Owling at the DNC

by Brian Clarey

Owling at the DNC

The Charlotte Hooters is exactly where it should be: right in the heart of downtown — excuse me, uptown. City leaders rebranded Charlotte’s business district back in the 1980s, inspired, rumor has it, by a Billy Joel song and a desire to impart a note of sophistication as befits the banking hub of the’  South. There is absolutely no geographical basis for this connotation; it is a product of pure marketing.

This makes it the perfect place to hold a political convention.

It doesn’t hurt that North Carolina is now a battleground state. President Obama took it in 2008 by 14,000 votes, a number every serious political handicapper in the city this week holds close to her heart.

It’s a margin that can best be described as “slim.” And clearly by holding its convention here — the first major political convention ever held on North Carolina soil — the Democratic Party seeks to maintain some sort of edge.

That strategy has been second-guessed by the best of us here this week. The state’s 15 electoral votes would look fine in either candidate’s final tally, but neither needs them to win. Florida is the big dog, a swing state with 29 electoral votes up for grabs, though the Republicans marked that territory the week before with their own convention. Pennsylvania has 20. Ohio has 18.

And yet, here we were, amid the gleaming towers and well appointed public spaces of the Queen City: almost 6,000 delegates, 15,000 media, 10,000 volunteers, 1,760 cops from all over the country and almost as many protesters, including at least 100 rightto-lifers holding up giant pictures of aborted fetuses on just about every streetcorner. Add to that the throngs of looky-loos, street merchants, scenesters, grifters and prostitutes lured to town for the week, and you’ve really got something.

Like I say, Hooter’s is in the center of it all — not dropped over by the airport or on a local highway near the auto dealerships, but smack dab in the center of West Trade Street. And it’s a good thing, too, because I needed somewhere to watch Obama make his Thursday night convention address.

There was no way I was getting into the Time Warner Cable Arena, the 20,000-capacity room where the convention speakers had been doing their thing all week, and to which the last night’s slate had been moved from Bank of America Stadium, which can hold up to 100,000 for events like this.

They said it was the weather, and rain had indeed been blowing through town for weeks, but some grumbled that the venue change reflected a lack of enthusiasm for tickets, and that the empty seats wouldn’t play well on TV.

But just after 5 p.m., when the Thursday night speakers began, the crowds clogged the entrance to the Time Warner Cable Arena, and the fire marshal sealed the doors by 6:30 p.m. While my colleagues Jordan Green and Eric Ginsburg made it inside to see the beginning of the evening’s program, I dallied on the streets too long, and by the time I wanted to go in I was what is known in the journalism business as SOL.

I watched John Kerry’s speech from the cavernous media center beneath the Charlotte Convention Center and contained a guffaw when he accused Mitt Romney of basing his foreign policy stance on Rocky IV — no cheering in the press room, you know.

I watched Vice President Joe Biden give his remarks from a third-floor perch outside the makeshift MSNBC studio set up in a pedestrian mall on East Trade Street. I was looking for a spot to watch the president when I remembered the nearby Hooters.

Why the hell not? I asked myself. Say what you will about Hooters, but it is an honest business, trucking in halfway-decent wings, cheap draft beer and servers wearing very little clothing. At Hooters, you know exactly what you’re going to get. And after a couple days surrounded by the party faithful, spouting talking points and unguarded optimism about their chances in 2012, a dose of honesty sounded pretty good to me.

I sat at the bar between two TVs, one with the convention coverage and the other with the Pitt-Cincinnati game running. Well dressed conventioneers, schlubby locals and no small percentage of gritty bar denizens filled the place. When Obama appeared on the screen, the place filled with hollers and cheers, and one of the Hooters girls — the preferred term for the women who work there, according to the company culture, though it flies in the face of journalistic standards — stopped for a moment on the floor to watch.

The room erupted with applause and cheers as Obama pledged to reduce oil consumption, promised to pay down the deficit as he put more people back to work, laid claim to the word “citizenship” — a moment that enticed the heavyset, bearded fellow in a Yankees ballcap and flannel across from me to put down his giant mug of beer and slap the bartop.

After it was all over, I motioned for Bree, the bartender, and asked her what she thought of the speech.

“Honestly, I didn’t hear any of it,” she said, gesturing to the crown drinking at her bar. She said she’d be glad when the convention was all over.

And then I was back on the street, as huge numbers of people surged out of the Time Warner Cable Arena and down West Trade Street, dispersing through uptown Charlotte like an invading army, echoing the message to those who had already absorbed it.