Fort Lee Delegate’s Daily Journal From Democratic National Convention
John Bang of Fort Lee is attending this week’s Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte, North Carolina as a District Alternate. Here, he details his experiences in his “daily journal” entries.
So I drove down to Charlotte Monday night after my wife got home from work. Packed the kids and a couple of bags into the Honda and away we went! I prefer the autonomy and freedom of driving to flying, and it’s cheaper than buying airline tickets for my entire family. But there are other costs to driving all night to North Carolina. The biggest price to pay, of course, is the big wet blanket of fatigue that enveloped me the next day. I managed to muddle through, however, thanks to a big dose of palpable excitement running through the entire city and the endless supply of free iced coffee at the Google hospitality shack.
It feels like the Democratic National Convention has taken over the entire city. It is a weekday, and yet I see no one person who isn't here who isn't participating as a delegate, working in some way for the Convention or protesting. If you aren't connected to the Convention in someway, I guess it's smart to flee town.
The streets downtown are mostly closed except to shuttle buses and police vehicles. Even on foot, it is difficult to navigate as the police closed off many streets leading to the Time Warner Arena. The transportation problem became worse when someone decided to move the shuttle bus pick up area. There are police officers from throughout the U.S. as well as the Capitol Police, Secret Service all pitching in, creating a massive Command & Control challenge.
I was forced to walk for two hours in a torrential downpour looking for a bus stop. At each bus stop I was told to go to a different bus stop. At one point, I saw empty buses lining up behind a fenced off area but the Secret Service officer refused to let the ever-growing and increasingly angry mob pass the gate to board the bus because that's what he was told to do.
Once the empty buses left the area, we couldn't board the bus because the police officers on the bus were told that they could only pick up passengers at the designated spot. When we pointed out that they could clearly see that we were not being permitted to get to the designated spot, they just shrugged and drove the empty buses away.
Two hours later, soaked to the bones (because some law enforcement agencies were told to confiscate umbrellas), I jumped in front of a bus and refused to move until they let at least my kids onboard. Compassion overrode orders, and the bus let my family board.
Unfortunately the bus driver was from Pennsylvania, and he didn't know the area, so he didn't know which hotel to drive us to, and when I told him, he didn't know how to get there. I had a fully charged phone (thank you, Google, for your wonderful hospitality shack with free Wi-Fi, snacks, sodas and gazillions of recharging stations) so I got him directions.
(Side Note: this incident reinforced my belief that we need to consolidate the Bergen County Police with the Bergen County Sheriff's office. Whenever you have more than one organization performing the same mission, you get confusion, miscommunication and inefficiencies. Try as they might, the 50+ law enforcement organizations present in Charlotte couldn't do what the NYPD does every day—not because the NYPD officers are better than Galveston officers but because NYPD has one person in charge, one chain of command and one communication protocol.
That aside, it has been a real treat to be in Charlotte. Manhattan would easily absorb 100,000 extra visitors—it does that and more every day. But then again, neither would it be a special treat for NY to host a national convention.
While it is obviously taxing the entire city to host the Democratic National Convention, it is also clear that this is a very special occasion for them as well, and I get the sense that Charlotte is going all out to welcome the delegates.
There is an incredible number of volunteers to greet and assist the visitors, there are hospitality stations throughout the city, there's so many freebies and souvenirs being handed out that the usual convention hawkers and vendors are having a hard time selling their wares. As I stated earlier, it really feels as if we, the visitors, have the entire city to ourselves.
Plus, there's usually a higher level of energy to begin with at Democratic Party events. I have friends on both sides of the aisle, and I have been to many Republican events. And they all seemed stuffy to me. Democratic events tend to draw a younger and a more playful crowd. You get very few pierced, tattooed bongo players at the RNC.
I am not staying at the designated hotel for NJ delegates. I wanted to take my whole family, and by the time my wife got her vacation request approved, there was no vacancy in Charlotte. I was not too upset because I didn't relish the idea of spending four or five thousand dollars to attend the Convention. No, it's not paid for by the Democratic Party -the ordinary rank and file Democrats such as myself must shell out big bucks for the honor of representing our state at the National Convention.
Fortunately I found a KOA campgrounds nearby that had cabins available for $64 a night. Considering one-star fleabag motels are going for $250 a night, and that this campground is closer to town than most of the delegates' hotels, I patted myself on the back for my fiscal prudence and overall good sense.
Also, I knew that once we are here, we would mostly eat and drink for free. Lobbying firms, big corporations, unions, ambitious politicians seeking to increase their visibility all host an endless array of parties, receptions and events.
I haven't been fêted like this since Jon Corzine first ran for Senator. Since I have young children with me, I cannot stay out too late so I'm missing out on the late-night soirees where much of the schmoozing occurs, but that is balanced by the fact that my kids are really having a blast and learning quite a bit about politics.
I am learning quite a bit as well.
It's not just politicians trying to show off at the Convention. I saw high school students turning an old Ford Mustang into a plug-in electric car.
I visited a local pizzeria that partners with the schools to teach elementary students how to grow vegetables in the backyard and rewarding the students with a pizza party where the kids make pizzas with the produce they grew.
