Dispatches from the DNC
An alumna delegate for Hillary Clinton reports from the convention floor
By Amy Drayer ’99
In Colorado, the process for becoming a national convention delegate is straightforward, but not necessarily easy. I campaigned to stand for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia at the precinct, county, and Congressional district levels, putting years of campaign training into practice to win the experience of a lifetime.
Prior to arriving in Philadelphia, I’d engaged with friends in plenty of speculative talk about how the 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC) might get rowdy. But after the relative lack of visible dissent at the Republican National Convention, and Hillary Clinton’s win coming out of the primary, I assumed the culture would be unified, similar to that of the last four or five conventions I’d seen on TV.
Making assumptions is rarely a good idea.
It was clear by the first gavel fall that this was not going to be a Kumbaya convening. Many Bernie Sanders supporters were far from done with their campaign, and fueling their passions was the release of emails hacked from DNC servers, some of which painted a bleak picture of Sanders’ treatment by a handful of DNC staffers. Many believed that they had been systematically excluded from the chance to win, and their anger was directed at the televised stage.
I had a front-row seat to the discontent. Our Colorado delegation consisted of 40 Sanders reps and 20 Hillary reps, and our group culture was one of the most fractured, rivaled in anti-Clinton activism only by California and Washington. Hillary and Sanders supporters had their first dust-up early on, when Sanders protesters began to boo as former Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) came to the podium.
Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, has been a longtime champion of the LGBTQ community and a longtime Clinton supporter. Those who love him for the former and those who detest him for the latter were gathered together for the first time since the end of the primaries. Heated words were exchanged, and they continued when civil rights champion, Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), took the stage an hour later. We quickly realized that the protests were not a passing fad; anyone who didn’t actively back Sanders, or was pro-Hillary or pro-DNC, was in for a bumpy ride once they hit the stage. Fueled by a much larger and very visible California-led, pro-Sanders protest, our 40 Sanders reps were becoming more vocal by the minute, inspiring another 10 or so from Washington, just behind us.
In a moment of serendipity, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb spoke that afternoon, just as the tensions were at a breaking point for Colorado. Webb served as our Clinton delegation chair, but he’s also revered among Democrats in our state. He’s well known for his decades of effective civil rights work and steady governance. He spoke at the DNC as a co-chair of the Unity Reform Commission, charged with brokering Clinton and Sanders constituency demands in evaluating the nominating structure, including the call to do away with caucuses and super delegates.
Webb delivered the right speech in the right way at the right time. As the protests continued, he managed to diffuse the arena just enough with statements like, “As a party, it is not required that we always agree, but it is vital that we always move forward together,” and “Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are our champions. They both deserve our cheers.” Anxious exchanges began between the Sanders and Clinton leaders in the Colorado delegation before tensions could rise again. A détente was reached, and an agreement was brokered that, at minimum, Michelle Obama’s speech would not be disrupted.
Following a tense Colorado delegation breakfast, I found my people at the DNC Women’s Caucus. The primetime show is the most visible part of the convention, but the constituency caucuses and state breakfasts make up the critical remainder of the programming when it comes to energizing delegates. The caucus opened with remarks from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Her introduction by the DNC chair was almost casual, and I had another moment of adjusting expectations. It began to sink in that, over the course of this one week, I’d be experiencing a lifetime’s worth of once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Donna Brazile, Democratic activist, CNN political analyst, and former campaign manager for Al Gore, stepped up to the mic after Albright. I had the privilege of working for Brazile for a year and a half while I was in D.C. during my early 20s, and I started cheering as soon as they told us the Louisiana native was on deck.
Brazile delivered a barnburner. I originally learned the term “red meat” (highly partisan issues and language deployed to fire up the base) from her, and she fed us plenty. We came right out of our chairs, raising voices and hands as she spoke about the history we were making and our incredible stamina in this fight. She called on us to shout out loud to our heroes, from Susan B. Anthony to Eleanor Roosevelt, Fanny Lou Hamer to Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta to Carol Moseley Braun, and, finally, Hillary Clinton. I thought, “Now this—this is what I came for.”
Tuesday night at the DNC was everything I had ever wanted and more as a feminist activist and a Democrat—it was chock-a-block full of the second-wave feminist nostalgia and celebration that so many of us had been waiting for, made richer for the lack of protest in the arena (Sanders supporters had staged a walkout not long after the nomination was officially bestowed on Clinton). To my surprise, the state roll call delegate count and formal nomination might have been the most emotional moments for me. In contrast to Monday’s chaos, Tuesday definitely felt like our time; we set aside the work of decades, centuries, just for a bit, and reveled in the glory. It’s hard not to cry remembering it, standing in a rocking arena and shouting “aye” to pass the motion making Hillary Clinton the first female to ever be at the top of a major party presidential ticket in the United States.
As of that moment, every door I’d ever knocked on, every call I’d ever made, was worth it. Every moment I spent standing on hot asphalt canvassing for voter registration, or in the freezing cold distributing Get Out the Vote door hangers, was worth it. Every argument I’d had on the playground about why girls couldn’t be team captains was worth it. All the tears cried over the female candidates I’d backed with all my heart and who’d lost anyway—in that moment, it was all worth it.
