Sunday, August 24, 2008

Democratic Delegates: A Look Back

Democrats from across the country (and from overseas U.S. territories, as well) are gathering in Denver this weekend for their party's national convention, which opens tomorrow at the Pepsi Center.

Twelve years ago, I attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a correspondent for the Metro Herald, a weekly newspaper published in Alexandria, Virginia. I eventually filed four stories that ran consecutively in September and October, each with photographic illustrations. (The 1996 Democratic convention ended the Friday before Labor Day, rather late in the season, much like this year's Republican convention in St. Paul, which begins on Labor Day itself.)

Over the past couple of months, I have posted two of those articles: "Protest and Dissent: The People Speak" and "Feeding Frenzy: The News Media at the Democratic Convention".

Here is the third, a look at the delegates from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia who participated in the 1996 Democratic National Convention, as it appeared in The Metro Herald in October of that year. (Click on the photos to embiggen and make the captions legible.)

Doing the Macarena: The Democratic Convention's Delegates
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
Exclusive to the Metro Herald

Democratic Party officials were proud of what they called the "diversity" of their convention's delegates. Certainly in racial and ethnic terms, the 1996 Democratic National Convention was diverse. According to a survey by the Chicago Sun-Times, of the 4,320 delegates, 67 percent of delegates were white, 18 percent were black, 9 percent were Hispanic, 3 percent were Asian, and 1 percent were native American. If the convention was trying to "look like America," it came close in these terms -- although blacks and Hispanics were somewhat overrepresented while whites were underrepresented in comparison to the general population.

If one looks at professions, however, the Democratic delegates looked far different from America. Fully 27 percent of delegates were members of labor unions (largely public employees or teachers unions), 24 percent were elected officials, only 13 percent were business people (with the same percentage of attorneys), and 12 percent were teachers. Since fewer than 10 percent of American workers now belong to a labor union, the percentage of union members at the Democratic convention is quite astounding. It explains in large measure how the Democratic Party approaches issues of employment, including minimum wage laws and requirements for paid leave and insurance coverage.

What was not mentioned much during the convention was the fact that a large fraction of delegates -- perhaps more than one-third -- earn over $100,000 a year. When it came to light that many delegates at the Republican convention fell into that tax bracket, the GOP was criticized for not "looking like America." The Democrats somehow escaped such criticism.

The delegates also spanned a large age range. The Sun-Times reported that the convention's oldest delegate (at 93) was former Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana, who served both as Senate Majority Leader and as U.S. Ambassador to Japan in his long career. Two 17-year-olds were the convention's youngest delegates, Paul Kraus of Dubuque, Iowa, and Ida Rukavina of Virginia, Minnesota.

Diversity in age, race, and career did not, however, translate into diversity of ideas. Most observers agreed that the delegates represented the left-wing activists of the Party far more than the moderates in the Democratic grassroots or the moderate image presented by the Party's standardbearers, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. The platform was not subject to debate, and delegates rubberstamped the document even after an unannounced change was inserted in the published version, modifying the party's stance on welfare reform from opposition to the Republican welfare bill (as the platform stated before the bill was passed) to support for the bill (as the platform stated, on orders from the White House, after President Clinton signed the bill into law). Few dissident voices were heard on any issue.

This subject came up in a conversation with Virginia delegate Adam Ebbin, who lives in Alexandria. Asked for his impressions of the convention, Ebbin answered: "Spirited, a lot of energy, a lot of fun but people are pretty serious about re-electing the President. We've got unity, but we're not silencing different points of view." This seemed an interesting statement, given the Democrats' record for denying opportunities to anti-abortion proponents to speak from the podium or convention floor, so I inquired further: "Have there been any pro-life speakers?" Ebbin paused and said: "None that I've heard yet." I pressed him: "So there are some points of view that are not completely represented?" Ebbin's response: "That's not true. See you later." At that, he cut the interview off and left the floor.

Since the delegates had no real responsibilities during the convention -- as reported in these pages earlier (Metro Herald, September 27), U.S. political conventions have forsaken their roles as forums for debate, discussion, and decisionmaking -- they relieved the boredom by repeated renditions of the dance craze the Macarena, various stretching exercises, and feeble attempts at "the Wave." When Vice President Al Gore came to speak on Wednesday night, he joked about his own reputation for stiffness and the convention's ad nauseum macarena-izing by saying he wanted to demonstrate the dance, then standing perfectly still. The audience laughed, on cue.

