Two Backgrounds, One Vision
Delegates From Va., Md. Highlight Convention's Diversity
By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page A23
BOSTON, July 29 -- Tim Gibson's voice was nearly gone, but still he screamed Howard Dean's name and followed the directions coming fast from the Virginia delegation's whip: Stand up! Wave your sign! Sit down! Applaud! Stand up again!
Across the hall, in the Maryland section of FleetCenter, Soo Lee-Cho played her part. As speaker after speaker took to the stage, she joined her fellow delegates in whooping it up for the cameras that pan the auditorium.
For four nights here in Boston, Gibson and Lee-Cho have been cogs in the state-by-state machinery that has helped create one of the most harmonious political conventions in the nation's history.
Gibson represented Virginia, a conservative state that has voted for Republican presidential candidates for the past 40 years and is home to the largest naval base in the world. Lee-Cho came as part of the delegation from Maryland, a reliably Democratic state known for its strict gun laws and commitment to unions.
"I do not view myself as a prop because I agree with much of the message," said Lee-Cho, who, like Gibson, was attending her first national nominating convention. "But I think in such a large group setting with so many people it is not surprising they have some level of organization and planning. The actual conventions in the evening -- it's this whole media event. The Democratic Party has never been this unified."
But even as they were part of that unity, Gibson and Lee-Cho are symbols of the diversity in background and life story that is also a part of the convention.
Gibson is a welder who was trained in the Air Force. He spent the early part of his life working for $8 an hour in Troutville, a rural crossroads just outside Roanoke. In those early years, he clawed his way to 15-cent and 50-cent hourly raises.
All that changed when he joined the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, Local 100. Suddenly, he had better pay and good insurance. Now, at 42, Gibson is a full-time organizer for the union that turned his life around.
"If it weren't for unions, we wouldn't be making the wages we are today," he said.
Lee-Cho, 32, immigrated to Los Angeles when she was 4. She went on to get a bachelor's degree from UCLA and then graduated from Loyola Law School Los Angeles in 1996. She became an environmental lawyer and volunteered on some campaigns before moving to Rockville two years ago.
"I think America is a great country. I just think we need to go back to our values and what makes this country great," Lee-Cho said. "I will not live in any other country, but I am saddened what has happened in the last four years because of our image around the world."
Her frustration with the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq and what she sees as its failure to secure enough international help for the effort has energized her to work as hard as she can for Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee.
"I never thought we had the justification or connection between Iraq and Osama bin Laden," she said. "But now that we are there, we have to do it right. We have to get our allies and rebuild the trust in the international community. . . . I think pulling out would do more harm."
Gibson agrees with Lee-Cho about the war in Iraq. He said he is angry about the difficulties that soldiers are facing there and thinks Kerry will help turn the situation around.
"I'm a veteran," he said. "And like other veterans, I support our troops. But I do not think we should have gone in. We were misled in this war."
For Gibson, though, the key issue motivating him at his first convention is labor and how a new president would work with the unions. National and state labor leaders spoke from the podium, organized union caucuses and showed up at Virginia delegation breakfasts.
He said he wishes the nation were more like Maryland, which supports unions, and less like Virginia, where right-to-work laws weaken them.
"The current administration would like to have a national right-to-work law," Gibson said. "What we need is exactly the opposite."
At home, both Gibson and Lee-Cho dabble in national politics as a sideline when they're not working.
But here in Boston, it's all politics, all the time. In conversations with reporters or other delegates, Lee-Cho and Gibson have more time than usual to explore their views on subjects ranging from abortion and guns to gay marriage and the economy.
Although she calls herself a moderate, Lee-Cho would like to see almost all types of guns outlawed and favors rolling back President Bush's tax cut to pay for other programs. And to Lee-Cho, you can't do much better than Teresa Heinz Kerry.
"She is both family-focused and career-focused," Lee-Cho said. "She represents that balanced life that more and more women are living."
For Gibson, health care is important because he worked without insurance for himself or his family before getting a union job.
"I know people who are selling their land to pay for doctors' bills," he said, recalling a friend who was forced to sell 60 acres to pay for his wife's cancer treatment. "It's awful."
He's also concerned about the economy. "We've lost a lot of jobs in Virginia," he said. "Southwest Virginia has been extremely hard hit."
Gibson said he has been enjoying the convention more than he expected. During the days, he has attended union meetings and training seminars. During the evenings, he has screamed so loud that he lost his voice.
Former president Bill Clinton's speech ranks as one of the best. But Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), the vice presidential nominee, and Al Sharpton were good as well, he said. "It's been far, far better than I could have imagined," he said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company