No parties, no commutes — California Democrats reflect on highs and lows of virtual convention
Los Angeles Times political reporter Seema Mehta breaks down night 1 of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, from the somber tone, to the big names throwing support behind Joe Biden from both parties.
Four years ago, Megan Kerr watched, emotional, as balloons drop on Hillary Clinton after she claimed the presidential nomination at a packed Democratic National Convention. The California delegate snapped pictures of heroes such as Rep. John Lewis and mingled with like-minded Democrats from across the country at caucus meetings and late-night parties in Philadelphia.
Kerr is a delegate once again, but this year she’s watching the speeches on television from her Long Beach family room and taking part in organizing meetings online. The convention is nearly all virtual, a decision party leaders made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 170,000 people in the U.S.
“We’re in really serious times, and so the seriousness of [the convention] and the lack of frivolity around it almost seems appropriate,” said the Long Beach school board member, who is supporting Joe Biden’s nomination.
But “the need to be together and connect … doesn’t translate onto a Zoom call or a screen,” said Kerr, who decorated her Zoom background with mini campaign signs and her delegate credential — part of the swag bag sent by the DNC. “That palpable energy of a stadium full of people committed to doing the work — I will miss that.”
California Democrats are coping with a convention unlike any they have seen. They are trying to make the best of it — with virtual morning coffees and evening receptions with celebrities such as singer Bonnie Raitt and actor Edward James Olmos, as well as elected officials. But it’s a far cry from the pageantry and festivities the delegation — at more than 500 strong, the largest and most powerful Democratic bloc in the nation — typically experiences at the party’s national convention.
“We won’t necessarily have the full balloon drop, but we will continue to feel the kind of energy and excitement that we will need to carry us through until November,” Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of labor leader Cesar Chavez and a Biden strategist, told California delegates during an online pre-convention kick-off Sunday evening.
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Yet this convention has special meaning to many California delegates. One of their own, Sen. Kamala Harris, is Biden’s running mate, the first time since 1984 and Ronald Reagan that any Californian has appeared on a major-party ticket.
“This is superb for California. This is the first time in nearly 40 years we’ve had a Californian on the ticket,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Biden campaign national co-chair who served on the committee responsible for vetting potential running mates. “Kamala is the face of the state today, but California is the face of America tomorrow. So this really is a future-looking but president-ready pick.”
Some of the state’s elected leaders will make prime-time appearances during the convention, which is limiting its main event to two hours per night. Among them is Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, who is among several mostly young elected officials speaking during Tuesday night’s keynote address, a time slot typically given to up-and-comers. (Barack Obama, then an Illinois state legislator, spoke on this night in 2004.)
Garcia said he could not disclose the contents of his speech but said the theme of the group’s message is about the future of the party and the nation.
“I think all of the speakers tomorrow night are really centered around what does the United States look like with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the White House,” Garcia said, adding he hopes the message encourages young people to vote.
Supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who came in second to Biden in the primaries, make up a significant number of California’s more than 500 delegates. Some say their message will be muted because of the virtual nature of the conference. Unlike four years ago, there is no convention hall to march protest lines through or in-person speakers to boo.
“There’s no doubt our message would be louder and more widely heard if we were meeting in person,” said Marcy Winograd, a delegate who lives in Santa Barbara. She said she understood party leaders had to cancel the physical convention for public safety but also said, “They’re doing their best to not give us too much real estate.”
Sanders delegates have found alternate ways to express themselves, with hundreds voting against the party platform because it does not endorse “Medicare for all.” They’ve sent letters to Biden and party officials protesting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s short speaking time, Biden’s foreign policy team and other matters. They also held an online shadow convention and will be commenting online about the convention’s proceedings.
There are some logistical benefits to a virtual affair, several delegates said. Housing more than 500 delegates plus hundreds of additional guests is an enormous challenge. This year, the California delegation was to be lodged in a hotel near O’Hare Airport in Chicago, more than an hour from the convention in Milwaukee.
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Eight years ago, they were packed into a brand new hotel in Charlotte, N.C., that was not quite ready for primetime: Elected officials got stuck in elevators, and some rooms lacked cold water, offering only scaldingly hot showers. All the foibles resulted in a poem being read during a delegation breakfast:
Trapped in the elevator? Don’t despair
It will only take an hour or two to repair
Water leaking from ceiling and floor?
It’s ambience — we can enjoy the rain from indoors.
Slimming the nightly program to two hours rather than having an endless slew of droning speakers is also a wise move, several delegates said.
“Instead of hours and hours of speeches no one is listening to anyway, we’ll have a message that’s condensed,” Garcetti said. “It serves the American people much better than speaker 1,214 going on for a half-hour, as much as I enjoyed being speaker 1,213 last time.”
Kerr, after watching the two-hour televised portion that seamlessly weaved together elected officials’ pitches, a diverse set of voters’ personal stories, supporters’ testimonials about Biden’s character and musical performances, said it was better than she had expected.
“It was just long enough to be captivating and it was just real and authentic,” she said. “It was engaging, and I thought it looked like us and sounded like us, and that’s important to me. It looks like Long Beach. It looks like my friends and my family.”
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