We caught a glimpse of the grandeur as we arrived into Philadelphia’s 30th St. train station, huge navy “2016 DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION COMCAST/NBC” banners unfurled along the walls. But the drive—and the walk—up to the Wells Fargo arena was rather unassuming. No thousands of protesters lining the streets. Cars crawl into the Philadelphia sports complex in organized fashion, like ants, unloading their cargo in the middle of a barren parking lot*. A white outdoor (yet somehow air-conditioned?) security tent teeming with Secret Service and Homeland Security officials. More walking.
*an uber sidenote. our uberpool from 30th St. to Wells Fargo arena happened to be transporting in addition to ourselves (1) one of three candidates for mayor in Baltimore and (2) an Uber brand ambassador. Upon starting a conversation, we realize that Uber has partnered with the DNC to amp up transport services. They have their own drop-off area and a cool hip tent with music, purple uplighting, free DD coffee and KIND bars. Uber is great, right? [running thought no. 1: isn’t it ironic that the DNC has partnered with Uber, one of the companies that makes up the very ‘gig’ economy that Democrats like Elizabeth Warren criticize for unfairly treating workers?]
People look like they’re about to melt. It’s cloudy, but 99° and the hot-air breeze feels bad. As we enter the Wells Fargo center, the floor looks cramped and slightly chaotic: a makeshift TV studio on air, tons of radio station operators squeezed into long narrow tables with their laptops and recording equipment—all right in the middle of the foyer with little room to maneuver around them.
We climb up, up, up. Escalator number one. Phone charging station (one of many). Discover xfinity’s super-speed free wifi. [running thought no. 2: isn’t it ironic that Comcast, the largest broadcasting company in the world and target of the very antitrust policies that the Clinton campaign and many Democrats are trying to expand (and, in fact, came under inspection by the DOJ antitrust division last year), is the provider of xfinity wifi AND the headline sponsor for the event?] Escalator number two.
But once we reached the upper-tier seating areas for those with “hall honored guest” passes, any flat skepticism gives way to wonder. My first peek into the entrance of section 220 and I mentally gasp at the scale of the 20,000-seat arena. This may be the largest meeting I to which have ever been. There’s something striking (albeit what must be at times unwieldy) about the power of democratic human assembly: what drives the motivation for thousands of people, loosely tied by some similar political beliefs (or shared aversion to others) to come together and rally behind a single set of ideas and a single nominee? There is at least some one from every state and territory in this room, from as close as Pennsylvania to as far as Guam.
In the beginning, we enjoy popping in and out of sections, comparing the views, but within an hour seats start to fill and it becomes clear that we need to settle in a seat for the night. We land in the second row of section 217. The first detail I notice about the space is the balloons: huge clusters of (thousands of) red, white, and blue balloons hanging from the ceiling, wrapped in netting, anticipating their Thursday night release onto the floor—for now, I imagine they’re giant ballasts keeping the space afloat. The floor is reserved for delegates and state representatives, the space demarcated with skinny state signposts that stick up vertically above the seats. The din of chatter as people mill about and mingle on the floor accompanies the speaker’s voice. No one is really listening to the speaker.
Now it was a little past 6pm and Nita Lowey was speaking. The minutes ticked by. The speakers weren’t particularly engaging, and I zoned in and out. I zoned in when John Podesta (HRC campaign chair) took the stage—few listened to him. The labor leaders received considerable applause when they came on stage. Demi Lovato spoke about battling mental health issues and then sang for the crowd with two back-up singers. 11-year-old Karla Ortiz from Nevada spoke about being afraid that her undocumented immigrant mother would be deported as her mother stood by her side. Jason and Jarron Collins, former NBA basketball players, spoke about why Hillary mattered to them: Jarron on who he’d want in the White House as a role model for his kids, and Jason on who he’d want in the White House who would accept him for who he is, as the first publicly gay athlete to play in any of the four major American sports leagues. Al Franken gave a short funny speech with several jabs at Trump. Eva Longoria captured the diversity of Democratic party leaders and supporters that made this convention so special.
“A Latina woman from Texas is introducing the first black senator from New Jersey at a convention where we will nominate the the first woman to be president.” – Eva Longoria
But it wasn’t until comedian Sarah Silverman took the stage that I felt the power of—and surprising division within—the assembly. All it took was for her to start her speech with,”As some of you may know, I support Bernie Sanders…”
Uproar resounded. By the end of her speech, the 1900 Bernie delegates in attendance were chanting, “BERNIE! BERNIE! BERNIE!” Then she seemed to backpedal: “Can I just say, to the Bernie or Bust people: You’re being ridiculous.” Even more uproar. Now I couldn’t tell if people were changing “BERNIE! BERNIE!” or “HILLARY! HILLARY!” or “UNITY! UNITY!” I think I heard all three.
This was a recurring theme throughout the speeches Monday night: they would declare their devotion to Bernie, but eventually come around and say they were fully backing Hillary. But it wasn’t until they had clearly expressed who they truly supported. Were they simply benignly giving Bernie the honorable respect and acclaim he deserved, or trying to send their last final jab to Hillary and the establishment before surrendering to it?
