Reflections on the RNC and DNC – National Consumers League

Last week I attended the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. What a contrast with the Republican convention in Cleveland, which I also attended, the previous week. The RNC was overwhelmingly white (there were approximately 18 black delegates at the Republican National Convention.

Yes, eighteen, or roughly 0.7 percent of the 2,472 national delegates in Cleveland, the lowest percent since 1912, according to Daily Kos) – by contrast, the DNC was 50 percent people of color. At the RNC, I attended some great programs during the days. However, the activities on the street were, at times, downright scary. I blogged and posted photos on Facebook of the demonstrations and characters on the streets around the convention. I like to think that Diane Arbus[1] would have envied some of those photos.

Many of the speeches at the RNC were also dark and foreboding, describing the U.S. military as a “disaster,” claims that United States is on a dangerous path toward tyranny and violence, the Democratic candidate is a “Lucifer” and chants aimed at Hillary of “guilty” and “lock her up.”

Last week’s DNC was decidedly different in spirit and mood: upbeat, optimistic, diverse, and joyful. It featured a far more diverse crowd, a huge millennial presence – female and male – with young folks exuding a palpable excitement about the first woman ever nominated to be President. Thankfully for people like me, I saw none of the misogyny or hate so much in evidence the week before.

And we can be very grateful for one more thing: there was no violence at either the RNC and DNC. This wasn’t an accident; both cities avoided violence because of meticulous planning by law enforcement. The fact that both conventions were peaceful is a miracle given the nastiness of this Presidential race, and in the RNC’s case, the white supremacists threatening to come to Ohio, and the state law permitting gun owners to sling AK15 lightweight assault rifles over their shoulders like out of Gunsmoke.

We can’t discount the anger of Bernie-or-bust supporters at the DNC, who continue to cling to the notion that the nomination was stolen from them. For the record, Sanders received 3 million fewer votes than Clinton and had around 970 fewer pledged delegates. Even so, every Democrat I talked to, including elected officials, embraced much of Bernie Sanders’ platform: higher minimum wage, repeal of Citizens United, adjusting the growing gap in wealth.

In any event, huge kudos should go to officials in each city for their careful planning and for keeping attendees safe. 

During the daytime at both conventions, I attended events sponsored by NCL donors on women in politics and health care, and including one in Philadelphia we co-hosted, underwritten by Eli Lilly on fighting Alzheimer’s. Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ed Markey (D-MA) spoke. Stabenow is working in Congress to increase research and funding for Alzheimer’s, and Markey talked about his brilliant mother’s descent into the illness, and how we must demand that NIH more robustly set a timetable for finding a cure. B. Smith, the glamorous and successful restaurant owner who suffers from the illness, came with her husband, who spoke eloquently about her determination to beat the disease. She stood stoically by his side as he noted that communities of color and women are more likely to get Alzheimer’s and more research is needed to understand why.

NCL has many friends in Congress. Janette Fennell, who runs, and I drove to Wells Fargo Field on Wednesday to hear President Obama, Vice President Biden and his wife Jill Biden, VP Nominee Tim Caine and many others speak. We rode with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), the democratic House co-sponsor of The Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2008. When I was Senior Product Safety Counsel at Consumers Union, Janette and I worked together on this bill to require that all cars have rearview cameras so toddlers don’t get backed over and killed because they cannot be seen behind the vehicle.

Then-New York Senator Hillary Clinton was our Senate Democratic co-sponsor. Schakowsky and Clinton came to know one another well in the course of trying to get this bill passed. I enjoyed watching Schakowsky’s TV interview the next day describing Hillary Clinton as a wonderfully generous colleague and ally in Congress. Senator John Sununu (R-NH) and Rep Peter King (R-NY) were our Republican co-sponsors for that bill, and they were key to getting it enacted and signed into law by President George Bush. Though a Republican, Congressman King also speaks highly of working with Senator Clinton and her staff on the legislation.

This bill was enacted eight years ago, but full implementation won’t happen by in 2018. By then, every car should have a rearview camera.

So back to the convention. It’s hard to fully capture the excitement and energy in the hall throughout the week. The young women and men cheering wildly for Hillary … the “I’m With Her” buttons, bumper stickers, hats and t-shirts … the African American and Hispanic women and men chanting in support of their candidate … the disability rights activists, the full embrace of LGBT members, the union presence … I ran into Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, at the Emily’s List event; her union of teachers has for decades famously deployed its millions of members door-to-door for candidates.

Indeed, attendees at the DNC understood this is a turning point in American history. For the first time in 240 years, the United States has a woman running for President who has been endorsed by a major party. As a life-long feminist and head of a women-founded pioneering organization like NCL, being in the hall when Hillary came to the podium to accept the nomination felt like a fulfillment of the wishes and hopes of so many American women throughout our nation’s history. I have to believe that NCL’s founders and leaders—towering figures in their own right, each of them enormously talented—Florence Kelley, Josephine Goldmark, Francis Perkins, Eleanor Roosevelt—would have savored the moment.

What is particularly vindicating for feminists is hearing the most powerful men in the world, President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, VP Joe Biden, billionaire and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Tim Kaine, endorse a woman to be our next President. American women have been waiting generations for this moment. No, sexism and misogyny won’t disappear if we have a woman president. Women still earn less than men and sexual harassment, sexual assault on campuses, and discrimination in the workplace will be with us for a long time. But this is a transformative moment for women in America and around the world.

I remember a friend telling me she attended college and law school with Hillary Clinton. While they were at Wellesley together, Hillary was regarded as so very talented that her classmates believed she would be the first woman president of the United States. They were dismayed when she decided to follow her hayseed boyfriend to Arkansas! They were sure she’d be lost to them forever. Well, I guess their instincts were right.

This will be a difficult and long few months until the November election. But it will be full of firsts. Our daughters and sons are watching the glass ceiling be broken; and just as we watched Barack Obama make history as the first successful African American candidate for the presidency, we at NCL will be in the front row watching with awe and excitement the first woman nominated by a major party running for the highest office in the land.

[1] Diane Arbus, as her Wiki page notes: was an American photographer and writer noted for photographs of marginalized people—dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers – and others whose normality was perceived by the general populace as ugly or surreal.