Shadow' conventions may shift klieg-lights from GOP

Protest events are intended to highlight issues parties fail to address, such as global trade and campaign finance.

Joel Epstein was "disinterested" in politics-as-usual. And he certainly wasn't waiting with bated breath for either party's political convention this summer.

Nonetheless, the graduate student now finds himself volunteering full time, from sun up to sun down, seven days a week in Philadelphia.

No, he hasn't suddenly been inspired by Texas Gov. George W. Bush and jumped on the Republican bandwagon.

Instead, he's giving his all to the "shadow conventions," the bipartisan gatherings designed to steal the spotlight from both the Republican and the Democratic assemblies by addressing controversial issues that the organizers say the parties are either ignoring or giving little more than lip service. These range from campaign-finance overhaul to the growing income gap between rich and poor to the "failed" war on drugs.

Their goal - bolstered by an array of political stars from Arizona Sen. John McCain to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as well as an assortment of Hollywood celebrities - is to revitalize what they say has become a "superficial political debate" in America.

"It's hard to see how fundamental change is going to come from within the two parties," says Arianna Huffington, one of the main organizers of the Shadow Conventions. "Despite the fact that we're living in such prosperous times, there hasn't been any real reform during the past decade."

While both parties take issue with that assessment, they're also doing their best to ignore their shadow rivals. But some analysts say the parties have no one to blame for the alternative gatherings but themselves.

Over the past 30 years, conventions - once hotbeds of political debate, intense ideological wrangling, and fierce competition between candidates - have become little more than corporate-sponsored, pre-scripted political spectacles.

Even the TV networks, which once competed for the most comprehensive, up-to-the-minute coverage, are balking at interrupting their programming for any but the most important events.

"They became a coronation, and other issues were deliberately swept under the carpet," says the Brookings Institute's Stephen Hess. This lack of real political debate spurred other groups - like the shadow conventions - "to take advantage of the 15,000 reporters who will be there without a lot to do."

Critics have attacked the organizers as a group of malcontents who simply want to steal the spotlight from the parties.

But the organizers make no secret of their hope to entice a few klieg lights from the main convention hall. And they argue the cameras should come, because the shadow gatherings will offer what traditional conventions used to: real debate about difficult issues.

The organizers come from a broad spectrum of political backgrounds, notes Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group and one of the shadow's grass-roots conveners. As a result, they may not agree on much except that the current political system is badly broken.

"The challenge in reform is to connect the dots, to show the average person why it matters to them," he says. "Without that connection, people are either cynical and don't think it will happen, or don't understand what the possible solutions are."

As for critics who say it's the shadow conventions' issues that are out of touch, Ms. Huffington points out that before Senator McCain's New Hampshire primary win, the conventional wisdom about campaign-finance reform was that it was an issue that wouldn't fly. "That turned conventional wisdom on its head - it became clear that people cared deeply about campaign-finance reform."

But for all the organizers' earnest efforts to jump-start the nation's political debate, they're still dependent on the news media to make their point.

And so far, they haven't gotten a lot of ink. In part, this is because the media spotlight is still shining brightly on the two parties' preconvention maneuvering, like Governor Bush's recent choice of former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney as his running mate.

For the shadow conventions to be successful, they've got to steal at least some of that spotlight, says political analyst Diana Carlin of the University of Kansas.

"Given the people they have involved, and the kind of breadth, they are going to get some attention - I'm just curious to see how much," Ms. Carlin says. "But if the media doesn't cover it, it won't have much impact."

What happens after the conventions are over, she adds, will be key to determining whether these gatherings will be the beginnings of a new political movement, or a one-shot deal that will be forgotten by the next presidential election.

New Mexico's Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, who advocates decriminalizing certain drugs and taking a public-health approach to the nation's drug problem, will be at the shadow convention to talk about the need for drug reform. He says he's going knowing that his political career is already at an end.

"On an issue like this, the first one over the hill gets shot. I understand that," he says. "And that's the stage that real drug reform is at: It's taboo, completely taboo, everybody knows that, but they also know that it should be talked about."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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