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Conveying a Sure Sign of Political Passion

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Volunteers at the Democratic National Convention describe the detailed process of handing out the ubiquitous signs. Video by Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.com

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By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 26 -- Long before the evening program began, before Lee Hedgepeth got into sign-distribution mode, he was on the convention floor, checking out Hillary Clinton's rehearsal and seeing who else was doing what and why.

He spotted a celebrity he just had to meet. "Oh, I've got to get my picture with Biff Henderson of 'Letterman.' Hold on a second."

Now, Hedgepeth is primarily a sign guy. He camps out in the tunnel near the podium, clad in a fluorescent-green vest, and waits for his cue from convention officials to scurry onto the floor and quickly pass out the signs that the delegates feverishly wave in hopes that the television cameras will project them as an enthusiastic collection of Democrats. Which, of course, they are. But Hedgepeth is not just a sign guy. He's also a funny guy. So Biff Henderson comes along, David Letterman's stage manager and resident "Late Show" comedian? Hedgepeth quickly pulled out his cellphone camera.

But signs is what he does. Signs? Signs? Who wants a sign?

"Everybody wants a sign," said Hedgepeth, whose regular job is campaign and election field staffer for the National Education Association. On loan as a sign man. "I haven't yet run into anybody who doesn't want one. In fact, I usually run into people who want more than one."

Campaign signs are crucial to the stagecraft of conventions, and making sure they fill the hall at the right moment is essential orchestration. The signs are stacked backstage and wheeled out in trash carts for the green-vested crew.

"It shows a sense of enthusiasm," said Bill Burton, the Obama campaign spokesman. "We've got a lot to be proud of in the Democratic Party." And what would be the campaign's sign philosophy -- tall signs, square signs, homemade signs, more or fewer? That was way too much question for Burton. "I honestly don't know [expletive] about the signs," he said.

The blue Michelle Obama signs were a big hit on Monday night -- collectors' items. "I saw everybody walking out of the hall with those Michelle signs," observed Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). "But they were four feet tall!" Nothing Slaughter could do with hers. Usually when she goes to conventions, and she has been to many, she wants to keep the signs but finds them too cumbersome. "It's a great idea at the time," said Slaughter, "but I can never get home with any. I've left a lot behind for the hotel maids."

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said seeing the hoisted signs in a convention hall always lifts him. "A lot of a convention is about the image that is projected to the country." He considers himself a collector. One thing he'd like to collect is a certain bumper sticker: Obama-Bayh. The man who just lost out to Joe Biden in the vice presidential sweepstakes heard that a bunch of them had been printed up. "These are probably gonna be thrown in the trash now," quipped Bayh, "but I hope to get a few of them to show my boys that their dad amounted to something at some point."

Hedgepeth is on the floor to help with whatever delegates need to have a good time. He has even been given a title that is a little more professional than sign man, at least in convention speak: Hedgepeth is part of the floor "visibility team."

"It's not really that complex, actually," said Hedgepeth, who grew up and lives in Silver Spring. "It's a whole bunch of volunteers working to make sure signs get on the floor so that everybody gets to wave them and have some fun."

The fun began in the evening when the Pepsi Center started to rock.


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