Ken Burt, the political director of the California Federation of Teachers, had to be skyjacked out a stuck elevator through the roof like a scene out of “Mission Impossible.” Nancy Pelosi’s granddaughter got scalded when the water in her room came roaring out of the spout. Someone told me that Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones only had cold water in his room and Attorney General Kamala Harris had only hot water and that there was a contractor trying to connect some pipes so they could share. People were noting that most electrical outlets in the rooms were dead. I heard that Elvis used to stay here and I was wondering if he might still be lying on a floor somewhere.
The ceiling in my bathroom had just been sheet rocked with taping mud still splattered on the tile and awaiting paint. Plastic and wooden shims jutted out of legs of the marble and metal cabinetry. There was no room service. When I grabbed for my hair drier the first morning the entire apparatus fell off the wall. The construction punch list for this place in my estimation (as a former construction foreman) would’ve been at least two months.
The first night – coming back from dinner – I noticed two ambulances and a squad car, red lights flashing, at the entrance. Apparently someone had just puked all over the lobby and another was about to be thrown out. The press was about to have a field day. The LA Times spent too much time on it. Slow day before gravel drops. Someone looking for a quote asked me what I thought about an intoxicated conventioneer and I replied, “Only one?” Put that on the Tonight Show.
Mayor Ed Lee had a room on my floor and as we bumped into each other the first morning heading to the elevator for breakfast with the California delegation I’m sure we were both worried about an “extended” meeting before reaching the lobby. The elevator buttons were like Russian roulette – hit a button, any button, maybe it would light up, maybe others would light up; you could go up, you could go down…. The mayor and I made it down with a collective sigh but the handle I was leaning on fell off the elevator wall.
On the second morning at breakfast Speaker John Perez read a message from Chairman John Burton: “I was given a choice – either stay at this hotel or head home for a root canal.” He was already on a plane.
That was my first impression of the Blake Hotel – home to the California delegation – the largest party of delegates to the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
These stories were part of the culture this week that bonded us Californians. At breakfast or over drinks late at night everyone had a story of something going haywire. There were jokes about getting tee shirts (with a big union bug): “I SURVIVED THE BLAKE.” Christine Pelosi referred to it as the “Bleak Hotel” a la Dickens. Attorney General Kamala Harris called it the “Hotel California.” (And, by the way, OCCUPYCharlotte, which was across the street, had a five star feel with all the tents looking like recent REI purchases.)
OK. Enough! Here’s what we really experienced.
Among our delegates, young or old, veterans of multiple conventions or first timers; those who were used to the amenities of the New York and Los Angeles conventions or the snobs who seriously thought they deserved better from the national party, there was consensus that this was the most exciting convention they had every been to.
The electricity at the Time-Warner Convention floor was contagious: whether it was Michelle Obama’s opening night speech talking about the values and hard work of her husband (with a gorgeous $375 dollar dress), or the emotional pledge of allegiance by Arizona’s Gabby Gifford, who is still rehabilitating from a gunshot wound to the head; or Bill Clinton’s brilliant and analytical dissection of the vacuity that Romney and the Republicans are attempting to run by the American electorate.
Conventions are a lot of hard work even if you aren’t doing anything. Most of us are awake until 3 in the morning channeling the electricity of the proceedings after piling out of the “sold out” arena, stopping with fellow delegates for a drink to share thoughts of the speeches, and then bussing or walking the mile back to the hotel room and turning on MSNBC or CNN to see what we saw and what the pundits had to say about what we saw. Then we’re back up at 7 AM to go to the daily California delegation breakfast where most of the conventions speakers came to deliver and practice the same address they were about to do later that night.
For those of us who are elected’s or full time labor representatives one of the biggest challenges was finding time to get on the phone to do the work back home – especially since we are already in the middle of November field campaigns. (Thanks to my wonderful colleagues at the San Francisco Labor Council (Amber, Ramneek, Emily and Hang) who are working theirs asses off on “NO on 32” – (where the Romneys of the world are trying to destroy the working class in California) – and keeping some of the stress off me while I was on this adventure!)
Breakfast on Labor Day at the California delegation breakfast featured Nancy Pelosi who was introduced by her daughter Christine, the women’s caucus chair of the California Democratic Party. On Tuesday the featured speakers included Cecile Richards from Planned Parenthood and Senator Feinstein, who highlighted Republican’s attacks on women. I spoke right after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa about Labor’s Bill of Rights: the right to full employment and a living wage; the right to full participation in the electoral process; the right to a voice at work; the right to a quality education; and the right to a secure, healthy future. (Most of which are opposed by the “Right.”) California Labor Fed’s Art Pulaski gave the pitch for the No on 32 Campaign. I later told Christine Pelosi that it was pretty ironic and almost perfect that the chair of the women’s caucus spoke on Labor Day and that the chair of the labor caucus spoke on “women’s day.”
My vote for best-dressed delegate goes to our leader and Assembly Speaker John Perez. John gave a wonderful convention address on Wednesday that got the best roars – mostly from the California folks (outside of Michelle, Bill and Barack’s ovations, of course!) and looked like the Ambassador to France in his dark suit and power tie. But his head to toe white seersucker suit with pink tie on Thursday night was a defining moment for the delegation! The guy was in charge! The Speaker kept the whips whipping, the seats filled, and the cameras focused. I enjoyed sitting in his posse. San Francisco women wowed us with their elegance – Nancy Pelosi gorgeous in her white sleeveless blouse on the night of Obama’s speech and Kamala Harris also looked amazing in her handsome two-tone dress. Being cool and stylish in 100% humidity in a basketball arena… they pulled it off.
