Three days in Charlotte — a reporters’ notebook from the 2012 Democratic National Convention

by YES! Staff

by Brian Clarey, Jordan Green and Eric Ginsburg

The 2012 Democratic national Convention was the first ever national political convention in the state, a huge mess of delegates, media, vendors, law enforcement and others who came to town to catch a glimpse of the big show. We unleashed three reporters into the fray to gauge the scene and give the kind of coverage you wouldn’t find on the TV newscasts. This is what they brought back.

Media city

The cavernous space below the Charlotte Convention Center is dedicated to the media — about 15,000 of them — with the hall divided between print and broadcast. The Washington Post has a whole bureau here in a space the size of a small supermarket cordoned off by blue fabric. Reporters sit at computer screens on long tables and in the back lights play on a small TV setup, with a couch and a cushioned chair.

They’re all here in this upscale neighborhood: Gannett, Bloomberg, the Tribune papers, the Boston Globe, Politico, Reuters, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, each with exponentially more space and staff at this event than we use to put out YES! Weekly every week. The Associated Press has a media center with six TV monitors running on different channels. A huge banner hanging from the ceiling marks the Time magazine compound.

In one exclusive corner, the New York Times has cordoned of a small warehouse, with the gate set so that a passerby cannot just peek inside. I catch a glimpse of a hot buffet line and a sophisticated TV setup before moving on.

The Tampa Bay Times has more familiar surroundings: a small space along the wall, marked by a sign made from a blank sheet of paper, with the name of the organization written on it in blue ballpoint. — BC

Ladies’ night

Judging by the near capacity crowd and fervent spirit in the double meeting room on the second day of the convention there’s little doubt that women are the key constituency on whom the Obama campaign is counting to eke out a win in November.

And why not? When it comes to support for the two candidates, the gender gap makes them ripe picking for the Democrats. They’re demographically superior, and highly motivated in the wake of US Rep. Todd Akin’s rhetorical blunder on rape and conception, not to mention repeated efforts in Congress and state houses across the nation to de-fund Planned Parenthood.

Speakers such as Democratic National Committee Chair and US Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards and actor Ashley Judd stoke the delegates’ passions, but political strategist Donna Brazile lights the room on fire. She ends her rousing speech pumping her fists as the delegates chant, “Four more years.” As Brazile departs, a swarm of fans pursuing her out a side door creates a riptide of humanity and at one point her entourage is halted until her handler parts the wave of admirers taking photos on their smartphones.

Outside the Charlotte Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon, volunteers wearing pink shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Yes, we plan” direct people to a Planned Parenthood rally at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Corey Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ, tosses out red meat to the crowd and draws whoops and hollers from men and women alike. He takes special aim at Ann Romney and other speakers at the Republican National Convention the week prior in Tampa.

“I heard people stand up and say, ‘I love women,’” Booker sneers. “I heard people say, ‘I’ve got a sister.’ ‘I’ve got a mother.’ That’s like saying you’re not a bigot because you’ve got a black friend. That’s like saying you love Latinos because you eat tacos. That is like saying you are a person who is just and right because you like Jewish people. You say it with your words. You say it with your lips. You preach it from on high.

“But when it comes to your actions, when it comes to your deeds, when it comes to what you do everyday, you are denigrating those very people you claim to love,” the mayor continues. “And so I don’t understand how someone can say they love women when they are denying women access to healthcare, or when they’re denying women strategies to protect their life, when they are implementing policies that undermine all the ground that we have gained, not as women, but as this nation.” — JG

What’s he doing here?

Spotted: Looming large on the sidewalk in front of the Barack Obama sand sculpture made to promote Myrtle Beach as a tourist destination, Michael Steele, former chairman of the National Republican Party, poses for cell-phone photos and charms the support hose off a throng of ladies dressed in “Women for Obama” logo gear. He’s in town acting as an analyst for MSNBC — last night he praised First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech, calling it a “great job” while on air with Chris Matthews.

He’s huge, easily 6-foot-5, And he’s wearing sneakers with his suit. — BC


MSNBC has commandeered the pedestrian mall in downtown Charlotte known as EpiCentre, where they’ve set up an exhibit inside the warren of spaces. You can get a personalized campaign button from your home district, listen to TV and radio broadcasts or have your photo taken in front of the official MSNBC DNC backdrop.

