Bionca Gambill spreads out the campaign buttons she’s about to buy and explains each choice:
“I have two Fishermen for Obama, because my husband and my son are fishermen, and an Educator for Obama; my daughter-in-law is a teacher,” says Gambill, a nurse and Indiana delegate at the Democratic National Convention here.
“I have a couple of Proud Democrats because I am one, of course. I got the Aliens for Obama just because I appreciate the hidden, deeper, darker meaning of that, and I got the Hipsters for Obama because my son, who is 30, thinks he is a hipster,” and here the 55-year-old mother of three adds a slight eye roll to her smile.
These are not the buttons of the guy with a board standing on the street corner. This is official DNC merchandise, made in America, literally and figuratively — badges of a tribe with a culture and sensibility that is distinctive to Democrats. Pearl Divers, Bus Drivers, Postal Workers, Zumba Lovers, Beach Bums, Kayakers, Sisters (as siblings), Sisters (with wimples), Bartenders, Printers — all for Obama.
Two-and-half bucks a piece, and people are lining up to unapologetically flaunt their identity politics.
Gambill’s description of her people: “We are every color, shape and size,” she says, waving her hand at the throngs inside the Charlotte Convention Center. “ You pan that crowd last week,” at the Republican convention in Tampa, “and what you see is a bunch of white, middle-aged people, row after row after row.”
The Democratic Party is nothing if not diverse, yes; but with that diversity comes division — fierce and passionate even if not often visible. And not everyone who has traveled to Charlotte — and is likely to vote for Obama — is cheering the incumbent president. Just days before the proceedings began, about 1,500 people rallied in Charlotte, agitating for labor and immigrant rights, for LGBT equality and same-sex marriage, against nukes and fracking and drone strikes. In their eyes, the administration had not gone far enough in achieving these goals.
Leticia Ramirez was one of them. “We want Obama to decide on what side is he” on, she told “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman, whose progressive radio show has been broadcasting from the political conventions. “A lot of families have been separated because of the deportation that he’s been doing. So we want him to decide if he wants to be with the Dem community or he wants to be deporting more people every day.”
A now-disgraced North Carolina native son once excited Democrats with talk of two Americas, by which John Edwards meant rich and poor. The back-to-back conventions do represent two different worlds, but not on that stark fault line. Delegates here are plenty comfortable, and most are middle-aged and older, just as in Tampa. The financiers step out of black sedans and their peletons of brisk aides glide them to donor-maintenance events, just as in Tampa.
Dem World is a more vibrant place, a noisy and ebullient carnival where there is always something to see. Democrats are still thronging Charlotte’s streets at 3 a.m. At parties, they fist-pump to hip-hop and swivel to reggaeton, and the black folks and Latinos tolerate the awkward dance moves of the white folks, just lean out of the way, because being a Democrat means everybody is used to the majority wanting to get cool by hanging with the minority.
At Planned Parenthood’s “Sex, Politics and Cocktails” party Tuesday night, the young female warriors for choice dance with the gay boys. The playlist is totally incoherent, Chuck Brown and Van Morrison and Jay-Z and that fizzy-pop and already-over “Call Me Maybe,” but that's Democrats, everything and the kitchen sink — and condoms in hot-pink packages that read “Protect Yourself from Romney and Ryan in This Election.”
Dancers in white go-go boots performing their floor show on top of tables, to Abba? That’s an establishment party in Dem World, just another night at the Democratic Governors Association.
Delegates from rural red-states’ liberal pockets, and exurbia, drink in the urbanity of it all.
Leanne Kunze, 41, is an AFSCME staffer from Waconia, Minn., “Tea Party Central,” she says. The first thing she and some of her fellow Minnesota delegates did when they hit town was to go off the map, “to drive around and find some real local barbecue.”
That’s what Democrats do, says Uduak Ntuk, 33, a petroleum engineer from Long Beach, California.
“I have a lot of friends who are Republicans,” Ntuk says. “They live in gated communities. They don’t go to certain parts of town.”
