding a beat to the chants of "This is what democracy looks like."

Alongside, a half-dozen young men and women are dashing by in T-shirts that salute Fidel Castro. They are the RDACBX, their leader says—a hip-hop organization formally known as the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective of the Bronx, New York. His name is Rodstarz.

"Our culture is resistance," Rodstarz says. "We come from the poorest communities. At the end of the day, we're not going to wait for people to speak to us. We're going to speak for our communities."

And the Castro motif? It's an image to make people "look sideways" at them, one of the crew shouts out. RDACBX steps out in double-time.

Can street politics really influence the decisions of elected politicians?

The answer, from the marchers I meet, is that direct-action methods are the only way to affect their decisions. Change the culture, and the politics will follow.

Monday, Sept. 3

The convention hasn't started, and it won't until tomorrow night. But the North Carolina delegation is meeting for breakfast in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where most are staying, a few blocks east of the center of things.

One of the guest speakers is Julianna Smoot, deputy manager of President Obama's re-election campaign, who says North Carolina's volunteers have done the best job of registering voters. Thank you for that, Smoot says, because North Carolina is one of the 10 or 11 battleground states that will decide the presidential election.

Smoot also gives a shout out to Jim Rogers of Duke Energy for his skillful fundraising.

Uptown Charlotte is starting to fill, including an estimated 15,000 credentialed media types like me. Additional hordes are coming in on the Lynx, the city's light-rail service, for CarolinaFest, a Charlotte2012 street fair featuring Tar Heel icon James Taylor.

But I'm headed the other way. At a church few miles from Uptown, 200 labor rights and immigrant activists are holding a Southern Workers Assembly. It is Labor Day, after all.

Among the speakers is Baldemar Velasquez, founder and president of the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). Velasquez won a MacArthur "genius" grant in the '80s, when FLOC won a historic contract with Campbell Soup Company, even though Campbell insisted that it didn't employ any farm workers. Not directly, anyway.

In 2004, FLOC made history again with the first labor contract for farm workers in North Carolina, which Velasquez signed with the Mount Olive Pickle Company.

In each case, FLOC boycotts of company products, plus exposés of squalid farm labor conditions meant to embarrass company executives, caused Campbell and Mount Olive to sign three-party contracts in which the companies agreed to pay higher prices to their growers, and the growers agreed to pass the gains to their workers, most of them immigrants.

Velasquez is back in North Carolina, he says, leading an organizing effort aimed at Reynolds American, parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Once again, the issue is lousy pay and working conditions for the farm laborers who pick tobacco.

And again, he tells me, FLOC's strategy is to shine a public spotlight on conditions in the fields and tie them to Reynolds and to distributors of Reynolds products, one of which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway—Warren Buffett's company.

"The distribution of the money that's made in the tobacco industry is skewed to the upward side," Velasquez says, "and we say you've got to change that and infuse cash into the supply chain to reach the bottom."

Velasquez has some advice about how to answer Republicans who call aid to immigrant workers—many in the U.S. illegally—"amnesty."

Migrants come illegally, he says, because free-trade agreements have driven down crop prices in their home countries, making it impossible for them to feed their families. "They have one word, amnesty," Velasquez says. "Our word must be hunger."

Reframing the argument on hunger could force even the harshest immigration critics to reconsider, he says. Change the anti-immigrant culture, he says, and political change becomes possible.

By the way, James Taylor was rained out.

Tuesday, Sept. 4

The convention takes place in the Time Warner Cable Arena. The loudest people around it are anti-abortion activists, with their loudspeakers and gory pictures of fetuses. The biggest numbers belong to the pink-clad forces of Planned Parenthood, who are signing up supporters in T-shirts that say "Yes, We Plan."

Planned Parenthood and its services, including contraception, are under attack by Republicans who want to cut its funding to serve low-income women.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the group's political arm, has an event under way at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a block from the convention center, and is promising a counterattack. But when I arrive on the Lynx at noon, the police stop me from entering.

They have some protesters surrounded—Wikileaks supporters—and are preventing them from marching on the convention. But the cordon around the protesters prevents everyone else from reaching the NASCAR hall. No exceptions.