This was my first national convention – though in 2000 I was elected as an Al Gore delegate to Los Angeles along with (now) Senator Mark Leno and Dan Bernal, Leader Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco chief of staff. It was the “Hollywood” convention when everyone still had money and threw it at the event. But when candidate Senator Bill Bradley pulled out of the race with the condition that at least one delegate from any caucus or election around the country that he participated in got seated, I was bumped by the #1 San Francisco Bradley delegate, Tom Ammiano, my next door neighbor and then San Francisco Supervisor. I will NEVER forgive him! I was lucky to have even been in contention because when I went to the Gore caucus proceedings at the Local 38 Plumbers Hall on Market Street with my canvassers I watched organized busloads of 24-38 year old gay men marching up the stairs to vote for Leno and Dan. My supporters passed out my literature (this was when I was the organizing director for the militant janitors’ union SEIU Local 87) but I was still clearly out-organized for this event. But, hey, those efforts were enough to pick up enough crumbs to put me into the third slot. Until Ammiano bumped me….Ha!
The best outside party in Charlotte had to be Leader Nancy Pelosi’s function at the Music Factory in the fourth ward of North Charlotte. The venue was anchored and dominated by her choice of having Tony Bennett perform a concert on her behalf. Tony still has wonderful timing and flair and was brilliant. Guess what song we enjoyed most! “I left my…” My counterpart in New York, Vinny Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, asked if I could get him in – which wasn’t as easy as I anticipated – but when he arrived Nancy’s staff graciously allowed him to be my guest. One of my best memories of this convention will be the 15 minutes she spent talking with me after I introduced her to Vinny and the Leader telling him that New York might be the biggest Labor Council in America, but that San Francisco is the best. And then she proved that she is the best political scientist in America by analyzing district by district every Congressional seat in NY. Yes, Vinny, I know you were impressed and I will get you the pictures.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame was the site of the California bash Wednesday night after Clinton’s speech and Eric McCormick from “Will and Grace” gave a speech about marriage equality. I bet Dale Earnhart and Richard Petty never imagined that stock cars would be the backdrop for the civil rights issue of our century….
Food was far and few between. One woman told me that between the heat and sweat and lack of food that she will be pissed off if she doesn’t lose 10 pounds.
The first night in Charlotte I took a $25 cab ride with a friend to Billy Spoons BBQ about 6 miles out of town on South Avenue for a huge $9 plate of North Carolina barbeque and sweet tea. The restaurant is in a wide A-framed house set back from the road and the waitress performed like a docent in a quaint museum – explaining the menu “ small BBQ plate is more than enough” – and giving us a sample of their famous Brunswick stew (tomato pork slush) before loading down paper plates of pulverized spiced pork and coleslaw and potato salad. When I picked up the vinegar sauce she ran over and told me to shake it so the herbs get mixed in. Unbelievable meat. A southern version of carnitas. And the sweat tea was fabulous. I hate sugar in tea but this simple version had an enjoyment factor similar to that when I order a Thai ice tea in San Francisco. (When I’d called ahead for directions and asked if we could bring in beer the woman on the phone said “Oh my, oh my! I’ve never heard that asked before. Let me ask the manager!” (We didn’t.) After a dessert of homemade banana pudding Billy Spoon’s grandson took us out back to a small cinder block shack to see the sleek, pristine, steel chrome smoker. “We cook two whole hogs a day back here, sir.”
(The only other real excursion for real food was to an all night diner for a late breakfast of waffles, grits, fried chicken and eggs.)
On Wednesday night at the arena one of AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka’s staff came poking around the California delegation looking to drag me, Maria Elena Durazo from Los Angeles, and Art Pulaski, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the California Labor Federation to their suite to watch Rich’s speech with International Secretary-Treasure Liz Shuler and Vice President Arlene Holt-Baker. Rich made primetime and spoke primetime words – outlining the clear choice about which candidate will destroy workers’ rights and which candidate will continue to put together an economic recovery that supports jobs and protects health and retirement benefits.
Everyone knows the highlight speeches by now. Former Governor Jennifer Granholm from Michigan, who was born in Canada and is ineligible for federal office unfortunately, (though having the same restriction on Arnold Schwarzenegger is almost a decent antidote) did a brilliant analysis of how Obama makes good decisions for American workers and noted that the Romneys “love their cars so much, they have their own elevator…. But the people who design, build, and sell those cars? Well, in Romney’s world, the cars get the elevator; (pause) the workers get the shaft.”
Some other memorable anecdotes and quotes:
• Barry Goldwater’s granddaughter delivering the Democratic votes from Arizona;
• Bill Clinton: “We think ‘we’re in this together’ is a better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’”
• “When we do things together it’s called “government.”
• Vice President Joe Biden on Romney’s position on Afghanistan: “I don’t see how Mitt Romney can debate Barack Obama when he hasn’t finished debating with himself. He the first person I’ve ever seen to be against something before he decides he’s for it.”
Even Caroline Kennedy made a somber address and reminded us of how America was once a democratic country where inclusion and civility were a way of life not that long ago.
To see so many intelligent and thoughtful representatives, supporters, delegates and stewards of our national government gathered in Charlotte was pretty special. Their words rang true and the choice for workers and America is more than clear.