Political tsunami hits Dem convention

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2008

DENVER - Focus On The Family may have asked followers to pray for "rain of biblical proportions" during Barack Obama's outdoor speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. But for Juneau residents basking in the pinnacle of what they felt was a historic week it would have simply been another blessing.

Mark Sabbatini / For The Juneau Empire
Mark Sabbatini / For The Juneau Empire

"Colorado has needed rain - they're far short," said Cindy Spanyers, a delegate at the Democratic National Convention, who has relatives in the state concerned about drought and fire risk.

But while the weather was perfect, a political tsunami hit the morning after when Gov. Sarah Palin was named the vice presidential choice of presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain. The pick, making her the least experienced such nominee by a major party in a century, stunned the political world and dominated media coverage that normally would have focused on Obama.

Juneau's two Democratic delegates said the announcement won't take the wind out of their sails as they return home and begin campaigning in earnest this week.

"Absolutely none," said Gary Waid, one of three Alaskans who stood under the glare of international TV cameras to announce the nominating votes cast by the state's delegate. "Let's have a race," he said.

"It certainly did raise the profile of Alaska in the news some more," he said. "Other than that, I'm not thinking too much about what it means as a national issue."

For Alaska's 18 delegates, four alternates, family members and other party activists, the convention was four days of meetings and rallies that started at 7 a.m. and ended by getting back to their rooms sometimes close to midnight. They spent one morning doing community service and most found time to take in a few city sights, but as "prolies" they didn't get invites to the big-money parties where D.C. political operatives and other power players hung out.

Still, local delegates said there was plenty of opportunity for networking, hearing battlefield stories from previous landmark political events and fine-tuning strategies for the election.

"It absolutely was one of the absolute highlights of my life," Waid said. "One of my goals was to make a difference, and now I know I can."

Waid said he went into the convention intending to focus primarily on ways to end the Iraq war and similar issues as a member of Juneau Veterans For Peace, but found himself discussing Native issues at length among others facing problems similar to those in Alaska. One of his goals for the near future, he said, is recruiting more Natives for vacant state party committee spots.

"We hear from a lot of the young Native kids, saying 'Why should I vote? My vote doesn't mean anything,'" he said.

Labor issues were a primary focus of Spanyers, who said they got widespread support on petitions for the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, making it easy for employees to join a union. But that was progress achieved with a friendly crowd, while guest speakers promoting the legislation noted a long battle by companies such as Wal-Mart are eroding labor's presence.

"You never do this in one week," Spanyers said. "It's a lifelong process."

More immediate rewards came during the community service day Wednesday, when Spanyers joined half the delegation in boxing food for a local food bank and Waid spent the morning at Family Tree's House of Hope, a women's and children's shelter.

"Gary wore his Alaska Native regalia, brought his drum, and taught the rest of us a Tlingit dance to perform for the staff, women and young children," wrote Jane Bye, a Dutch Harbor delegate, in her blog about the convention. "So I got to do my first Native dance, and he proclaimed us all honorary Tlingits."

The morning breakfast meetings in a conference room at their hotel were cozy enough for attendees to go around the room for introductions, unlike, say, the 186 delegates and alternates from Ohio. Discussions typically started with logistics for the day, followed by guest speakers and strategic planning for the fall.

Media coverage, for instance, was a problem because television reporters kept doing their stand-ups right behind Alaska's designated section, crowding out the delegates and making it hard to hear speakers at the podium.

"We are characters in a play, so don't let anyone try to block you when you're on stage," said Cal Williams, a delegate from Anchorage. "I'm going to ask that somebody sit at the ends of the seats who is strong enough to say no."

The delegates' time on the floor reached its peak at about 3:50 p.m. Denver time Wednesday when Waid, Williams and state party chairwoman Patti Higgins, wearing kuspuks, stood at a podium in the back room to announce the delegations' official votes (which were actually cast in relative calm at that morning's breakfast). But their moment in the glare of international TV cameras was short-lived.

Shortly after the Secret Service began clearing the space behind the New York delegation, seated across the aisle, for a well-orchestrated appearance by Sen. Hillary Clinton to suspend the vote tallies and make Obama the nominee - which Juneau participants said they had no idea was coming. Same for Obama's appearance at the end of the evening following the acceptance speech by vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden.

"I had no idea until Joe Biden said 'Wait, we have one more special guest,'" said Marcus Sis, 16, a Juneau-Douglas High School student who was one of two Alaska youths serving as pages at the convention. "I said 'No way.'"

The final day under the sun at Invesco Field began with warnings for delegates to bring sunscreen and know that security restrictions prohibited umbrellas, noisemakers, banners, signs, unopened envelopes and many other things. But unlike many spectators who waited four or more hours to get in, the delegates arrived when the stadium opened around 2:30 p.m. and said the process was relatively painless.

"It was very thrilling being in the stadium and looking up at these thousands and thousands of people," Spanyers said. Whereas chants are typically started by organizers in a convention hall, Spanyers said people at the stadium were doing the wave.

As they got ready to go to the airport on Friday, weary and facing a mass wave of fellow travelers, including Labor Day vacationers, the Alaska delegates said they nonetheless had plenty of energy for a two-month battle in which the convention was only the warm-up. Spanyers said she planned to walk into the local Obama headquarters on Tuesday, hand out souvenirs to the dozens of volunteers there and start knocking on doors. Waid said he'd be trying to reach veterans' and Native groups.

"My quiet time is over," he said.

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