Stymied, I head for the nearby Westin Hotel, where serious convention business is happening in the lobby. At one table, the Speaker of the New York City Council, Christine Quinn is holding court. Quinn, is planning a run for mayor of New York City in 2013. If she wins, she'll not only be the city's first female mayor but also its first openly gay mayor. The people with her, I'm told, are major donors to gay-rights causes.

By 5 p.m., when Wasserman Schultz gavels the convention into session, I've taken a seat in the upper reaches of Time Warner Arena, high above the stage and speakers' rostrum. I'll be there for the next six hours, until First Lady Michelle Obama finishes and the session ends.

Six hours of non-stop speeches: I expect to be bored at some point, leave and watch the First Lady on television. Instead, I am riveted by what becomes, for me, an immersion course in the new, emboldened Democratic Party.

For one thing, most of the star speakers are women. Lilly Ledbetter, for whom a landmark law on equal pay for women is named, gives a barnburner speech. So does Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez of New York and a half-dozen other female House members.

And it isn't just the fact that women are speaking. It's what they're saying. They've had it with Republicans—men, mostly—dictating the terms of their health insurance and whether it can cover contraception. They've had it with Republican efforts, in the U.S. House and in state legislatures from North Carolina to Idaho, to obstruct women seeking to have an abortion.

The best speech on women's issues is the simplest one, and it's delivered by Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, to a tumultuous reception.

"I am proud to say that the Democratic Party believes that women have the right to choose a safe, legal abortion with dignity and privacy," Keenan declares. "We believe in funding family planning because it helps to prevent unintended pregnancy. We believe that a woman considering an abortion should not be forced to have an ultrasound against her will. We believe that rape is rape." (The last is a reaction to Republicans who think there's a difference between forcible rape and some other kind.)

Keenan's language is straight from the party platform. For years, Democrats have employed euphemisms—about reproductive rights and women's health—to indicate that they support a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy, without, however, saying the word abortion. By doing so, they failed to defend a medical procedure that is common and legal (the Supreme Court said so) against the anti-abortionists who call it murder.

But no longer. Democrats are speaking freely about abortion and a woman's right to choose. And they're pushing back hard against a Republican Party whose platform this year calls for a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions, including in cases of rape or incest.

And if the Democrats' embrace of women's rights is electric, their all-out support for gay rights is even more stunning.

Four years ago, Democrats were split on repealing the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy; gays struggled, as The New York Times' Adam Nagourney reported, to even be recognized in the party.

This year, the Democratic platform endorses gay marriage, following President Obama's lead. Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, proudly gay, is a featured speaker. Ditto Democratic Party Treasurer Andy Tobias. And straight Democrats compete to see who can be the most outspoken against discrimination based on sexual orientation or, as Michelle Obama terms it, "who you love."

Democrats are also thrilled by the Hispanics in their ranks. The keynote tonight is delivered by San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. He talks about how his immigrant grandmother cleaned houses so her daughter could get ahead, which in turn opened the door for her children, Julián and his twin brother Joaquin, to earn degrees from Stanford and Harvard Law School.

Was it just two years ago when members of the DREAM Team pitched their tents in Raleigh and began a hunger strike? That was the first time that I'd ever heard of the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented young people a route to citizenship if they were brought to this country as children by their parents.

Tonight, a DREAM Team leader from Texas, Benita Veliz, is addressing the convention. She was her high school valedictorian and earned a college degree.

In two whirlwind years, the DREAM Act has moved from hunger strikes to an article of faith among Democrats—though House Republicans continue to block it.

That's changing the culture to make political change possible.

So fascinating are the breakthrough roles of women, gay and Hispanic Democrats that the evening is over by the time I realize that four of the best speeches tonight were given by black Democrats.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx spoke of growing up in low-income households and, like the Castro brothers, achieving success because of good public schools and access to federal grants and low-interest loans for college. So did Deval Patrick. So did Michelle Obama, who described in moving terms how she and Barack rose from modest beginnings thanks to loving parents, good grades and student loans.

As comedian Jon Stewart will quip later, "Democrats showed their diversity by filling the convention with"—wait for it—"Democrats."

Democrats also stand for the proposition that if you succeed, you should pay your fair share of taxes so future generations—and the country—can do so as well. As Castro put it, "The opportunity you create today brings prosperity tomorrow."

It's Democratic canon. The Republicans call it class warfare.