“My name is Wayne Borders. I’m from Columbia, South Carolina, and I’m here on behalf of Occupy Columbia. And the reason I’m marching today is because the Democratic Party really hasn’t done anything, in my opinion, to really push for the end of discrimination in the workplace for gay trans, lesbian transgender people, and just queer people in general. That’s one of the reasons why I’m marching today.” — “Democracy Now!,” Sept. 4.
“Tell me what democracy looks like!”
“This is what democracy looks like!”
Marvin Stovall is leading the 547 members of the California delegation in a thunderous call-and-response inside Time Warner Arena Tuesday night, just before Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz gavels Dem World to order.
“Tell me what America looks like!”
“This is what America looks like!”
These conventions are TV shows, a slick marketing campaign projected through HD dazzle to an audience of devotees and the so-called persuadables. And, in Madison Avenue terms, inhabitants of Dem World are “zesties,” people who like life a little hot.
At the arena and convention center this week, how it looks to viewers is how it looks on the inside: A Hispanic keynote speaker followed by the African American first lady — both of them preceded by Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama's basketball coach brother, towering over Maya Soetoro-Ng, Barack Obama’s half-Indonesian sister.
All the minority faces caught by the camera — no one needs to search for them. (Oh, there’s one up in Section 434, fifth row, pan to her when someone says “Pell grant.”!)
No, they are here in big numbers across the nearly 6,000 delegates — by population, they might be overrepresented. Some people will like that, as a mosaic of progress and inclusion in a country where whites will no longer be in the majority by as early as 2042, where one in four elementary school children are Hispanic, and where eight states have changed laws to let gay men and lesbians marry.
Some, in large parts of America, will definitely not like it. For them, it may be evidence that the America they value, their America, is slipping away under aggressive affirmative action, judicial activism, government meddling and godlessness.
In fact, most Americans do not live among people different from them, according to the Pew Research Center. More than ever, because of economic stratification as well as personal preference, we are in neighborhoods where people look like us, which tends to reinforce homogeneity rather than diversity. About as many people support gay marriage as oppose it, and a healthy majority say they support giving children who are here illegally a chance to stay, but also support laws requiring police to check the status of those they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally.
But: “Restore our Future?” asks Ntuk, referring to the campaign slogan of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. “Take us back, to what? Some world of the ’50s? Nick at Nite?” as President Obama has dismissed Romney’s vision for America. “It’s never going to go back. Never. That’s over. And that's a distorted retro-perspective anyway.”
Over at the official merchandise mart, Steve Ward sits at a folding table, takes up a Sharpie and autographs his artwork, available for $25. He’s a graphic designer who teaches at a technical school here. He entered the DNC’s contest to design the official poster — and won out of more than 400 entries. It’s called “Urban Unity;” it features pairs of hands, blue and red, reaching to clasp each other, with the sun’s rays and the Charlotte skyline in the design. What intrigued him about the contest rules was how they forbade the use of traditional political symbols.
So he knew he wanted to offer a sense of unity and portray the vigor of Charlotte,”which I love,” says Ward, who is 32 and grew up in Marion, N.C. “I knew I wanted it to be less streamlined, less perfect, not balanced. And I wanted it to have an urban-grit, grunge feel.”
Is he an Artist for Obama button guy? Printer for Obama? Hipster for Obama?
“Honestly? I’m the voter they’re trying to reach,” says Ward. “How ironic it was me. I’m not a huge politics fan. We hear the same rhetoric over and over again, them against us, us against them. And then they speak to us like we’re 2 years old.” He wanted to offer his own artistic voice against the rancor, and he’ll get royalties from the posters sold, which so far are among the most popular items.
Does he plan to vote for Obama? “I’d rather not say,” Ward says. In 2008? “I’d rather not say,” he repeats.
Overhearing this, a delegate from New Jersey pokes his companion.
“Hear that?” the man says. “That poster dude isn’t even a necessarily a Democrat. Now that’s diverse.”