In the courtyard, a soundstage is set, and they’re live right now, debating the efficacy of Bill Clinton, who is scheduled to speak tonight. Most of the crown jockeys for position behind the on-air talent, trying to get in the live shot.

“It’s on ‘News Nation,’” one woman shouts into her cell phone. “I’m waving a purple sign. Wait, wait…. You see it?” — BC

The party line

Forsyth County Democratic Party chair Susan Campbell snaps up a pink “Yes, we plan” shirt from the merch table at the Planned Parenthood rally. A smiling Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse grabs a pink placard.

Besse, a progressive municipal politician who is sometimes given to careful, qualified statements, is feeling bullish. Despite the gains made by Republicans in North Carolina over the past three years, he concedes no enthusiasm gap.

“In 2008 we provided Obama with more than enough votes from Forsyth County to cover the margin of victory,” Besse said. “In 2012, we’re going to provide him with at least that and maybe more. Obama is going to win by more votes this year than four years ago in North Carolina. [The race is] still a dead heat. But it’s going to go from a dead-heat race to a blowout in November in the electoral college. This is going to be a landslide.”

That prediction might surprise many Republicans, for whom it’s almost a token of faith that most North Carolina voters who pulled the lever for Obama in 2008 now feel like they’ve woken up with a massive hangover, but the campaign has been quietly building its ground game in the Old North State over the past couple months.

On Thursday, before Obama accepted the nomination, campaign manager Jim Messina will tell the crowd at Time Warner Cable Arena that volunteers have already registered more new voters than in 2008, adding that “no state has registered more people than the great, blue state of North Carolina.”

After the Tuesday press briefing, Democratic National Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse shrugs when asked how it was possible that the campaign has registered more voters here this year than in 2008.

“There are a lot of people who move into this state,” he says.

Woodhouse, a North Carolina native, acknowledges that the campaign’s priority in North Carolina is activating voters who registered in 2008, voted for Obama and then dropped off the political map.

“That is absolutely the key to our organizing efforts,” he says. “Everything we do is to stay in touch with people who support the president, stay in touch with people who voted for the first time. They’re obviously a key component of our outreach efforts. We go back to those people with e-mails, with phone calls, we knock on their doors. We understand how crucial they were to our success, especially in North Carolina. It was such a narrow victory here in 2008. — JG

Weather or not

For a while the big media fuss about the DNC focused on the rain, if it was coming and if it was the real reason Obama’s speech was moved indoors. I thought I was prepared with a poncho and an umbrella tucked into my complimentary DNC bag. Not so.

Passing through my second airportstyle security checkpoint on my first day, I forfeit my umbrella, but while the heat and humidity are stifling, we escape the rain on my first day of the convention.

Rain is the only real source of trouble for Greensboro-based catering company the Painted Plate, which was hired by the pro-Israel lobbyist group AIPAC due to its experience with kosher food. Rebecca Henderson, the company’s marketing manager, says they were shuttling some of their employees back and forth from Greensboro because the relatively late catering request came after all local accommodations were full.

Maintaining normal operations in Greensboro and Fire in the Triad at the same time was a lot to handle, but it was worth it, she says.

“It’s like a hurricane and a flood at the same time but we’re happy to be here and be busy,” Henderson says. “When you step back it’s very exciting to be a part of and because you’re very focused on your work you do have the moments when you realize you should pause because Nancy Pelosi is speaking. In true North Carolinian fashion we strive to exemplify hospitality [but] there are definitely surreal moments.”

Employees had to be up around 3 a.m. in order to have everything ready in time, but they are able to avoid the security perimeter known as “the cage” with their events. — EG

Viva Obama?

Hernando Ramírez Santos, executive editor of Winston-Salem-based Qué Pasa Media Network, stands in the Periodical Press Group section watching Vice President Joe Biden’s speech on Thursday night.

I ask him if he had heard anything over the past three days that he thought spoke to Hispanics in North Carolina.

Yes, he says. Cristina Saralegui had given a strong speech the night before, saying in essence: “Don’t boo — vote.”

Saralegui’s speech omitted any reference to the record number of deportations under the Obama administration.

She didn’t need to mention that Obama has issued an executive order allowing undocumented young people who came to the United States with their parents a temporary stay on deportations.

This is looking like a base election, with much of the electorate polarized over the healthcare reform legislation signed into law by Obama and competing philosophies on the proper size and scope of government. So in a state where the margin of victory was only 14,000 votes four years ago, each campaign needs to figure out how to reach specific, targeted constituencies. Hispanics are one that the Democrats desperately want to mobilize, along with women, the LGBT community, young people and African Americans.