"On cue" may be the operative phrase for the entire convention so far as the delegates were concerned. For the Democratic Party, the delegates were mostly props for a four-day television event.

Through subtle manipulation of lights and sound, the delegates laughed, applauded, sobbed, and sat in stone silence according to the needs of the organizers. Convention runners were tasked with distributing signs ("Welcome Home Hillary" or "Gore" or "Clinton" -- all in variations of red, white, or blue, of course) at sharply defined times in a strict schedule, so that when the order was given, the delegate-automatons waved the signs, cheered, whistled, or stomped their feet. Discipline was strong, but coercion was invisible. Discipline was achieved through clever psychological ploys rather than through threats of punishment or promises of reward.

Some of the delegates, of course, had real roles to play, but that was mostly "off-stage" -- that is, during the hours that the convention was not in session. These delegates were primarily elected officials or candidates who used the gathering of some 10,000 Democrats to raise money, collect friends, and influence people. Among the prominent candidates were former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who faces a tough but close race in his attempt to unseat longtime Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Gantt's broad smile and friendly handshake was much in evidence throughout Chicago, but particularly on the convention floor.

Each day, in the hours before the official convention "business" opened, delegates met in state caucuses at various hotels around Chicago. These caucuses provided opportunities to discuss political events back home and also to receive visits from high-profile Democrats, such as Jesse Jackson, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, or Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Favored delegations also met with Vice President Gore or his wife.

Some of the delegates were worried about the upcoming elections back home. Eve Wilson of McLean, Democratic chairwoman for Virginia's 10th Congressional District, expressed her views about the three-way race for the House of Representatives in her district, where incumbent Republican Frank Wolf faces Libertarian challenger Gary Reams and second-time Democratic challenger Stanley Weinberg.

"We have 10 counties and three cities in the 10th District," she said. "It's the fastest growth area in Virginia and a very exciting area to be in." The Metro Herald asked her what she thought of the Democratic Party's prospects in the November election. "I don't think the prospects are very good," she said, adding: "I think it's a very tough district. You've got an incumbent who's been there a very long time, even though he himself had promised to serve only 12 years," and of course that was 16 years ago. "I think he's running now on publicity, okay? People are really questioning what he does and he's actually as far right as you can go."

Wilson was asked whether 10th District Democrats have a "groundswell of support for term limits." She replied: "No, not necessarily. I think we're divided on it."

In comparison to the Republican convention, which had only about half as many delegates, there were far more elected officials of prominence attending the Chicago celebration. For instance, Virginia Senator John Warner chose not to go to San Diego, but his counterpart from the Democratic side of the aisle, Chuck Robb, was very much in evidence. Local elected officials seen enjoying themselves in Chicago included D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Councilmembers Jack Evans and Harry Thomas, and Maryland officials ranging from Senators Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski to Governor Parris Glendening and U.S. Representative Al Wynn. Virginia's 8th District Representative, Jim Moran, dutifully sat through the proceedings on the convention floor, joined -- no doubt -- by over a hundred of his congressional colleagues.

As Chicago conventions go, this one was small -- only the 17th largest of conventions meeting in the Windy City in 1996. With 35,000 attendees (10,000 delegates and guests plus 15,000 media representatives), the Democratic convention is dwarfed by a high-technology gathering planned for November, which expects to attract over 125,000 people. Yet because of the high profile of political conventions, Chicago pulled out all the stops -- and rolled out the red carpet -- so that these influential attendees went home with positive impressions and words of encouragement to friends and neighbors to visit the city on Lake Michigan. Millions of dollars were spent to encourage good feelings, but in return, Chicago received tens of millions of dollars of tourism revenue. Mayor Richard Daley no doubt felt both exhausted and elated when the convention closed on August 29. So, I'm sure, did the thousands of delegates from around the country.

It's interesting how some things change, but others remain the same:

Eleanor Holmes Norton is still the congressional delegate from D.C., and Marion Barry and Jack Evans still serve on the District Council. Chuck Robb is no longer in the U.S. Senate, however, having been defeated by George Allen in 2000, who was in turn defeated by Jim Webb in 2006. Paul Sarbanes retired from the Senate, but Barbara Mikulski still represents Maryland there. Adam Ebbin is now a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and Jim Moran still represents Virginia's 8th Congressional District.

Even in 1996, opponents of Frank Wolf were reminding voters that he had pledged to serve no more than 12 years in Congress, something his opponents are still doing today, nearly 28 years after he was first elected.

At least nobody is doing the macarena these days.

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