Election 2008

A Working Guide to That 'Other' Convention in Denver

Progressive stars, celebs, activists and media are pushing the envelope for political relevance during the Democratic convention.
The potential of an Obama victory in November of 2008, after eight years of right-wing corporate and conservative rule, has motivated the progressive wing of the party to make Denver and the Democratic Convention ground zero in the battle of ideas for the future.

How to make change with an Obama administration in power is a big question mark, since Obama has exercised so little power in his career. For many, Obama remains a projection screen for hopes and dreams for real change, especially with the prospect of significant Democratic majorities in both houses. On the other hand, many others caution that Obama is a pragmatic politician, not ready to challenge fundamental questions of corporate dominance, huge military spending and disparities in wealth that are distorting the nation's priorities.

So guess what? Few people really know what is going to happen if Obama gets elected. It is tabula rasa. So stepping into the void and hoping to be heard are thousands of activists, advocates, talking heads and pundits, all scrambling to position themselves to be influential -- hovering around the Pepsi Center like thousands of memes. And it is a good thing. At a time when the country is mired in a long list of daunting, perhaps intractable problems, big ideas and creative solutions need to be in play -- debated and discussed. Hopefully, the Obama people will be participating and listening.

One of the reasons an outside strategy is needed is that national political conventions are notoriously insider affairs, orchestrated to put on a show for the TV nation. They are rarely a place for serious debate or creative new ideas.

Stepping into the void are an unprecedented number of progressive entrepreneurs, media organizations and think tanks, producing hundreds of events and frankly competing with each other for the attention of delegates, the media and the large community of donors, advocates, lobbyists, etc. that will make up the huge outer circle of the convention.

The Big Kahunas

There are two major venues for nonstop cultural and political activities outside the convention: the Big Tent and the Starz Green Room. They both have an impressive array of bold-faced progressives and establishment pundits lined up to participate in a dizzying array of panels, film screenings and readings. As for protests, there will be plenty of those as well in Denver; stay tuned for future articles on those details.

The Big Tent is an unusual collaboration between the local and well-thought-of Denver grassroots group Progress Now and the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado teaming up with the mega blogging site Daily Kos, the huge media powerhouse and corporate sponsor Google, and Google's massively trafficked video arm, YouTube. Joining the fray as co-sponsor is DIGG, the social networking site that attracts millions of participants to rate stories in the news. (Disclosure: AlterNet, like many media Web sites, yearns to be and often gets "Dugg," which boosts traffic to many of our best articles; one of our recent stories, "At JFK Airport, Denying Basic Rights Is Just Another Day at the Office" by Emily Feder, recently went to the top of DIGG with several thousand Diggs and received more than 350,000 page views.)

The Big Tent will be a 9,000-square-foot, two-story structure that will house work space for bloggers and new media journalists. (AlterNet's Steve Rosenfeld produced a more detailed article on AlterNet about the Big Tent, which can be read here.

The Starz Green Room has been dubbed "a vast program of art and politics serving as a hub for elected officials, Democratic staffers, foreign dignitaries, business executives, media and the entertainment industry." For those unfamiliar with the cable world, Starz Media is part of Liberty Media, John Malone's media empire, and is headquartered in Denver. Its theater complex is conveniently a stone's throw from the Pepsi Center, in the "soft security" perimeter, and thus an opportunity is born. In reality the Starz presence was the brainstorm of two highly energetic Hollywood activists, Victoria Hooper and Jamie McGurk, who, using their myriad connections, created a world-class ideas forum named after their company SeaChange. The Starz location, based at the Starz FilmCenter in the Tivoli, will have plenty of celebs on board and will be a much harder ticket to obtain than the Big Tent, which also will have restrictions.

While these two centerpiece venues will get the most attention, much else is happening in Denver. For example, the Nation is holding a series of dynamic panels in partnership with Progressive Democrats of America, including a kickoff event at the Colorado Convention Center, while groups like the Women's Media Center, Code Pink and others have high-visibility events and discussions on tap.

