PHILADELPHIA — They began walking before Hillary Clinton finished speaking, though you could hardly call it a “walkout.” They wore fluorescent shirts, in a bid to identify each other in the crowd. They had appropriated printed signs from the convention organizers and blacked out letters so that “Hillary” became “liar.” They quit early for the Xfinity lounge, a nearby sports bar where they were free to chant anti- Trans-Pacific Partnership slogans and wave signs without meddling from the Democratic floor managers.
It could have been worse — much worse. Since last Monday, a small group of Sanders delegates had been asking for, and getting, meetings with a Clinton brain trust. They bottled up the anger of more than a thousand Sanders delegates, and thousands more protesters in the streets, and carefully explained what needed to happen to prevent a blowup.
Nomiki Konst, a 32-year-old Democratic activist and commentator from New York, had been part of the discussions. She had not been thrilled by Clinton’s speech — “very carefully calculated” — but she saw how it changed, and responded, to the mood.
“I know she changed a few lines to appease the Bernie people,” Konst said.
The Democratic National Convention was a coming-out gala for the “Bernie or Bust” voter. Chanting “No more war” when generals took the stage and at other times taping their mouths to dramatize their “silencing” by Democrats, the hard edge of Sanders’s movement used the week to declare independence from the party.
Konst did none of that. For months, she had balanced a career as a pundit with full-on Sanders advocacy. She joined actresses Rosario Dawson and Shailene Woodley (“Ro and Shay”) on a bus tour. She slugged it out at Democratic platform committee meetings and beseeched the party to change “the business model” of its politics, of fundraising at the expense of populism. For two nights in sweltering Orlando, she stayed up until 2 a.m., informing followers on Twitter and Facebook of how the party really was being changed.
Her campaign came to a head in Philadelphia as she tried to bridge the most radical Sanders delegates — potential organizers, threatening to walk — with a party establishment she knew all too well.
The Sanders revolution brought people into politics who otherwise hated it, but it also pulled in professionals like Konst. She had been an activist for half of her life, starting with Hillary Clinton’s 2000 campaign for Senate.
“It was this weird manufactured thing,” Konst recalled. “I was basically recruiting kids to volunteer to canvass. Like a field person, but for college and high school kids. But I was infatuated with Hillary. Had her pictures all over my bedroom walls.”
Konst stayed in politics, but not in one place. She ran for Congress in Arizona but quit before the primary. She worked in Libya after the collapse of Moammar Gaddafi. More depressingly, she says, she became a bundler for the 2012 Obama reelection — “I thought: ‘$50,000?’ I can do that’ ” — and found a place in party politics.
The inner workings of Democratic politics were inviting to her, then quickly disgusting. On the day before the convention started, Konst told a cheering crowd of progressives that the power of the Sanders revolution had forced Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) to quit her post as chair of the Democratic National Committee. But few of them knew “DWS.” Konst did, and it broke her heart a little.
“When I was fundraising, she called me up and said, ‘Congratulations! You’re starting out just like I did,’ ” Konst said. “She was so nice, and I defended her for far, far too long.”
In joining the Sanders campaign, Konst aligned herself with a new left politics while looking and sounding like the sort of “acceptable” pundit allowed on television. One hour, Konst was being made up for a Fox News hit, debating a member of the tea party; another, she was flipping open Facebook Live to share the details of a Democratic platform movement with Sanders’s restive base.
“We have a contested convention, a candidate who won 46 percent of the vote in an insane system,” Konst said after leaving the stage at a rally on the eve of the convention. “The other candidate had two super PACs, all the money in the world, all the endorsements, and the Democratic Party itself — and yet this man, this socialist, came in and changed everything.”
On the first full day of the convention, Konst joined the rest of the Sanders delegation from New York in a breakout meeting downtown, at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel. Two things became clear: There was enough angry energy to disrupt the convention, and if no one steered it, both Sanders and Clinton would be embarrassed.
The Monday morning meeting revealed every pitfall, as delegates wandered around looking for a room that was not booked, growing angry with a hotel staffer who kept excluding them.
“Classic Hillary campaign,” grumbled one delegate, even though Clinton’s campaign had nothing to do with it.
“The media is here,” said Abigail Fields, a delegate from Long Island who stood up in a hallway to organize the delegates. “That makes this an unsafe space to communicate.”
