By Len Lazarick
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hoopla, hooch and horse manure are all in abundance at conventions of either political party.
But why do thousands of people spend all that time, effort and millions of their own money and taxpayer dollars to come together every four years for an extended infomercial?
Experienced Democratic politicos from Maryland who’ve been to as many as a dozen national political conventions say they’re worth the expense for the energy and enthusiasm they generate and the networking and information sharing they provide. They also are a legally necessary step in electing a president.
“I think they’ve very important to have people come together,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the House Government Oversight Committee. “They’re an opportunity to rally the troops.”
Cummings, an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2007, said, “It also gives us an opportunity to define who we are.”
Small price to pay
“We’re going to get a major bump up in the polls,” he said.
“It costs a lot of money” but “it’s a small price to pay. It’s worth it.”
State Sen. Joanne Benson of Prince George’s County is attending her fourth convention.
“This is an opportunity for the story of the Democratic Party to get out to America,” Benson said. “The enthusiasm in the hall is absolutely overwhelming.”
Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown said he initially doubted how useful attending the Charlotte confab might be, but once he got here, he said he’s glad he came.
“They’re like a passion boost,” Brown said. “There’s that energy and intensity” the conventions develop that can help candidates get through the grueling last 60 days of a campaign.
Plus, “I like the three-day format,” Brown said.
Democrats shortened the convention due to Labor Day, and Republicans essentially did the same because of a threatened Florida landfall of Tropical Storm Isaac, which ultimately veered northwest and because a hurricane.
Part of a great tradition
This is the ninth Democratic convention for U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, now serving his 45th year in elected office. He is up for re-election this year and before that, served 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and 20 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, including eight as speaker.
“This is part of our great tradition,” said Cardin. “It does give us a chance for celebration and to focus on the upcoming election. I think this is an important part of us.”
State Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore public defender, has been to previous conventions in Los Angeles, Boston and Denver. She said it was important to point out, “We have to pay all our expenses. It’s not like it’s a junket.”
(Expenses for the governor’s security detail are picked up by the state. Congress provided $50 million each for security in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte. See previous Watchdog.org report on convention expenses.)
Gladden said conventions are useful because “we have uniformity of message. Everybody knows what to say” on issues that come up in the campaign in response to Republican messaging.
Great personal expense
Because of the personal expense, Baltimore County State Sen. Delores Kelley said, “It takes people who are really committed to the process.”
Kelley, who attended her first convention in 1988, said the convention “forces the party leaders to get on the same wave length of what the message ought to be. Message is important.”
She said that while the moves got little mainstream media coverage, the delegates amended the party platform to restore mention of God and a plank advocating that the United States recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (The official U.S. embassy is still in Tel Aviv.)
Kelley said any organization also needs “succession planning” to replace older leaders with younger ones. At conventions, party officials from around the country get to ask: “What is their policy expertise? What is their passion?”
Terry Lierman, a venture capitalist who was chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said, “I think conventions are useful in sharing stories and methods of campaigning,” as well as an opportunity for extended networking.
Cutting influence of backroom boys
U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., now the longest serving woman in Congress, played a role in the creation of the modern convention when she chaired the Democratic Party Commission on Delegate Selection and Party Structure for the 1976 convention.
The changes the Mikulski commission proposed have transformed conventions from being “the backroom boys making decisions” to one that affirms a primary process making conventions “broader, more diverse and representative of the constituency.”
“Before it used to be the bosses bringing their friends to vote the way they were told to,” Mikulski said.
Now, with the presidential candidate being chosen more directly by voters, “they’ve become more of an infomercial.”
But “you also solidify your base,” she said.
Energizing the base
Former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, past president and CEO of the NAACP, remembers when he and Mikulski went to the 1980 convention in New York as co-chair of the Maryland campaign for the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., trying to unseat incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Republican Ronald Reagan did what Kennedy could not do.
Conventions are “worth the time and effort because at the very least they energize the base,” Mfume said. “There’s nothing better to energize Democrats than other Democrats.”
Former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, a former political science professor, said conventions have “latent and manifest functions.”
Part of the latent function is “the staged opportunity to do a mass presentation to the nation,” as President Obama will do Thursday night.
But the “manifest functions” are the platform and the nomination.
Rally, message, certify and adopt
John Willis, former Maryland secretary of state and now professor of public policy at the University of Baltimore, said conventions serve four functions.
“Don’t discount the rally function,” Willis said, the purpose mentioned most often in interviews, and “the message function” as well.
“Much of the rhetoric you hear here echoes out” in the campaign, he said.
The talking points get replicated, serving an educational function. In more than 100 convention speeches, the same points get made over and over in different ways.
The message function used to be served by pamphlets, Willis said, but “word of mouth is still the most effective means of communication.”
Willis, author of books on Maryland politics and government, said conventions also have an official legal role. They provide “the certificate of candidacy” for state officials to put the presidential candidate on the ballot.
“There is an official document that will come out of this,” Willis said.
Conventions also set the rules for the party, a function more important in the Republican Party due to its bylaws. Those rules will apply to the 2016 election.
Success as infomercial
Glendening said the party could obviously perform the manifest and legal online or in smaller meetings, but the latent functions still need the mass get-togethers.
N.Y. Sen. Chuck Schumer told the Maryland delegation breakfast Thursday that the convention so far is definitely fulfilling its function as infomercial. “More people are watching our convention than theirs,” Schumer said.