It hit home this past weekend that I am not cut out for being a convention delegate. I have always been a reluctant participant in party politics of any kind, and an avoider of crowds. Worse yet, I am nearly a teetotaler.
Conventions are for the crowd-happy party-lovers — as one Democrat promised, the meeting in Spokane would put the "party" back in Democratic politics. In another party reference, one attendee chided gubernatorial challenger Dino Rossi for eschewing the "Republican" label on the "top-two" primary ballot, choosing instead to identify as a member of the GOP party — or "Grand Old Party party."
Perhaps this is a subtle signal that Republicans want us to think they have more fun. More likely, it's a sign that they might as well "party on" as they sink under the millstone that is George W. Bush's legacy: an unpopular war in Iraq, economic mess at home, $4 gas (if you're lucky — I paid up to $4.60 per gallon on my cross-state trip), and on and on.
State Democrats are counting on it. Conventions are a chance for the party's loyalists to get on message for the fall. One thing I learned is that the Republicans have a full slate of candidates for state office that Dems are eager to take on. They include George W. Rossi, George W. McKenna, George W. Sutherland, George W. Reed, George W. "Doc" Hastings, and George W. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
While Barrack Obama lights up the top of the ticket for most Washington Democrats, focus in Spokane was on expanding the Democrats' hold on the state: keeping the governor's seat, expanding majorities in the Legislature, picking off a few of the state-wide offices held by Republicans (attorney general, lands commissioner, secretary of state), and perhaps leveraging out of office the two Grand Old Party party pols who hold Eastern Washington's congressional seats. Can the state Democrats turn Washington from Deep Purple to Blue Velvet?
The empty quarter that is Eastern Washington's wheat and sage country suggests that the GOP continues to control large swaths of land, if not people. This was demonstrated by the convention seating chart. Nearly three quarters of the seats were reserved for delegates from west of the Cascades. A section equivalent to 1/16 of the total was reserved for the delegations from Adams, Asotin, Columbia, Douglas, Ferry, Franklin, Garfield, Grant, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Stevens, Walla Walla, and Whitman counties east of the mountains. When the roll call of counties was taken, the podium called out for each delegation to raise a cheer and be recognized. The first was Adams County, which responded with a deafening silence. Maybe their delegate was still having his morning coffee, but the point was made: In some parts of Washington, Democrats are as lonely as the Maytag repair man.
But where there are people, there are Democrats. Spokane, which hosted this convention, offers a lesson in hope. The majority of seats on the City Council are filled by Democrats, and in Spokane's 3rd and 6th legislative districts, five of six seats are held by Ds, including Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown.
Spokane (population 203,000) is also key to the hopes of Democrats for taking the 5th Congressional District. Most of the district's voters live in Spokane County. The seat was once held by former Democratic House Speak Tom Foley, and the party has mounted furious efforts to retake it, with little luck. This time, the Democratic candidate facing incumbent Cathy McMorris Rodgers is a clinical psychologist and professor named Mark Mays. When all else fails, call a shrink. Does he have a chance? According to one of his operatives, he does if he can match what Sen. Maria Cantwell did in her 2006 re-election bid. In other words, the votes potentially are there if that Democratic banner year repeats itself in '08.
Those odds are improved if Obama can help motivate turnout with his hopeful change message. But the turnout among actual delegates suggests that that won't happen by itself. Out of approximately 2,000 total delegates (the vast majority Obama supporters) elected to the Washington Democratic convention, only about 1,000 showed up in Spokane, joined by another 300 or so alternates. In other words, in a year in which turnout and excitement are the watchwords, in which "fired up and ready to go" is the motto, 35 percent of the delegates stayed home.
I'm not sure whether that's standard or not, but among delegates seated near me, there was a murmur of surprise in the crowd when those numbers where announced in the preliminary credentials report. After all the caucuses, speeches, campaigning, declarations of passion, and sense of history-in-the-making, more than a third of the faithful were no-shows — and this among the most committed Democrats.