As we left that night to catch the buses back to the hotels, my roommate for the week and I compared notes. I’d had a somber conversation with her that morning, asking about previous conventions and expressing my surprise that it felt so hostile and contested on Monday. A DNC veteran, she replied that this was the first time she had ever been to a convention that was like this. As we walked, she said, “But tonight is what it’s supposed to feel like; this is what the other conventions have been like, what Obama in ’08 was like. I’m glad you were here for it.”
One of the most difficult experiences of the entire convention was the perpetual feeling of being on the emotional edge of my seat. At many moments through the week I had been on the precipice of the ugly cry. Wednesday was a roller coaster; the gun violence block was tough. We heard from survivors of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting, the daughter of the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary, and a mother who lost her son at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. I was on my feet for Gabby Giffords ’93. As a fellow alumna, how could I not cry at her words? “Speaking is difficult for me. But come January, I want to say these two words: Madame President,” she proclaimed. It was difficult to listen with an open heart to Gabby and to each of those victims of gun violence, especially because we, as a nation, seem only to be able to respond with, “I don’t know what we can do to stop your pain. We can’t possibly agree on a solution.”
Wednesday was also the beginning of the chant wars that carried into Thursday, which reached a fever pitch during Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s address. Convention organizers were caught flat-footed when the “No more war!” chants began, led by the California delegation. Luckily for DNC organizers, the “USA” placards were in our waiting hands, and the response was immediate and organic.
Over the last decade, my desire to chant “USA!” has waned. But, by this time, I was so over anything and everything that was abjectly anti-Clinton or anti-DNC, I couldn’t help myself. For weary Clinton delegates, it was simply another way we felt that people we respected were being actively disrespected. I shouted “USA!” for Panetta, because I wanted him to know I was with him, and that I believed he offered a better vision, a more viable vision, than any other on hand.
He acknowledged the support and sealed my commitment; during the speech he paused, pointed to the “Stronger Together” placards, and said, “Thank you.” If nothing else, the DNC reminded me that the more time you spend shouting at someone who’s mind you seek to change, the less you’ll accomplish.
By Thursday I had almost no emotional stamina left. The clapping and cheering and chanting had become a reflex; it was no longer essential that I listen closely to a speaker to understand when I was expected to stand and applaud. There were plenty of genuine moments that brought me to my feet, but plenty of vacant stares, too, which were quickly covered up by “excited face” whenever a camera was trained on Colorado. We had great seats in the Colorado delegation, just up from the floor, meaning we were only five or six rows up from the camera operators constantly looking for B-roll shots. Thursday was the big dance; all eyes were on the DNC, and organizers wanted us looking ready for prime time.
We had a TV visuals whip all week, responsible for making sure we had enough signs and for trouble-shooting protests, but on Thursday he was full-time engaged. He stood on the floor at the foot of the seats, like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, conducting a full-scale visual symphony for the cameras. We had a couple dozen protesters in our section who had been holding various anti-Clinton signs all week. But for closing night, the DNC wanted to project unity. So, we followed the instructions of the man in the yellow vest. As soon as the protest signs came up, we stood and held support signs. He pointed to particular individuals to fill any pro-Clinton gaps. If you got the nod, you were expected to respond and with enthusiasm.
Despite my endorphin fatigue and the obviousness of the media orchestration, there were still moments of absolute sincerity, when speakers managed to grab the last remaining bit of passion and bring us to our feet. Reverend William Barber shot us full of hope and love and faith in Democracy—there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned Sunday sermon to revive the soul. Khizr Khan tapped a nerve, too. The move with the pocket Constitution was stunning, but the volume from the crowd when he proclaimed, “Mr. Trump, you have sacrificed nothing!” was off the Richter scale—one of the most impassioned, unified responses of the week. We all knew sacrifice when we saw it, and Khizr and Ghazala Khan had sacrificed for America, and for us, and for the process in which we were all so wholeheartedly engaged. For all our internal disagreement, there was at least one thing every delegate shared, and that was the sense that we had given all we could for our candidate, and that our candidate had given every piece of himself or herself back to us. So the call to honor sacrifice resonated like none other.
What’s left to say about the closing moments and Hillary’s speech? How do you describe being present at an indelible moment in American history? Despite my own expectations (which had been deceiving me all week), it wasn’t a hurricane of ecstasy. Instead, I had that quiet, still, centered feeling that comes when I’m simply at peace with what’s happening in the exact here and now. It was a pause at the oasis in the midst of a definitive journey. It’s hard to achieve nirvana surrounded by 30,000 people, but that was my experience.
This was followed by lots of cheering, clapping, and a metric ton of balloons and confetti. The finale balloon drop was as Bacchanalian in person as it was on television—I’d guess even more so. The perfect visual representation of a week of total partisan indulgence: joyous, blinding, and overwhelming.
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