Accidental convention delegate gripped by hands-on democracy

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Anybody worried about the state of American democracy - and who isn't? - could take heart at the political party conventions now taking place around the country. Conventions are democracy at its most participatory.

A first-time delegate to a convention, I was also an accidental one. At my town's Democratic precinct caucus in February, when a record number of citizens turned out to winnow the slate of presidential candidates to those "viable" (15 percent of the vote), volunteers for delegates to the April 24 county Democratic convention were called for. When a man demurred, saying "It would interfere with my golf game," my arm shot up and volunteered me.

Fine; a writer who engages issues at her desk now engages the grass roots.

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Cued by televised conventions, I went to the county convention expecting a party atmosphere - funny hats, delegates milling, gavels banging. But the mood was sober. Delegates - 1,500 of them, more than three times the usual number - showed up attired a notch more formally than is standard for Saturday.

A stranger, I approached others with the opener "This is such an important election" and connected instantly. Many confessed to "despair" over multiple issues - the war in Iraq and its "phony" rationale, the plunge from surplus to deficit, a "junk culture." Few mentioned 9/11, but it loomed. One of those strangers stated the day's theme best: "This great nation is in a fall. We've got to pull out of it. That's why I'm here."

How to do that was made explicit once the proceedings got under way. This being a Democratic convention, our common purpose was to unseat the sitting president. This was apparently powerfully felt - because fully half of the 1,500 delegates present, by a show of hands, were attending a party convention for the first time in their lives. This is a participatory record, and it felt like one. Candidates dropping by to make stump speeches looked out over the hall and exclaimed some version of "Wow!" In short, we were there about serious business. I wasn't the only one whose eyes teared up during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Candidates insufficiently serious, who miscalculated and simply bashed their opponent or indulged in empty rhetoric, met with tepid applause. But those who cogently distilled an issue and proposed a constructive plan brought us to our feet. Note to candidates: People are listening hard, and they want, pretty desperately, to hear solutions.

Platform review is where democracy can get messy. In our case it involved four pages of broad topics (education, healthcare, defense), broad language, and 1,500 opinions. We got tangled up in - I think - an amendment to an amendment. A delegate proposed, "in the interests of time," we adopt the platform and skip the discussion. A swarm of delegates headed for floor mikes to counter. This "time-saving" proposal wasted 10 minutes. But, as dividend, it brought out eloquent defenses of purpose, distilled on the spot, by people who probably don't consider themselves eloquent at all - people you see at the mall, the gym, around town.

Despite procedural bog, majority opinions were reached on key issues - impressive because they were taken by voice vote. Echoing still in my ears is the thunderous "NO!" to the proposal to lift the ban on import and ownership of automatic weapons - "to broaden our base" or "in case terrorism comes here." In that "no" was the yearning for normalcy and security.

Election of delegates to the district convention to be held late this month took us back to precinct groups, where the rhetoric receded, the personal emerged. Many people nominated themselves; strangers-turned-comrades nominated each other. The slate grew to 28 and included machinists, teachers, lawyers. Young people vied with retirees. With our fellow citizens arrayed in a semicircle, nominees stepped into the middle and gave 60-second gems of what Drama calls the "I want" speech: All began by stating how much they want to unseat Bush, all ended by asking for our vote. A college student said she wanted to show "not all young people are apathetic"; another woman was "just excited" about running. Both won.

The day's sober tone took on humor. The woman who confessed she was a "lapsed Republican" cracked us up - and won. To much laughter, a husband and wife both pleaded "Vote for me" - with apologies to each other. They ended up as alternates. My accidental status over, I ran on the promise of "talking moderate," to reach moderates in a campaign already extremist. It worked. Afterward, the machinist said, "I liked what you had to say, lady." My eyes moistened again.

I recently met a man whose doctor told him he had to stop worrying about the country. I hope that man was at the convention - participation would have done him good.

Carla Seaquist, a writer, is author of a new play 'Prodigal.' She was a John Kerry delegate at the Pierce County Democratic convention in Tacoma, Wash.

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