Hispanics especially are a wild card.

A report released by Democracy North Carolina in August estimated there are about 100,000 Hispanic residents who are eligible to vote but who remain unregistered. The Hispanic population in North Carolina more than doubled in the last decade to 830,000-plus. Hispanics make up 9 percent of the population, but only 2 percent of the electorate. And only 60 percent of registered Hispanic voters turned out to vote in 2008, compared to 72 percent of black voters and 69 percent of whites.

Meanwhile, Santos continues to watch Biden transfix the delegates with his epic song about common and decent people striving to better themselves, about decisive leadership and again about those humble folks asking only for an opportunity and a fair shot. The vice president goes down the list in his litany of fairness — middle-class taxpayers, women wanting equal pay for their work, young people seeking affordable loans to go to college. And then, boom — a quick reference to the dreamers — just enough for them to know they have been acknowledged.

“There you go,” Santos says. “President Obama believes that even though these dreamers — these kids — didn’t choose to come to America, they’ve chosen to do right by America and we should do right by them,” the vice president proffers.

“Yes,” Santos says. — JG

Fight for pro-life

The pro-life folks are on every streetcorner holding giant images of aborted, late-term fetuses and accusing every passerby — seriously, every one of them — of mortal sin. Outside the convention center, a man in a bowtie takes on a young protester in a baseball hat.

“So are you for the death penalty?” he asks.

“God punishes people for crimes, sir,” the protester says.

They move on to the issue of homosexuality, which the protester says is against the word of Jesus.

“Jesus never said a word about homosexuality!” the guy responds.

The protester pauses for a moment. “You’re a devil, sir.”

And on it goes, in escalating tones, until a small crowd of amateur and professional media form a scrum around the two, cameras, cell phones and boom mics capturing every exchange.

They aren’t chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” like on the school playground, but that’s what they’re waiting for. — BC

Protest fatigue

Duke Energy is the target of several seemingly spontaneous protests throughout the week, with a dearth of permits beginning Tuesday pushing demonstrators to show up and pull off protests in a flash. After I talked to several people connected to cccupy and other groups throughout the state, one member of Occupy Charlotte agrees to circulate my number so protesters could text me with a time and location to show up.

“3:30. Intersection of Stonewall and Tryon” is the only tip I get, but it’s enough. Twenty people unfurl a large banner that looks like money painted on what appears to be Astroturf. Media quickly circle the small contingent, but not as quickly as cameras inside the convention center pounced on Wayne Knight, better known as Newman from “Seinfeld” or for his roles in Space Jam and Jurassic Park, earlier in the day.

While Duke CEO Jim Rogers tells the convention of the importance of clean energy, including new nuclear and wind power as well as electric vehicles, the protesters focus on Duke rate hikes and dirty energy, tying the company’s in-kind contribution to the DNC to what they say is a trend of corporations trying to buy politicians and elections.

The protesters, soon flanked by around 30 police, are joined by more demonstrators, and after a brief rally with speakers in front of a Duke Energy building, they step off, marching north on Tryon Street through downtown and crowds of delegates and other convention-goers on the sidewalks. Police on bikes and on foot line both sides of the march as it progresses towards a throng of Jesus freaks and anti-abortion protestors who stand across from a small Code Pink gathering including well-known activist Medea Benjamin.

The next day at the same corner, six protesters in their twenties run into the intersection and roll out a long banner reading, “Duke is destroying our earth with taxpayer dollars.”

Three people sit in a circle facing outwards on top of either end of the banner, linking arms for 10 minutes as a massive crowd gathers on the corners and waits to see how nearly 50 police officers would react. The officer in charge speaks with each of them several times, squatting down and asking at one point, “You realize you’re impeding traffic?” The protesters say they don’t intend to get arrested, that they just want to talk to Rogers, but after giving them a 10 minute warning the officer instructs them via megaphone to leave and when they don’t, officers slowly move in to pry their hands apart and carry them into a waiting prisoner transport van.

“The First Amendment has no time frame!” they chant, but the entire protest is wrapped in 40 minutes.

Other expressions of dissent don’t happen on the street, like the American Friends Service Committee’s art exhibit on the human cost of war in Afghanistan, which Obama said in his acceptance speech would end in 2014.

