Blue State Cheer
For a long time, Randy Soltero's brand of political activism required little more than a hammer, some walking shoes or an apron.
"I've always been involved in politics somehow, but mostly just on a grassroots level. I'd be the guy pounding signs or knocking on doors or barbecuing," says Soltero, an organizer for the local sheet metal workers union. "That's always what I did. I was always very much in the background." He counts off campaigns he worked on: Clinton, Gore, a host of local races. "If you needed a guy on a Saturday to pound signs, I was him. I like to say I did all the stuff that wasn't sexy. But I get to do something sexy now."
By political standards, anyway. Soltero is a Nevada delegate who will attend the Democratic National Convention July 26-29 in Boston – the event that more or less seals in the flavor of the Dems' push for the White House. There, the party will hammer out its national platform, officially nominate John Kerry and John Edwards and host nearly 5,000 delegates from around the country.
Among those delegates will be elected officials, political rung-climbers and party wonks of every stripe and title. But also in the crowd will be a species of political animal – a bit wider-eyed, a bit more excitable – that will perhaps be more numerous than ever. Call it newbius politicus – the political newbie. At this Democratic confab leading up to the one of the most intense presidential races ever, many attendees will be newcomers to the campaign process on such a level. Scan the list of Nevada's 32 delegates and you'll see retirees, union men, firefighters, gay activists, all of whom have a few things in common: a desire to boot Bush from the White House and a relative newness to the scene. Some have formerly been content to express their political will at the ballot box every four years; some are coming out of a sort of sour retirement after years of disgruntlement; still others, their interest piqued by a tumultuous presidency, want to live the process firsthand. But none of them has ever been active at quite this level – and some are still pinching themselves.
"Never have I seen the energy that's surfaced this season," says Adriana Martinez, chairwoman of the Nevada Democratic Party. "And it's no wonder people are getting fired up. On a daily basis, we hear what Bush is doing for our country – from the war in Iraq to the economy. Every time we hear something new, we get a new round of phone calls at party headquarters."
Discontent as Hell
Dwayne Chesnut was turned off to politics back in 1964, when he and his wife worked for Barry Goldwater's presidential bid. "Partly having grown up in Texas, I saw a lot of baggage that [Lyndon] Johnson had that we were not fond of," he says. He also saw, up close and personal, the ugliness that flows through the pipes of any campaign machine. The Goldwater campaign introduced him to both the giving and receiving end of mudslinging. From there it was all downhill.
"Nixon was the ultimate turnoff. To me, Nixon was the first imperial president," says Chesnut, a retired scientist and engineer who now volunteers for Nevada's Kerry steering committee. "The concentration of power represented by the Republican Party really concerned me."
But his concern spawned not indignation, but rather a sense of impotence. Sure, Chesnut shows up at the polls like a good citizen, but his love for any party began and ended at the ballot box. "I got turned off by the whole political scene," says the alternate at-large delegate. "There was a general feeling of helplessness no matter what you did."
It wouldn't be until Bush took office that Chesnut would feel that spark again. But, like others, he would take a scenic route to ultimately becoming a delegate.
Another delegate, Venicia Considine, wasn't necessarily burned on the political process. In fact, she came around to delegatehood after her own meandering journey, in which she realized not how tainted the process was, but how promising. After her daughter, Sydny, was born in 2000, Considine developed a keen interest in women's issues. She would show up to state National Organization for Women meetings – and was taken aback at the number of empty seats. The realization made her chide herself: Why hadn't she been involved earlier?
Democracy abhors a vacuum; committed to getting more involved in the process – and ticked off at Bush's policies – Considine went up to the Legislature in 2001 to watch for herself the (sometimes broken) clockwork of the lawmaking process; she increased her involvement with NOW, ultimately becoming president of the state chapter in April. "There wasn't a moment of epiphany or anything like that," Considine says. "I just wanted to see how things [in Carson City] were done. And I thought, if I can do this, anybody can." And its inverse: If anybody could do it, why couldn't she?