Konst, standing to the side of the shambolic meeting, bristled at the open airing of grievances. “That’s on the record now,” said Konst, knowing how the “safe space” remark would sound to anyone outside the movement.
Konst knew then that there would need to be discussions with the Clinton campaign, which might not have realized how restive the delegations were. On the walk into Sanders’s Monday afternoon rally for delegates, she saw examples everywhere — delegates who could not imagine voting for Clinton, delegates asking her, as a Sanders surrogate, what chance she thought he still had.
At the rally, which filled the largest rooms of Philadelphia’s convention center, Konst and filmmaker Josh Fox flitted from spot to spot in a vain attempt to find a seat. An empty row of seats turned out to be reserved for Sanders’s family. “Let’s talk when you have time,” a regretful Levi Sanders, the senator’s son, said as Konst and Fox positioned themselves on the side of the stage, next to Ro and Shay.
When Sanders took the stage, Konst held her emotions close, standing on a chair and gripping one iPhone for live streaming and another for photos.
“You have heard me say a million times that this campaign is not just about electing a president,” Sanders said. “It’s about building a movement to transform this country.”
Konst’s tear ducts betrayed her, and she spent the next 20 minutes daubing her eyes as Sanders struggled to get his audience to accept the end of the campaign. “As a kid, you always want to see an honest man rise up, a ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ ” Konst said. But Clinton’s name was booed so lustily when Sanders mentioned her that that reaction dominated coverage of the speech.
There was little time to react, because a rumor flashed through the room: Clinton delegates were trying to seize every available seat, leaving none for Sanders delegates. Konst and Fox raced down to find no such scramble. Instead, there was more booing as old warhorses for Sanders, such the Rev. William Barber II, who leads the North Carolina NAACP, asked the crowd to get over itself and back Hillary Clinton.
“He mentioned the endorsement too early,” Konst said. “I told him he should have held it to the end.”
“They’re going to lose the election with this unity obsession,” Fox said. “They’re going to lose. I can’t believe it.”
Tuesday was easier, at first. Another rumor had the Sanders delegates panicking that the roll-call vote, which Sanders would obviously lose, had been moved up to get it out of TV time.
Konst raced back to Wells Fargo Center, newly frustrated at how unconcerned the Clintonites seemed to be about the movement beneath them. “I want more people with voices like mine in the media; I want more of the amazing people in this movement to run for office,” she said. “And they’re marginalizing them. It’s so frustrating.”
During the roll call, all of that came to a head. Konst, stuck at the front of the room in New York’s delegation, watched as her fellow delegates were boxed out. All they wanted was a role in the nominating vote, and they were not getting one.
“All the establishment people in suits went toward the microphone,” she said. “We were saying to each other, ‘Grab your signs, grab your signs, get in the shot.’ All these other states had Bernie people at the mic, and I asked if one of ours could do that. Basil [Smikle, executive director of the New York Democratic Party] said, no: They were going to have [New York Gov.] Andrew Cuomo do it.”
Konst shook her head. “We started getting closer. I said: ‘Basil, come on: We’ve had six meetings about unity. I’ve been working with you.’ And he’s like: ‘Come on, it’s her home state.’ Really? It’s Bernie’s home state, too.”
Konst watched as more than 200 Sanders delegates heckled the official Clinton nomination and bolted the arena. She followed them out, live streaming, to show what the DNC had wrought by angering the Sanders delegates.
The walkout gave Konst and her small group of negotiators proof that the Clinton forces needed to mellow out or they would court an even more embarrassing, live-on-TV, live-on-Facebook party brawl.
Over the next two days, the conversations between the two factions stepped up. Clinton’s campaign let it be known that this was always going to be negotiated, that the week was plotted out for there to be greater unity with every day after the nomination fight.
Konst ran back and forth, between the movement and the establishment. When Clinton spoke Thursday night, hundreds of Sanders delegates listened tensely for some sort of praise for their candidate. Konst knew what to expect — not just praise for the candidacy, but hard-won, tensely negotiated praise for his ideas.
“To all of your supporters here and around the country,” Clinton said, “I want you to know I’ve heard you. Your cause is our cause.” She added: “Our country needs your ideas, energy and passion. That’s the only way we can turn our progressive platform into real change for America.”
Konst listened to the whole thing. Then she, Fox, Ro and Shay — and all of the delegates, from the skeptics to the faithful — headed to the afterparty. The DJ spun every song with a punnable “burn” in the title, even if it had no beat. And everybody danced.