There are two main purposes for a national political convention: to nominate candidates for president and vice-president and to adopt the party’s platform. Today, it has become an opportunity for a party to showcase its presidential candidate before the November election.
In the early 1800s, presidential candidates were chosen by congressional caucus. The first political convention was held by the Anti-Masons in 1831. That was followed a year later by the Democratic Party when they nominated Andrew Jackson. Party bosses and political leaders ran the show. Most decisions were made behind closed doors and there was little involvement by regional party members. In the early 1900s, states began to adopt primaries to counter the influence of party bosses.
After the 1968 convention, both parties issued recommendations to make the process more democratic. For the Democratic Party, this includes gender equality and minority representation. In California, primary elections determine how many delegates each candidate will receive. Candidates run to be delegates from their congressional district. Elected officials and party leaders can be appointed by the state party.
My First Taste
In 1960, I was fortunate enough to attend the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Family friends owned a radio station in New York City and invited me to join them and their daughter as they covered the proceedings. As a college student with no political experience, I accepted the offer primarily to see California. It was to be the beginning of a life-long commitment to the Democratic Party and participation in grass-roots politics.
Once there, we were given media passes which enabled us to move everywhere in the convention hall. Security measures were relatively lax. We attended the convention business sessions, joined a civil rights march downtown, and listened to acceptance speeches.
At the 1960 convention, the Democrats nominated a handsome, young Catholic senator from Massachusetts named John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Today, nominations are wrapped up before the actual convention, but back then, Kennedy did not have sufficient votes to win. After much politicking, he was selected on the first ballot.
With only 24 hours to choose a vice-president, Kennedy offered it to Lyndon B. Johnson believing he was making a gesture to the Southern senator. Johnson surprised everyone, especially Kennedy, by accepting the position of vice president on the ticket. If we doubt at all the significance of the vice presidential nomination, history demonstrated the importance of this decision.
It was a glamorous time. The Hollywood Rat Pack roamed the halls and partied. It was the beginning of Camelot. Those days were short lived. Since 1960, there have been only three Democratic presidents, and only one was elected to two terms. For Democrats, these have been lean years.
Years later, I attended the 1996 and 2004 conventions in Chicago and Boston, each time
as a delegate. In 1996, Bill Clinton accepted his second presidential nomination. There were no surprises. Highlights of that convention were the City of Chicago itself, which welcomed delegates to its magnificent architectural venues and the return of one of the Chicago 7, Tom Hayden.
The news media seemed more interested in Hayden and his reflections on the convention held 28 years earlier in the same city. During the1968 convention, there were days of blood and violence. Responding to the intensity of the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, the National Guard was ordered out and the Chicago police clubbed young people. All this was covered live on television as people watched from their living rooms.
In 2004, Democrats came from all the states driven by a passion to defeat George W. Bush. John Kerry accepted the Democratic nomination, but the most remarkable speech at the convention was given by a young Senator from Chicago named Barack Obama. For many, he signified a new generation to look to for new leadership.
Compared to Chicago, the City of Boston would be remembered by many delegates for tight security, the post 9/11 barriers that surrounded the meeting facilities, and the “Big Dig” still unfinished. The difficulty in moving through the city would prove to be a harbinger of the election. John Kerry would be “swift-boated” numerous times in the campaign and the Democrats were stymied in their effort to take back the White House.
Still Hope for the Dems
Despite our loss, I continued to believe that a Democrat could win, particularly when in the 2006 election the party achieved majorities in both the House and Senate. I co-founded Santa Barbarans for Hillary and participated in her campaign both locally and nationally. The possibility of a highly qualified woman becoming president of the United States galvanized millions of women and men. Equally exciting was Barack Obama’s candidacy and the opportunity to elect an African-American. He helped energize young people to become engaged in the political process as never before.
In every way, the 2008 Democratic primary was historic. Millions of dollars were brought into the campaigns through the Internet, and Democrats responded in record numbers: women, seniors, young, and people of color volunteered, registered and, turned out to vote.
To become a delegate to the 2008 Democratic Convention, applications were submitted to the state party and elections were held throughout the state on the same day. Santa Barbara County received three Obama and two Hillary delegates. (A presidential candidate must receive at least 15 percent of the vote to have delegates at the national convention.) Delegate candidates usually campaign for votes. Supporters were invited to the caucuses, speeches were made, and the vote occurred under very strict procedures. On April 13, I ran and was elected a delegate to the 2008 convention.
What to Expect in Denver
Despite the fact that most national conventions seem to do little more than provide televised speaking opportunities for the already anointed candidate, many activities occur before each nightly session begins. National organizations with an interest in the federal government will be coming from all over the country. A great deal of the convention energy can be experienced during the daily workshops, meetings, platform discussions and receptions held by these groups. Every hour is filled.
The convention kick-off will occur on Sunday evening, August 24, with a reception for all delegates hosted by the City of Denver. Many of the states will also host their own event as California traditionally does. On Monday, the work begins. Each morning starts with a state delegate breakfast. Being the largest delegation, California always attracts interesting guests and keynote speakers. (California has 441 delegates and 62 alternates.) Then dialogue and debate occurs until 4 p.m. each day when the convention convenes for its public session.
Questions that remain to be answered are: Who will Obama nominate for Vice-President and how will he or she help the ticket? Will the roll call for Hillary enable her supporters to unite behind Obama? What will Bill say this time? There will be lots more from Denver.