Recently, I had the privilege of being a delegate from Ohio to a Democratic National Convention for the fifth time. Prior to 1968 the purpose of these conventions was to select the party nominees for president and vice president of the USA.
Delegates were chosen by party leaders, sometimes called “bosses.” Delegates did what they were told. Few primaries were held and were considered “beauty contests” producing few if any delegates. In 1968, Democratic baby boomers rioted in the streets of Chicago, site of the Democratic Convention. They battled police as they protested the Vietnam war, President Lyndon Johnson, and prospective nominee Hubert Humphrey. The convention was disrupted. The whole world watched and Nixon was elected in November.
In 1972 Sen. George McGovern was recruited to write new rules for delegate selection, opening up the process to ordinary Democrats to be elected in primaries. Party leaders were excluded from the delegate pool, including governors and members of Congress. Using the rules he had written, McGovern was nominated for President. He carried one state, Massachusetts, and Nixon was reelected.
In the years following these disasters, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) wrote new rules opening up the process to more Democrats and requiring outreach to every race, ethnic group, color and creed. Delegates were to be equal numbers of men and women. Party leaders became delegates automatically.
Now presidential nominees of both parties are chosen prior to the conventions through primary elections and state conventions. National conventions are T.V. events to energize the faithful, clarify the message, showcase the rising stars, and criticize the opposition.
In the Democratic Party each state writes its own delegate selection plan which must be approved by the DNC. In 2008, 4,400 delegates attended the Denver convention. This year nearly 6,000 were chosen to go to Charlotte.
Ohio sent 191 delegates: 174 pledged to a candidate. These delegates were chosen at the local and state level. This year the nominee was known, and all were pledged to President Barack Obama. There were also 17 unpledged or “superdelegates” who are automatically delegates due to the office they hold including Democratic National Committee members like me, members of Congress, and distinguished party leaders, like former Gov. Ted Strickland.
Apart from attending the evening sessions at the Time Warner Arena, the most important official convention activity is the daily delegation breakfast. Attendance is required because this is the only place where each delegate receives the daily credential necessary for admission to the convention hall. You must sign your name and present your photo ID to get this all important document each day.
This is for security reasons but also because in the past the daily document could be altered thereby creating a situation where non delegates would occupy official seats leaving no seats for elected delegates. I have seen grown men cry when Ohio Chairman Chris Redfern tells them that are not going to the hall because they did not sign in for their credential at the breakfast despite being warned to do so 50 to 100 times.
Even though they began at 7:30 a.m. the breakfasts are entertaining social events with very good speakers such as Sen. Sherrod Brown; Gov. Ted Strickland; Ashley Judd, delegate from Tennessee; Jim Messina, Obama campaign manager; Jesse Jackson, Secretary of HHS; Kathleen Gilligan Sebelius; Democratic Governor’s Association President Marty O’Malley of Maryland and Dennis Lieberman, heroic ex-member of the Montgomery County Board of Elections and others.
In addition to attending formal evening sessions, many delegates attend constituent group meetings which take place after the delegation breakfasts and before the trip to the arena. These meetings recognize, among other groups, seniors, women, veterans, labor unions, Latinos, African Americans, Pacific Islanders,and rural Americans. I attended the women’s meeting and heard Secretary Sebelius and Sandra Fluke, the law student who drew the verbal scorn of Rush Limbaugh.
I attended the Rural Council which I along with other rural dwellers helped found after the 2000 election. It took three years for the DNC to give us formal recognition because so much attention is paid to urban and suburban dwellers by our party. It would surprise and please you to know that at least 200 people from Florida to California attended this meeting. We heard from Secretary of Agriculture TomVilsak, Montana Governor Brian Schweiker, and President Roger Johns of the National Farmers Union. Former DNC Chair Howard Dean gave rural Democrats a boost not only because he was from rural Vermont, but because he had a 50-state strategy for our party.
There were formal “entertainment events” for delegates and their guests.
On Sunday, there was a tour of the Mint Museum in downtown Charlotte, and a reception sponsored by the Ohio Democratic Party.
On Monday night, there was a cocktail party and reception sponsored by Duke Energy at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte. There were at least 1,000 people crushing together in a real mob scene. If you could push your way upstairs, you could use an interactive card to simulate driving a race car, or a semi or changing a tire. My husband Jim and I moved to a space with more air and watched the people who included many very good looking women wearing five-inch stiletto heels.
The event concluded with an outdoor concert by John Legend (standing room only) which we had to miss otherwise I would have been unable to arise for the breakfast. There were also “watch parties” at various restaurants held during convention hours for those who were guests of delegates. Food and drink were provided. These events lasted until 2 a.m. so that delegates could party after the gavel.
The convention sessions began at 4 p.m. Local T.V. started at 5 p.m. and national at 8 p.m. My favorite parts excluding President and Mrs. Obama and President Clinton, were the films and then the live speeches by average Americans such as the family whose infant had reached her lifetime insurance limits now outlawed by the Affordable Care Act; the Cincinnati firefighter; the auto worker from Mahoning County who got her job back due to the auto bailout and others. I was astounded by their poise and confidence when addressing a live audience of thousands and a T.V. audience of millions. Their messages were a testament to their courage and grit.
My favorite part of the convention took place in the hall. I love being around other Democrats from all parts of the country. I love hearing the speeches from our rising stars, I love partisan cheering, which I view as a form of primal scream therapy. It’s a lot like going to an Ohio State game if you are a real fan; an exhausting experience but a meaningful one. If they continue to hold these things and you get a chance to go, do it. It is uniquely American and always unforgettable.
Enid Goubeaux is a superdelegate to the Democratic National Convestion. Enid can be reached by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.