Donkey Time: My Day at the 1999 California Democratic Convention
When I volunteered to work at the State Democratic Convention held here in Sacramento, I expected two things: (1) rampant disorganization, and (2) tasty food. My friend Kate had volunteered for one or two democratic presidential campaigns, and found them chaotic. However, it seems some of the top restauranteurs in town are Democrats and have been know to provide a nightly array of arugula salads, focaccia bread and other gourmet treats.
At the training session I learned how to register delegates or those sent as proxy voters (news flash: anyone who understood, let alone cared about these political rules is a certified geek.) After the training I went to speak with the volunteer coordinator and noticed the memo on his clipboard. It was indeed titled “Talking Points.” Have these people learned nothing? To my knowledge that phrase is not used in the outside world, and at this point it immediately conjures up images of Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky. Why not just call it “KeyPoints?” I was further dismayed when I looked at what the key points were, and it read something like “Don’t worry if you’re only schedule for 4 hours”…instead of scheduled. I guess we’re proving our own point that the schools need more funding.
The volunteers needed to work 8 hours in order to get an observer pass to attend general sessions. I didn’t know this and was puzzled by all the email generated by people concerned that they had only been assigned for 4 hours. I therefore found myself expecting the volunteers to be high school students completing community service requirements…or Charlie Sheen and company completing court-ordered community service requirements. The volunteers were all ages, with quite a few earnest twenty-somethings and a few long-haired veteran activists who reminisced about marching on the Capitol to protest a nuclear plant or something. One woman was sort of a “closet Democrat” at work since she worked for the District Attorney’s office, a known Republican stronghold.
Due to an abundance of volunteers, I got reassigned from a cushy sit-down gig in registration to ushering in the main ballroom. Delegates sat according to region and our job was mostly to keep the aisles clear of loitering, or the fire marshal would shut us down. We also had to keep the roped-off areas for the assigned Honored Guests (elected officials, family, and generous donors). Nobody else in my section was willing to work at the very front, so much like when I was a forewoman on a jury, I was selected by default. (I assured them I had experience with this since I once ushered a New Kids on the Block concert. I had to tell lovestruck 12 year old girls they couldn’t go right up to the stage to give Donnie that special gift of a jarful of kisses.)
The seats were soon covered with postcard packs from Speaker Villaraigoso; the Nor Cal Democrat newspaper from Chico (because the media there is Republican controlled); and pre-printed signs in support of Governor Gray Davis and the Clinton/Gore ticket. The hand-painted signs are actually made upstairs in the volunteer room, and had slogans like “Yay for Gray,” “We Love Gray,” and inexplicably, “Dull is In.” I wasn’t sure if that was for Gray Davis or Al Gore but I thought it a dubious marketing strategy. One woman was escorted out after she started distributing booklets entitled “The Pure Evil of Al Gore.” The feature article was “Al Gore and Adolf Hitler,” by Lyndon LaRouche. I wasn’t aware that Al Gore inspired such passion!
As the delegates started streaming in, I had to find a delicate balance between my role of fawning, obsequious VIP hostess, and Chair Nazi. The key was the badge hanging around someone’s neck; were they just plain Delegates or Honored Guests? One older man had his badge tucked inside his blazer… he said he was Senator something but I didn’t actually hear his name. I didn’t want to ask and seem ignorant (though I was) so I just let him and his family sit down. Hey, Senators don’t lie.
The air was thick with superiority once the speeches started. We Are the Party of Inclusion. All Are Welcome in the Democratic Party. Republicans Are Dunderheads. (Okay, I’m extrapolating a bit with that last one.) Barbara Boxer came onstage to “Let’s Groove Tonight” by Earth, Wind & Fire. I liked her speech but mostly thought about how I’d like to sit down. Unfortunately, President Clinton canceled his appearance to stay in Washington and deal with the NATO/Kosovo situation. Tipper Gore was there in his place and she talked about de-stigmatizing mental illness, preparing our children for the future, and….did I mention my feet hurt? Everyone swarmed up front to take her picture. Once Governor Gray joined her onstage, I gave up trying to clear the aisles at all. I certainly didn’t tell the Secret Service agents to keep to the side. Point of interest: one of the agents was a woman. Like Rene Russo from “In the Line of Fire,” she wore a pantsuit (grey pin-striped), flat shoes, and was at least 5’10”. Unliked Rene Russo, she had short blonde hair and a normal sized butt.
I decided my shift was over when the morning session ended, and headed up to the volunteer office for the promised light refreshments. They turned out to be Triscuits left over from the morning, honey roasted peanuts in little packets from Southwest Airlines (donated? Pilfered?), raw vegetables, and sandwiches which were all gone by the time the ushers got there. When more sandwiches came our way from the kitchen, we intercepted them in the hallway and 2/3 of them were taken by the time the kitchen worker got to our room. We got drinks (sodas, water, coffee) but no dessert. Alas, I am not able to report that Democrats Give Good Food.
On the way out, I cruised the vendor booths for free stuff and took candy from a stranger.- a man dressed as an Easter bunny. He was also passing out a scathing letter to Senator Don Perata about a bill involving the Oakland schools. At other booths items for sale included: various hemp products, donkey beanie babies (these quickly sold out), and “John John 2000” buttons ($2). Let me be the first to say the donkey is not the world’s most attractive or versatile mascot.
The Lyndon LaRouche people were outside the Convention Center protesting; their theme was “Democrats! Stop enabling the Rose Garden Rapist!” One man wore a crown and carried a scepter. Out of curiosity, I considered talking to them on the way to my car. However, my feet voted to get home as soon as possible.