Delegate Dan Hinkley, founder of the Stonewall Democratic Club of Southern Nevada and secretary of the state party, has two words for his stepped-up involvement this year: Yeah, you guessed it. "When Bush was elected, I knew he would be a bad president, but I didn't realize he would be such a dangerous president," he says. At the time, he was building up the Stonewall club, fostering gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community involvement in politics – "The Democrats had walked away from the LGBT community," he says – but even Hinkley didn't suspect his identity as a gay man would figure in to him becoming a national delegate. That and the controversial war in Iraq made for a momentous tipping point. "I have the absolute sense that since Bush went to war, he turned up the amplitude of reasons to be opposed to him. It suddenly got much worse than anybody could have anticipated."
Reason for the Season
Thus began Hinkley's journey into delegate-dom. Like his fellow newbies, he didn't consciously have the party honor in his sights; rather, by a combination of fate and simmering discontent, he fell into the role that, once worn, fit quite comfortably. For Hinkley, the decisive moment came when, as chairman of the party's affirmative action delegate selection committee – formed to groom LGBT and minority delegates – Hinkley realized that one of the ideal candidates for the position was none other than himself. "It was in the back of my mind," he says. "When we wrote the plan for the very first time, our delegate selection language [was written to include] at least one LGBT member, and it's the first time the plan has done that. I was really proud of it."
He also understood that he was the man for the job. He made his pitch April 17 at the state convention at the Riviera – as most delegates must do to be elected to the position – and got it.
Rusty McAllister, a city fire captain, is another delegate who came into the position via a sort of gradual awakening. While firefighters have backed Kerry since early on – McAllister along with them – he's never been quite so involved as this. Again, credit Bush.
"After Sept. 11, he stood at Ground Zero with firefighters and pledged his support, and then in the course of his tenure as president, he's turned around and continually worked to cut the funding for programs that are vital to providing fire service in the U.S.," he says. "He's either zero-funded or severely cut the amount of money that's gone into funding."
You might say it lit a fire under him. "I've been active, just not to this level," says McAllister. "I was involved in the initial stages of planning, and it was just this natural progression. I wanted to continue on and be delegated. For me, personally, I'm really excited about it. I feel like it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing to be involved in it. This election will be historic. And the Democratic Party is energized like we haven't seen for a long time."
Not everyone's quest for the delegate grail dovetailed with a push for Kerry. Many delegates had initially thrown support behind other candidates, cutting their teeth anew on meetups, rallies, barbecues, phone banks. Retired scientist Chesnut – who, besides voting, had absented himself from any meaningful political activism for almost 40 years – was initially a Wesley Clark supporter.
"When Bush was selected by the Supreme Court," Chesnut says, "my initial reaction was extreme disappointment, but I thought, well, I've lived through several bad presidents, I could probably live through another. However, that quickly turned out not to be case. What got me finally galvanized again was reading an open letter from Michael Moore to Wesley Clark, urging him to run for president." Intrigued by this leftie filmmaker pushing a military man for the White House, Chesnut soon found himself hosting Clark meetups and attending "campaign camps" (party activist training sessions). He joined the Kerry crew when exit polls blessed the Massachusetts senator with frontrunner status.
Retiree Chesnut had, in a sense, re-entered the work force. And work is the word when it comes to democracy, Chesnut reminds. "It's really been an interesting learning experience," he says. "You really understand how much it takes to make democracy work. It's not like your plumbing, where there's really not any problem between maintenance calls."
As for Randy Soltero – installer of campaign signs, flipper of burgers, pounder of pavement – he was moved to deeper participation like the rest, but had no idea it would take the form of delegatehood.
"I was working this election cycle with the Kerry campaign, and folks would encourage me. 'You ought to run for national delegate.' I said, 'What's it about?' There was definitely a learning curve. I had never run for delegate – I wasn't even a member of the Clark County Democratic Central Committee. But I felt the issues were getting so much more important. Things are really starting to heat up. I went to the [Democratic] caucuses in 2000, and there were maybe 150 people there. We were in the cafeteria at Chaparral [High School].
"This time, we had to spill out onto the football field. To see the difference between those two times, it's just unreal."