“We believe it is important to witness against war and for the dignity and worth of all human beings for whatever administration,” says Lori Fernald Kamala, who works with the organization in Greensboro. “Our military budget is out of control and is still vastly disproportionate. In these days of extreme partisanship… it’s more important than ever to see through the political rhetoric to find the humanity in those most affected by our national policies.”

Some of the murals in the exhibit at Spirit Square were created by Guilford College students, says Kamala, who interned with the Quaker peace organization. — EG

Big tent, big names

Several musical acts take the stage on the last day of the convention, though most of them like James Taylor remain low-key. The most energetic performance comes from Mary J. Blige, who seems oblivious to the fact that most people present were probably too old to understand what she means by “Let’s get it crunk,” leading me to wonder what would have happened if the convention actually got “that Dre track pumpin” like her lyrics encouraged.

Among the star-studded list of notables in town is YouTube phenomenon Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout from Iowa who made an impassioned speech in support of gay marriage, citing his normal family with two mothers, which made the rounds on the internet and will soon be the subject of a memoir.

I run into Wahls in the arena concourse giving a radio interview shortly before College Democrats National President Alejandra Salinas, who had spoken earlier, runs past me down the elevator, gone before I realize who she is and can ask her for a comment.

All of the action isn’t up on the stage — cameras pan away from Caroline Kennedy onstage as Jesse Jackson and an entourage walk along the convention floor.

Celebrities are tucked away elsewhere too, with media bigwigs in an expansive press area, Anderson Cooper visible in the CNN booth at the back of the arena and the presidential and vice presidential candidates for the Green Party outside the Charlotte Observer’s building.

Jill Stein, the Green Party’s choice for president, stands outside the newspaper’s base of operations answering a reporters questions after being called outside by a contingent of supporters.

Stein had gone inside the building for an interview but when her running mate Cheri Honkala, a longtime activist and organizer from Philadelphia, tries to get inside, dozens of police appear. Honkala and supporters pull out several banners and picket in a circle, declaring housing and healthcare as human rights before police begin to peel off and Stein comes out to see what’s going on. — EG

Cop rock

One of the stars of the convention is a hit on the streets: police officers taking turns directly traffic at the intersection of North Tryon and East 5th streets draw crowds as they dance and energetically instruct cars and people when to move.

“These girls are acrobats!” one pedestrian yells from the curb, pointing to two elementary schoolers near her. After stopping all traffic, the officer invites them to cross the sidewalk, and together they walk on their hands and perform flips, wowing the crowd as some laugh and shake their heads in disbelief at how surreal the entire situation is.

While the police certainly aren’t as entertaining throughout the convention, passersby comment that officers are showing professionalism and restraint when dealing with protesters.

“I definitely don’t feel like it’s a police state,” a man named George says, adding that he had been frustrated by police who don’t seem to know where he was allowed to drive for work and denying him entry inside what is known as “the cage.” “I guess, you know, they brought cops in from all over the South and most of them are just too afraid to say the wrong thing.”

He says the Secret Service has been particularly helpful, recognizing him as he comes and goes for work throughout the week. Later that day I will have a similar experience, as one of the men who normally looks steely and stern jokes with me about putting sunscreen on my face and makes fun of one of the nonsensical street proselytizers. — EG

Pot cop

He’s a cowboy, clearly, with a big white cowboy hat, boots and a belt buckle big enough to serve scones on, wearing the kind of mustache particular to military and law enforcement types. But his T-shirt reads, “Ask me why cops should legalize pot.”

Turns out Howard “Cowboy” Wooldridge is a former police officer, from Lansing, Mich., but has for the past six years worked as a lobbyist in Washington, DC for the reform of marijuana prohibition. He says he is a regular guest at Grover Norquist’s Wednesday brunch, where a lot of right-wing types back his position but are thus far unwilling to stand beside him in his quest.

“The Republicans are not being true to their conservativism, and the Democrats are straight-forward cowards,” he says.

He’s not talking about medical marijuana laws, which 17 states have adopted.

He wants a full stop to prohibition of marijuana, and eventually other drugs at the state level.

“That tells the federal government that they can have their prohibition,” he explains, “but were not gonna participate.”

Drug prohibition, he says, stretches law enforcement resources, fills our jails needlessly and, most important, is ineffective in stopping drug use.

“Chasing Charlie Sheen is a fool’s errand,” he says.

