In a lecture on Woodrow Wilson at a teacher’s conference at the Harrah’s automobile museum last Saturday, historian John Milton Cooper of the University of Wisconsin was talking about political motivation and presidents. Cooper, author of The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, said that the word inspire comes from the Latin inspirare, which meant “to breathe life into.”
Theodore Roosevelt, Cooper argued, believed that “the way to inspire you is to breathe into you something that is not there already.”
But Woodrow Wilson did not agree, he said. Wilson believed a leader should “draw out inner capacities that [people] already have.”
Cooper’s audience of mostly teachers at the Biennial History Symposium may well have been linking these notions with President Obama, whose ability to inspire was an important part of his presidential run two years ago. Certainly it was a concern of delegates meeting across town at Kendyl Depaoli Middle School, where the Washoe County Democratic Convention was gathered at the same time as Cooper’s lecture.
The location of a political convention sometimes has meaning. In 1978, some Washoe delegates to the Nevada Democratic Party Convention offered a motion that the party be prohibited from holding future state conventions at Reno’s MGM Grand casino hotel, a symbol of uncontrolled growth in the Truckee Meadows. Some party activists prefer conventions in publicly owned buildings over commercial sites because they believe the public will be more likely to attend. In this case, the location of the county convention was smack in the middle of Sprawl City. Depaoli School is far south of downtown, near the South Meadows Parkway, a name imposed on the city by developers as a condition of their building an industrial park in the area. It’s an interesting location for a county party full of controlled-growth advocates.
Two years ago, the Washoe County Democratic Convention had to be moved from a school to a downtown convention center because the turnout at precinct meetings had been gargantuan. (Delegates to county conventions are elected at precinct meetings, which are basically neighborhood meetings and are called caucuses in other states.) The race for president among Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama and other candidates had packed the precinct meetings full. By the time the county convention was held, it was plain that Obama would win the nomination and excitement was rising.
By contrast, last weekend’s convention held in a small hall at Depaoli School was sparsely attended. The comparison is unfair, of course. Not only is the charisma and excitement of Obama’s candidacy not in play this year, but it’s a midterm election year, and there is no longer the motivating factor of George W. Bush.
Delegates to the convention at Depaoli School gathered in an hour when their party is being portrayed as demoralized, but there was little sign of such an attitude.
“I love the president,” said Mandie Drummond, a University of Nevada, Reno senior who attended the county convention in both years and whose faith in Obama is undimmed.
But there is no hiding the fact that the party has lost a lot of its momentum in the last two years. For some, that’s an acceptable price for the gains that have been made—a fair pay act, a tax cut and stimulus package, health care changes, likely financial markets legislation and possibly climate change legislation. “Of course we lost ground,” said one delegate. “That’s what happens when you actually do things.”
“I think it’s an off-year election, too,” said delegate and labor activist Jerry Clifford, discussing reasons for the Democrats’ problems. “There was an impetus for change two years ago.”
Cecilia Colling is one of the party’s pros, a former Sparks city councilmember who served on Gov. Robert Miller’s widely admired first staff and as chief of staff to the state treasurer. While her grandson Dominick Colling played a hand video game alongside her, she talked about the party’s situation.
“I think that’s kind of normal that people are on less of a high in an off-year,” Colling said. She also said that many activist Democrats are not affluent. “It’s really hard to keep people’s energy up when they’re just trying to survive.”
Then there’s what Mario Cuomo called the prose of governing after the poetry of campaigns. It’s common to have a letdown after an exciting victory. “It was kind of theoretical before and now it’s reality,” said Colling.
Two days after the Washoe Democratic convention, Obama sent out a video to millions on his old campaign mailing list. On the video, he said, “I need your help once more. If you help us make sure that first-time voters in 2008 make their voices heard again in November, then together we will deliver on the promise of change, and hope, and prosperity for generations to come.”
For Democratic candidates at the convention, this is not academic—they will need every bit of help they can get, and enthusiasm among the rank and file would help. If they have noticed a lack of it, they’re not talking about it.
“The base is always enthusiastic, but even out on the street, I find people that way,” said Billie Andrews, a candidate for the Nevada Legislature in Assembly District 27. “I feel like I’m getting good response. I’m walking [door to door], and the response is pretty good.”
For first-time candidates, any help is useful, the more enthusiastic the better. “I had no idea this was so hard,” said county commission candidate Michael Trudell, referring not to political difficulties but just the sheer grueling work of running for office.
During down times at the convention, the delegates schmoozed and drifted over to the “Democratic store” to buy novelty drink canisters, bumper strips (“KEEP WASHOE BLUE,” patterned after the familiar Lake Tahoe logo) and signed copies of Watergate conspirator John Dean’s book Blind Ambition (Dean, now an advocate for Republican conservatives against the social conservatives who have gained power in the GOP, spoke at a November fundraiser for the Washoe Democrats).
In some ways, it’s amazing that people keep attending these kinds of political meetings in an era when the public has less and less allegiance to political parties generally and when politics has become such a snake pit. But here they were, listening to speeches—including one from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid—signing up for campaigns, gathering signatures on a mining tax petition, to say nothing of the few brave ones running for office in a polarized politics that is far from inviting.
Across town at the auto museum, historian Cooper said at one point, “Political parties have been our least loved political institutions.” At Depaoli School, there were a few of the diminishing crowd who love the institution.