The bold-faced progressive players, i.e., those getting the most exposure at these events, reflect to some extent the pecking order in the progressive media and organizational panoply. Some of the most visible in Denver, based upon multiple appearances in different venues, will be: Van Jones, Arianna Huffington, John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress, whose name surfaced as a likely candidate to head the Obama transition team should he get elected; Markos Moulitsas, head dog at the Daily Kos, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, and populist writer David Sirota.

For the celeb watchers, among the confirmed participants in Starz Green Room programming are: actresses Charlize Theron, Daryl Hannah, Rosario Dawson and Kerry Washington; actors Ben Affleck, Josh Brolin, Kal Penn and Hill Harper; actor/filmmaker Stuart Townsend; and musician/filmmaker Will.i.am. In the big thinkers category: Arianna Huffington, John Podesta, Drew Westen, Rebecca Traister, Walter Isaacson and Dennis Prager.

A number of media organizations are sponsoring events at the Big Tent. Air America Radio, under the new leadership of Charlie Kirerker, will be especially visible in Denver, showcasing popular host Thom Hartmann and star broadcaster Rachel Maddow, who has become the darling of media watchers across the land, and just was awarded her own nightly show on MSNBC at 9 p.m. starting on Sept. 8.

Air America is producing a three-hour extravaganza on Monday from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Big Tent with a gaggle of A-list authors including Huffington, Paul Krugman, Jane Meyer, Ted Sorensen (Counselor, on JFK), Jonathan Alter (The Defining Moment, on FDR) and the aforementioned Sirota and Moulitsas. All three panels will be webcast live on www.airamerica.com, with highlights airing on Air America Radio during convention week.

Kicking off the festivities at the Big Tent on Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. is Live From Main Street Denver -- a major discussion on The Challenges of Change: Exploring the Conflicts and Opportunities Ahead, hosted by Laura Flanders of Grit TV, along with newly elected Rep. Donna Edwards, Van Jones, David Sirota and former Colorado State Sen. Polly Baca.

A little later on Sunday, the Denver Public Library, The Nation and Rocky Mountain PBS present Outside of Convention, From Fannie Lou Hamer to Barack Obama, How the Civil Rights Movement Changed American Politics from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Four Seasons Ballroom at the Colorado Convention Center featuring John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the longest-serving African-American congressman; composer and musician David Amram, political writer John Nichols and the Colorado Children's Chorale.

The Nation will have conversations every morning, Monday through Thursday, at the Central Presbyterian Church from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on key issues with top progressive members of Congress, including Reps. Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, Maxine Waters, Keith Ellison and Robert Wexler.

Check PDAmerica.org for information on afternoon panels during the week of Aug. 25 featuring Laura Flanders, Jeff Cohen, Chris Raab, Lennox Yearwood, Mimi Kennedy, Jim Hightower, Medea Benjamin, Majora Carter and many others.

On Tuesday at the Starz Center, the Women's Media Center is doing a command performance of its successful New York City forum, From Soundbites to Solutions: Bias, Punditry and the Press in the 2008 Election, this round with Michel Martin of NPR, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, Patricia Williams of the Nation, Rebecca Traister of Salon, Jamal Simmons of CNN and Maria Teresa Petersen of Voto Latino; partnering with Women's eNews, six leading congresswomen (Loretta Sanchez of California, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Carolyn Maloney of New York, Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, Lois Capps of California, et al) will discuss WEN's The Memo -- a status report of six areas that the candidates and delegates must address.

On Monday, Aug. 25: Unconventional Women Symposium, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Buell Theater, featuring Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Page Gardner, president, Women's Voices Women Vote; Ilana Goldman, president, Women's Campaign Forum; Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Marie Wilson, president, The White House Project; Congresswoman Hilda Solis, D-Calif., and more.

And Code Pink is organizing Make Out, Not War, Women's Voices for Peace, a free concert at City Park, from 7 to 11 p.m. Check here for more information.

Needless to say, this list is but a fraction of the many events planned for the week. Stay tuned to AlterNet for more information.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.