Wednesday, Sept. 5

If you don't think former President Bill Clinton eviscerated the Republican agenda tonight in his 48-minute talk, you're reading the wrong story.

After the speeches Tuesday, Democrats are floating through Charlotte today, pinching themselves at how well their convention is going. On TV, the pundits agree.

My Wednesday's a little different. I watch a film about childhood hunger in America, part of the convention-sponsored Impact Film Festival at an Uptown Charlotte entertainment emporium, the EpiCentre.

The film is produced by Share Our Strength, a nonprofit. Introducing it, Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern, a Democrat, says he hopes people who see it will be inspired—"and also ashamed"—by the fact that16 million children struggle with hunger. (The film was also screened last month at the Republican Convention in Tampa.)

McGovern says that $1 billion appropriated by Congress for nutrition programs will go unspent this year because the programs are run by state governments. And in many states, delivering food to the poor isn't a priority.

Afterward, I follow a friend into a tony restaurant where the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) is hosting friends. (Later, I learn that the event was off-limits to reporters.) There I hear Chris Murphy, a Democratic congressman who's running for the Senate in Connecticut, talk about why he entered politics. It was because of a polluted river near his home, he says. Initially, he volunteered for river cleanups. But after awhile, he realized that what the river needed was stronger laws against pollution.

Murphy is an LCV favorite, and he should be far ahead in Connecticut, where environmentalism is like a second religion and registered Democrats outnumber the Republicans. But he's not ahead, he says. He's in a neck-and-neck race with Republican Linda McMahon, of the pro wrestling McMahons.

That's because McMahon's rich—she spent $50 million on a losing Senate bid in 2010. Murphy doesn't need to match her dollar-for-dollar. He does need to spend enough so the voters know that he, not McMahon, is the environmentalist in the race.

For all their advantages on demographics and issues, the Democrats still have an Achilles' heel when it comes to money. Thanks to the billionaires in their ranks, the Republicans have much more of it. Which presents the Democrats with a dilemma: Try to win while being outspent? Or turn to Wall Street for contributions and be hypocrites?

Thursday, Sept. 6

It has been pouring in Charlotte, and Democrats decide to move President Obama's acceptance speech out of the 72,000-seat Bank of America football stadium and into the 20,000-seat Time Warner Cable Arena. I head back for Raleigh.

Before I do, though, I stop in at the North Carolina delegation's final breakfast session to ask how they're feeling. Not surprisingly, folks are somewhere between fine and exultant.

Charlotte Rep. Corey Moore says the convention "was transformative," for African-Americans, because it tells young people there are no limits to how far they can go, in politics or the private sector.

Still, Moore says, the vitriolic reaction to President Obama by some tells him "there was a scab on racism, and the president's election pulled it off," revealing a wound that remains unhealed.

Women in the delegation are thrilled by the party's advocacy. "It was a great convention for women," says Chapel Hill Rep. Verla Insko. "The thing that I really loved about it was, there were no apologies for women's issues."

"Tuesday was magical," Cary Rep. Jennifer Weiss adds. "Just speech after speech. It was inspirational." And throughout the convention, Weiss says, women's issues and family planning were presented, not in isolation but as keys to economic growth and women's roles as breadwinners supporting their families.

For LGBTQ delegates, the convention was better than they had imagined.

"It's been beautiful," Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says. "It wasn't, 'here's your label, here's your fill-in-the-blank diversity.' [Convention speakers] described us as people, as human beings in relationships, and they're important relationships, as important as anyone else's."

Put aside the Republican Party's flag-waving, says Ryan Butler, a Greensboro lawyer who heads the state Democrats' LGBTQ caucus. "The Democratic Party," he says, "is the one supporting freedom and justice for everyone."

As LGBTQ delegates gather to talk with reporters, I chat with Janice Covington, who is trans and one of 13 LGBTQ delegates from North Carolina. She does stand-up comedy, and tells me I missed a great show Monday night at Wet Willie's, where she headlined a convention-eve bill.

Turning serious, Covington says she's trying to get out to rural North Carolina, where voters overwhelmingly backed the anti-LGBTQ Amendment 1 referendum in May. "The more they get to know us, the more they realize we deserve to be able to fall in love—regardless of gender."

Covington aspires to be the first transgender member of Congress. She comes to Raleigh often, she says, and promises to be in touch. Me too.

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