So… how’s that working out for him? “It’s going…,” he says. “It’s going.” — BC


The GOP has not cornered the market on the entrepreneurial spirit — the DNC is jammed up with small-business types hawking everything from T-shirts to calendars to posters to bobbleheads to hand puppets to Obama air fresheners you hang from your rear-view mirror.

On College Street, a young man in a charcoal-gray suit pulls a selection of neckties from his bag, sets them on a low stone wall and begins to hawk.

“Neckties! Get your neckties!” He’s Cortez Brown, a former basketballer for UNC-Pembroke and car salesman who lost his job after a wreck with an 18-wheeler. These are his ties — he chooses the fabric, cuts and sews them under the label Portland Saint Chase, and things are going so well he now has four seamstresses working for him.

“This is what the DNC is all about,” he says during a lull in sidewalk traffic. The American Dream, chasing the American Dream. I’m gonna try my hardest to chase some of that loose cash!” He just turned 25, and says that he’s not all that into politics.

“People my age, he says, “Democrat, Republican, we all just trying to survive, you know?” He says he sold 20 yesterday in about two hours, not bad at $20 a pop. He’d like to sell another 50 today.

“Ties! Ties! Get your neckties! Stay distinguished!” — BC

The gay thing

NC Rep. Marcus Brandon, the only openly gay member of the NC General Assembly, is getting the rising-star treatment at the convention with the job of delivering welcome remarks to both the African-American and LGBT caucuses on Monday and Tuesday.

Brandon has also received an invitation, along with other black lawmakers to a meeting with the Obama campaign at an undisclosed private residence in Charlotte, but says he couldn’t attend because of a prior commitment.

Democrats in North Carolina have a quandary as it concerns gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens: This particular base is mobilized because of Obama’s statement in support of same-sex marriage, but North Carolinians voted 61 to 39 percent earlier this year to change the state constitution to restrict marriage to only to a man and a woman. Brandon does his best to finesse the issue of North Carolina becoming the 31st state to pass such an amendment in his remarks to the LGBT Caucus.

“I want to let everybody know that we didn’t lose a thing, and that no one else has lost a thing,” he tells the capacity crowd, “that more people came to our side than went to their side.”

North Carolina is well represented in the room. Deb Butler, an openly gay candidate for NC Senate from Wilmington, follows Brandon at the podium. Mandy Carter, a longtime civil rights and LGBT activist who helped found Southerners On New Ground in Durham in 1993, is in the audience. So is Ryan Butler, a Greensboro lawyer who serves as chair of the NC

Democratic Party’s LGBT Caucus.

I ask Butler if he thinks there’s any residual anger in the LGBT community about the president coming out in support of same-sex marriage the day after the vote on the marriage amendment instead of before, when it might have done some good.

“There were only a few people who even raised an issue about that,” Butler insists to me. “I have not heard one word of criticism. People quickly realized that having Obama be the first president to support marriage equality was a huge deal. The vote on Amendment One was a crushing defeat. That made us feel so much better to hear him that the day after. Obama could have waited until after the election. Frankly, it was politically risky to do what he did.”

Two days later, I intercept Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen passing through the press section at Time Warner Cable Arena. Thigpen, who was a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to allow North Carolina churches to perform same-sex marriages — or not — according to the dictates of their faith, characterizes the convention as a “mosaic.”

“We are all in this together,” he says.

“We’re not looking for handouts. We’re people of hard work, discipline and selfreliance. We’re all in this together. I see people of all races here, gay and straight people. I see Sikhs and Muslims and Christians.

“We’re in the midst of a huge shift under our feet,” Thigpen continues. “There is a huge number of people coming of age. They’re biracial families. They’re partners working together. As one kid told me: ‘We’re so over those issues that divide us.’ The challenge is, who’s going to speak to them? The Democratic Party is more attuned to it than the Republican Party. But they’re going to have to deal with it, too.”

Buried in the president’s speech in less than a sentence is an acknowledgement of three constituencies, neatly interweaving the aspirational narratives of immigrants, gays and soldiers.

“You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer have to be deported from the only country she’s ever called home,” he tells the audience.

As if to underscore Thigpen’s point, the cameras pan to a group of Sikhs waving American flags.

“…why selfless soldiers won’t be kicked out of the military because of who they are or who they love; why thousands of families have finally been able to say to the loved ones who served us so bravely: ‘Welcome home.’” — JG