By Marc Pitzke
When Barack Obama has an idea, he first bounces it off of Valerie Jarrett. The senior White House advisor is an old family friend, and after first lady Michelle Obama she's the president's closest confidant. She's a cool-tempered yet uncompromising messenger. What she says comes directly from the top.
On Tuesday afternoon, Obama sent Jarrett to a windowless room in the Charlotte Convention Center. Around 600 delegates and guests of the Democratic National Convention, which was about to kick off in a few hours, sat in the room. The pink signs and rainbow buttons gave away who they were: the LGBT Caucus, representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Democrats. Never before have they come to a party convention with such strength and confidence.
Obama has a complicated relationship with his LGBT supporters. As a candidate, he made big promises, but as president, he was often accused of dragging his feet. His endorsement of same-sex marriage, his repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military, his refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act -- all that came in baby steps, and even then under pressure.
That's why Jarrett, dressed in a salmon-colored suit and pearls, was sent to rid the last elements of doubt from the caucus. She told the group of her tears when the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that discriminated against gays serving in the military was finally ended. She regaled them of meetings with activists. She even mentioned Lady Gaga. She reminded the delegates that much has been achieved.
By the end of her speech, the room was on its feet chanting, "Four more years! Four more years!" Mission accomplished.
The first thing one notices at the DNC is the diversity of its attendees: whites, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, women, men, students, seniors, gays, straights, progressives and moderates. The contrast to the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week couldn't be greater: There, the arena was full of aging and graying white people.
Democrats have made diversity a big part of their identity. They present themselves here as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-generational and gender-inclusive patchwork party: 27 percent of the delegates are African American, 50 percent are women and the LGBT contingent is larger than ever.
'Our Vision Lives On'
"This is truly the most diverse, the most open, the most transparent, the most exciting convention we're about to undertake," Democratic National Committee Secretary Alice Germond told reporters in Charlotte. "It is big, it is bold, it is beautiful. It is America."
That's also the image the party wants to project to the rest of the country. Obama hopes to revive the rainbow coalition that carried him to victory in 2008 and, at the time, appeared to secure long-term power for the Democrats. He anticipated the demographic changes long taking place in the United States. The country is getting less white and less homogenous.
That fact is something party leaders are also well aware of. Every splinter group, every faction of the party is once again on the agenda -- either speaking on the podium, presiding over caucus meetings or showing up in the party platform, which this year reads like the 2008 Democratic platform on steroids. It includes broken campaign promises made to the left, like the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
"Diversity is the key to our country's survival," said Portia Spann, an African-American Democrat who accompanied her blind uncle Patrick Miller, a delegate from Louisiana, to the convention. Both check multiple boxes for the party: They're touring through meetings of black, disabled and LGBT delegates. Asked whether she still believes in the spirit of 2008, Spann said, "Sure ... our vision lives on."
Fear of Romney Binds Party Together
That being said, many Democrats have long been dissatisfied with their party. "We still have a lot to do," said Marcus Brandon, an African American and the first openly gay member of North Carolina's state legislature. "It's one step forward and one step back," lamented Deb Butler, a lesbian candidate for the state senate.
It's not just the collective vision that binds the Democratic Party together -- it's also the collective fear of Republicans and their candidate, Mitt Romney, who could turn back everything Democrats have accomplished.
"That is, if they get back in the driver's seat," said North Carolina delegate James Butz, before trailing off with a shudder. The 66-year-old retiree, who is part of the seniors caucus, fears for the future of Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly. That's why he's donned his old campaign hat, which reads "Vote Obama," alongside the date of the last presidential election (Nov. 4, 2008).
The emphasis on collective worries covers up the fact that parts of the Democratic Party's broad coalition have become fragile. "They may not be as exhilarated as they were last time," Caroline Kennedy told the New York Times. "But I think they are just as committed." The daughter of John F. Kennedy, who in 2008 named Obama the heir to her father's political legacy, said Democrats were approaching 2012 in "a more serious sober way, given the conditions."
Many Unions Sit Convention Out
And therein lies the rub. Seldom have the Democrats succeeded in uniting all their diverse groups under one umbrella without a quarrel. This year, too, some groups haven't even bothered showing up to the convention.
One such group is the unions, traditionally the backbone of the party and the glue that holds many of the factions together. Many decided to sit the convention out to protest its location in North Carolina, a state whose laws are not union-friendly. Richard Trumka, leader of the umbrella AFL-CIO union group, is scheduled to speak at a plenary speech on Wednesday. But in a letter sent last month to union officials, he advised them to find a "more effective and grassroots way" of political engagement than PR shows like the convention.
Others see the glass as half-full. Sure, they would have to "school" Obama on their interests, said LGBT activist Melissa Sklarz, who had supported Obama's rival Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary elections. "But he learns very quickly," she said.
So Sklarz tows the party line and cheers on dozens of speakers of all colors at the convention. Among them are Deval Patrick, the black governor of Massachusetts; Julián Castro, the Latino mayor of San Antonio; a whole host of women; and Jared Polis, a congressman from Colorado. "I am Jewish. I am gay. I am a father," he told the convention amid roaring applause. "But first and foremost, I am an American."
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