Talk is cheap, but attending a state convention on the opposite side of the state is not. With gas, hotel, food, and the costs of various banquets, Obama t-shirts, and buttons, my tab ran around $1,000. The party helps those who need financial aid, but you're might be doing the party a favor by letting them spend the money elsewhere, like in voter identification programs, or efforts to turn out Latinos in the Yakima Valley. If I'd stayed home and just donated the $1,000, it might have done more good.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy meeting some folks and talking politics, like with the Spokane Teamster who has gotten reinvigorated in Democratic politics now that the Clintons are off the scene (he was no friend of Bill or Hillary), or the delegate from Skagit County who said should couldn't find many folks in her retirement home to talk politics with. A longtime party activist, she made pithy comments throughout a congressional breakfast, and after hearing from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. House candidate Darcy Burner, she wondered aloud where "gravitas" had gone.
Burner is the darling of the blogger crowd, and she's well spoken, but her chief attribute seems to be that she is not Republican incumbent Dave Reichert and her chief credential is that she has been running against him for three years. She has no other real accomplishment other than her years as a Microsoft manager, one shared by thousands of others in Greater Seattle. However, she exhibits a Hillary-like relentlessness and an ability to repeat talking points and raise money. The secret of her popularity among bloggers was revealed by Horse's Ass's David Goldstein, who said, "She's one of us" — in other words, an intense, relentless, partisan geek. Who needs gravitas?
The convention was also a great chance to talk one-on-one with obscure candidates for state offices. Part of the point is to familiarize the faithful with the entire slate, which includes people most of us have never heard of, such as Jason Osgood, who is running for secretary of state and who gave his first political speech ever in front of the convention hall. Or educator Randy Dorn, who is challenging incumbent Terry Bergeson for superintendent of public instruction. Or environmentalist Peter Goldmark, who is trying to wrest the land commissioner office from industry-friendly Republican Doug Sutherland.
I have to admit, after a couple of days of conventioneering, I got restless. Every time I heard the words "point of order" in the convention hall, a little something inside of me died.
Impressively, state party chair Dwight Pelz has little patience for nonsense. The capacity of Democrats to mill like cats, talk anything to death, and quibble over procedural minutiae is legend, and Pelz was quick on the gavel when he had it in hand. (The convention was presided over, at various times, by Seattle Major Greg Nickels and Lt. Gov. Sir Brad Owen). I applaud the chairman for his quick draw.
However, after hearing two speeches by Gov. Chris Gregoire, two by Murray, two by Rep. Jim McDermott, one by Cantwell, a video speech by Rep. Jay Inslee, and a slew of other speeches by state and congressional candidates, and after wading through a stack of resolutions ranging from ending the trade embargo with Cuba to shrinking the size of precincts to "ending corporate personhood" (the best idea of all), I hit my limit before the final gavel sounded and snuck off to find peace, quiet, and uncomplicated fun outside the walls of the convention hall, where it was sunny, blue, and in the high 70s.
I blame Spokane for tempting me to play hooky: The beautiful Riverfront Park, wonderful historic downtown buildings, California weather, a city that seems to be scaled (and priced) more sanely than the Pugetopolis that is gobbling the wet side of the mountains. Spokane is the livable city Seattle once was, only it has sunshine.
The Spokane convention did reinforce for me several things, before my mind wandered to sensual summer pleasures. One is that politics in Washington is remarkably open and the candidates are just folks, not high-powered demi-gods. Senators and congressmen mingled with delegates — candidates spent vast amounts of time talking with delegate after delegate.
Another was the strong sense Democrats have that this is an historic election, a pivotal moment in history. As Al Gore said in his speech endorsing Barrack Obama, "After the last eight years, even our dogs and cats have learned that elections matter."
That may be true, but the momentum and enthusiasm generated by the primaries will be difficult to sustain, especially during a long, dirty campaign and the tedium of partisan debate. The challenge for the Democrats is to make the unprecedented actually happen. The tide of opinion and desire for change are not enough. All those enthusiastic young folks and new voters who showed up on caucus day? It means nothing if they don't show up on election day.