The final speakers of the night dispelled any notion of party disunity, starting with—in my opinion, the person who gave the greatest speech of the night—NJ Senator Cory Booker. He woke people up. He electrified the crowd. He got every single person in the audience to cheer together. Because we are stronger together:
“Rugged individualism didn’t map the human genome. We. Did. That. Together.”
“In times of crisis, we don’t abandon our values, we double down on them.”
“When we are indivisible, we are invincible.” – Cory Booker
Cory Booker is a great orator. He grabbed people’s attentions like no other—and people held their attention for the rest of the night. He set the excitement levels for the rest of the evening. He quoted an African proverb and Maya Angelou. And you could tell he was pouring passion into his speech: twice, he pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow, his intense (yet smiling?) gaze never once wavering from the crowd. Someone behind me quipped, “Now THAT was a speech.” [running thought no. 3: slight remorse at the fact that the media gets to decide what bits of pieces of this conference people see, and Booker might not even receive TV coverage since he was so close in the schedule to Michelle Obama’s speech…]
And we all thought ‘THAT was a speech’ until silver-shoes-clad goddess Michelle Obama appeared. Booker may have been full of energizing and unifying rhetoric, but Michelle evoked PATHOS. With a touch of logos, her words were the perfect appeal to reason: a perfect explanation for why she, and Americans all over the country, believe in Hillary, and why we must do everything in our power to make sure Hillary becomes president. We felt our hearts leap out of our bodies when, in the first minute, she conjured up an image of her kids and how their lives changed when the Obama family moved into the White House (going to school in a black SUV, surrounded by Secret Service agents with guns, their little faces pressed against the glass). We felt our hearts squeeze with pain when she reminded us of our country’s history of slavery and segregation, a painful past from which we must draw strength to make change. We felt our hearts burst with pride when she extolled Hillary for “never [buckling] under pressure” and “putting those cracks in the highest and hardest glass ceiling.” We nodded emphatically when she declared that “the issues a president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.”
Now THAT was a speech. Michelle’s singular message was that Hillary will be the best president for our kids—our future—and her speech was the most passionate defense of Hillary I saw at the convention that night. [running thought no. 4: I was there, in person, to witness what many are calling the greatest speech ever given by a first lady. This is still sinking in.]
Joe Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren were handed a tough act to follow, but they delivered well. Kennedy recalled his first day in law school when he was reprimanded for failing to do his readings by his professor—none other than Elizabeth Warren.
“First day of law school. First class…
‘Mr Kennedy, what is the definition of assumpsit?’
‘Mr Kennedy, you realize that assumpsit was the first word in your reading?’
‘Yes. I circled it because I didn’t know what it meant.’
‘Mr. Kennedy, do you own a dictionary? That’s what people use when they don’t know a word.’
I never showed up unprepared for Professor Elizabeth Warren again.” – Joe Kennedy
Warren gave a classic Warren speech, championing issues like economic inequality and consumer protectionism, but with a personal twist. Something you may not have known about her: growing up as a minimum-wage-earning janitor’s daughter, she married at 19, attended a Texas commuter college for $50 a semester, and from there managed to become a public school teacher, professor, and United States Senator. Hearing about her roots, you understand why she gets it—why she fights for everyday Americans. In her words, “America is truly full of opportunity,” and we mustn’t let that America slip away from us.
“We are not going to be Donald’s hate-filled America. Not now, not ever.” – Elizabeth Warren
On to Bernie Sanders: you can’t help but smile when you see him and his mannerisms on stage. No fancy teleprompters for him: he ambles over to the podium and pulls out a folded sheet of paper from his pocket containing his speech. The crowd knows Bernie. “You know how much the average campaign contribution was?” “27 DOLLARS!” the crowd screams. “A government that represents all of us,” Bernie starts, and the crowd fills in, “NOT JUST THE ONE PERCENT!”And he knows the crowd, addressing us as ‘brothers and sisters’. He inserted two of the most striking stats on wealth inequality I’ve heard: (1) that the top 0.01 percent owns more than the bottom NINETY percent, and (2) that the top 1 percent earns EIGHTY-FIVE percent of new income today. On a less serious note, I discovered that Bernie comes closer than any other Democratic presidential candidate to saying the word “huuuuge” the way Donald Trump does: “Trump believes in huuuuuge tax breaks.” But back to a more serious note: Bernie’s speech answered the question of why he hasn’t given up yet—why he exclaimed to his 1,846 pledged delegates, to my initial astonishment, “I look forward to your votes during the roll call on Tuesday night!” It’s because what’s in it for him isn’t the title and duties of president. It’s the “struggle of the people,” the fighting to create the “most progressive platform in the history of the party.” He wasn’t about to let the Clinton campaign and the rest of the Democratic Party forget about these values. And he succeeded, big time. I know from the policy perspective, because I helped write one of the two new policies Secretary Clinton released this month which Bernie referenced in his speech (on college affordability and health care).
“It is no secret that Hillary Clinton and I disagree on certain issues. That is what this campaign is about. That is what democracy is about!” – Bernie Sanders
So this is what democracy is about, huh? All these people representing their people who come here to stand up for their beliefs, but reconcile their differences…because there is strength in numbers, and because we are stronger together. I was most impressed by the universal respect for diversity—of all forms—the convention speakers universally exuded. Even the two-hour wait for Uber didn’t quell our warm fuzzies.
What a night.