The transportation problem is still a mess. But today, the weather is sunny and I now know how to grab these empty buses driving in endless circles throughout the city so I am having a ball. I am going back to my cabin to give the kids a nap so we can really hit the town tonight.
Come on! How many times will they go to the Democratic National Convention with their old man? If there was ever a reason to waive bedtime, this is it. Besides, Bill Clinton is coming to town and he's the biggest rock star as far as most Democrats are concerned.
I only hope that the weather forecast brightens so that they hold tomorrow's event at the big stadium. Right now, word is that it's being moved to the Arena which holds less than what the stadium can hold. If the event is moved to the Arena, it means my kids can't get in since they don't have delegate credentials. The whole reason I arranged this family trip was so that my kids can see the President in person. It may be a digital world but we are still analog creatures, and so it's one thing to see someone on TV and something quite different to see them in person (e.g., I just saw Charlie Rose walking by, and I am stunned: he looks even more disheveled in real life.).
Interesting side note: Judging by the amount of knick-knacks and souvenirs Cory Booker is handing out to the New Jersey delegation, I am predicting that he will be announcing his candidacy for Governor shortly after the election.
Another side note: I was looking forward to delving deeply into the cuisine of the Deep South: things dipped in buttermilk and deep-fried, bitter vegetables slathered in butter and pork bits with everything covered in thick gravy.
To my horror, I learned that Charlotte is a cosmopolitan place where every restaurant is engaged in the farm-to-table movement and lighter, healthier fare. Man, I can get enough of that in Manhattan. What soul food joints I found were tourist traps serving soggy fried chicken and watery grits.
I guess I have to wait until I go to Charleston again before I can have some real Southern food.
The weather is not cooperating. We are still getting crazy downpours, and since we are not sure if umbrellas will be confiscated again, we just try to be indoors when possible. When it is not raining, it is hot and HUMID.
Today is the Big Day so I am wearing a suit. The first event I plan on attending after the state delegation breakfast is a reception in honor of Assemblyman Chivukula. I check the map and it is not in the Uptown area. I don't want to go too far from the Convention Center, but the Assemblyman is one of my first mentors so I must go. I hop on a free trolley that goes through the main part of Uptown, but the route has been changed (surprise, surprise) because of the Convention so it only takes me part of the way. There doesn't seem to be any other means of transportation so we walk. It's about 10 blocks. I am not concerned -I frequently walk 40 or more blocks when I go to Manhattan. But it is hot and humid, and I am wearing a black suit and walking fast to get to the event on time.
After two blocks, my shirt is soaked from sweat. I'm really starting to regret this. Also, I am entering a neighborhood that has not been gentrified as much as Uptown. Uptown, especially the area by the Arena, is beautiful, with elaborate fountains, charming green spaces and the buildings are very modern and thoughtfully designed. Outside of Uptown, it is...less pleasant.
I finally get there. It's taking place at an art gallery in a converted industrial building. It seems everyone also walked except for the elected officials, of course. They are accompanied by staff, and it is their job to make sure that their bosses get from one event to another quickly and without fuss. Luckily for my family, they have an experienced staffer working for them: me! I learn that there is a light rail station nearby. We head for that. The train comes in a few minutes. It is very quiet, and the ride is smooth. Why can't NY subways be like this?
We decide to go back to the delegation hotel to freshen up and get something to eat. The bus situation hasn't changed but that is good because we are veteran pros now at figuring out where to catch the buses. The afternoon reception has a risotto station! Bacon wrapped scallops! Novartis has a hospitality room around the corner with fresh mozzarella. I can visibly see that I am putting on weight every day while I am at the Convention. Hey, this happens only once every four years, and it may possibly be the only time I get to go in my lifetime so indulgence is forgivable -and indulge, I shall.
Oh boy, bad news. I knew my family wouldn't get into the Arena to see the President, but now it looks like I can't get in either. Everybody is descending to the Arena and the Fire Marshal is about to close off the building. I rush back to Uptown. Traffic is horrible. With locals fleeing the area, traffic has been pretty good so far, but today, VIPs are coming, and the police block the highways whenever they fly in. By the time I get back to the Arena, it is too late. The Arena floor and delegate area are already closed, and the only chance I have is to get into the hallways and watch it on the monitors. If I am going to watch it on TV, might as well go the one of the receptions and watch it in comfort (with more indulgence!)
I follow some other NJ delegates to Delta's, where Congressman Pallone is hosting a shindig. It's a lovely spot, a couple of blocks from the Arena. I watch the President's speech while sipping smart cocktails and chewing on re-imagined classic Southern cuisine. It's not quite the same as being there in person and hearing the roar of thousands, but it's pretty noisy in here, too. Even the staff are getting into it. They clap and cheer, and they have the broad smiles of those who drank the Kool-aid, liked it and want more.
It's been a fun time in Charlotte. Uptown is really a cool place to visit. I saw, heard, ate and drank many interesting things. I witnessed some history, and I got to share the experience with my kids. I didn't want to come at first. Next time, I won't hesitate a bit.
The only difference is that next time, I will shell out for a hotel that's within walking distance, and I will grab floor passes as soon as possible.