Sacramento convention delegates and party progressives are told to keep their eyes on the prize
Harold Fong thoughtfully adjusted his glasses as throngs of delegates, staff, reporters and security people jostled by him in the hallway just outside an entrance to the main hall of Boston’s Fleet Center. In just about two hours, John F. Kerry would stride onstage and accept the Democratic nomination for president, in a speech pundits have called the bravura performance of his political career. It would be the culmination of four days of caucus meetings and warm-up speakers, from past presidents to governors to a 13-year-old girl who said that Vice President Dick Cheney should have a “time out” for using a dirty word on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The whole event was designed to hammer home the Democrats’ message this year, party unity, to keep the faithful focused on their objective, beating George W. Bush—and never mind the details.
Fong, a 55-year-old delegate from Sacramento, is no rebel. Neatly dressed in a tweed jacket and red tie, with a worried look on his face, he quietly called the president “dangerous.” He sees another four years of a Bush administration as “a road to tyranny.” Kerry’s speech later that night would ask Americans to look at big ideas, the ideals of American freedom, “family and faith … and opportunity for all.” Fong has no questions there. But he wonders just exactly how a Kerry administration would manage it.
“They want to make everything gray,” Fong said, echoing concerns about the party platform’s vagueness that other party stalwarts voice when they appear off-camera and out of prime time. Fong, who works for the state of California managing funding for rural and farmworker health clinics, is worried that the party’s platform is long on good intentions but short on specific ideas for carrying them out. “It’s not that the party’s divided,” Fong said. “It’s just that some people want it to be stronger, more specific.”
Chios Holguin, a Latina lesbian delegate from Davis, would have preferred more explicit support for gay rights. “The thought this time is to create as unified a front as we possibly can,” she said. “They are being very political and very shrewd.”
Even party loyalists like Sam Farr, a congressman from Santa Cruz, called the platform “pretty bland.”
“But we’re out there drowning,” he was quick to add. “We’ll deal with the direction the boat is going once we get on it.”
Fong calls himself a progressive on social issues, but fiscally he considers himself more conservative. And he’s afraid that the Green and Peace and Freedom parties have grown, “and the party needs to have a bigger tent,” he said.
On Thursday afternoon, progressives held their own counter convention in the gymnasium of a community college across town from the Fleet Center. Hand-lettered signs Scotch-taped to the doors let the thousand or so who turned up for the “Progressive Democratic Convention” know they were in the right place. In the main gym, the basketball hoops were moved up out of the way, and, just like at the main convention, signs for each of the states and territories let people know where to sit.
Presidential contender Howard Dean introduced himself with his new campaign slogan: “Hi, I’m Howard Dean, and I’m voting for John Kerry.” But the entire room was on its feet for the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and now de-facto leader of the U.S. progressive movement, presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. One week earlier, Kucinich had released his delegates. Then on Wednesday, he’d spoken to all the Democrats from the convention floor, with a unity message tailored for the whole nation. But at the progressive convention, these were his people.
“You don’t agree with John Kerry; we know that,” he said. “But let’s look at those things that unite us. … We’re on the way to creating a new world. … This is not the beginning of the progressive movement. … You are here to reshape the consensus of this election,” he said. At the end of his frenzy of oratory, the room was stomping and shouting, “Kerry! Kerry! Kerry!”
But outside in the hall after the rally, Kucinich talked about how he had gone to the party’s platform committee meeting in Miami in early July to get his ideas incorporated. His main goal had been to get the committee to include a commitment to withdrawing American troops from Iraq. He came away with an understanding “that there’s a desire not to have a permanent occupation,” he said.
Kucinich conceded that he had not gotten anywhere with domestic issues, either.
Kucinich also said he was concerned that the convention had been sparsely covered on network television. “Network television has an absolute obligation to cover the political conventions of both political parties,” he said. Television critics have said that the convention was a political infomercial, and that’s why it wasn’t well-covered. “This isn’t supposed to be a scripted Hollywood production,” Kucinich said. “When a convention interests people is when it shows energy and heart. And I’m not saying this doesn’t have it,” he quickly added. “But the networks have an obligation.”
Similar criticisms were voiced at that morning’s breakfast for California’s huge 500-member delegation in their hotel’s ballroom in downtown Boston.
MSNBC’s newest commentator, Willie Brown, said the party needed to rethink its convention strategy and find new ways to attract a younger audience. “There’s a reason why Cheers isn’t on TV anymore,” San Francisco’s newest ex-mayor said.
At the same breakfast, Jesse Jackson said he was giving the speech he couldn’t give the night before—when he had appeared during prime time from the floor.
He opened with a qualifier: “You got to get in line, no matter how excited you are. Even if you’re jumping around, you can’t jump offsides,” he said. Jackson brought up comedienne Whoopi Goldberg’s Bush-and-Dick routine at a Kerry fund-raiser.
“You get Whoopi,” Jackson said, “what do you expect? You’re going to get Whoopi.”
But back in the convention hall that night, as the building filled with delegates for what would be the grand launch of Kerry’s campaign, Fong’s main worry remained the lack of specificity in the platform and in the candidate’s commitments. “After November, it’s a different ballgame,” he said, noting his confidence in both Kerry and Edwards because of their track records in delivering on their promises. “Once we win, I believe that the other things will follow,” he said. “I just want the election to be over so we can get back to discussing issues.”
Fong said he was taking his son to Disneyworld in Florida after the convention was over. Working his way across the now jammed hallway toward the entrance to the convention floor, he turned back and smiled in anticipation of the trip to the Magic Kingdom. “That’s where the real things are happening,” he said.