Political advice 

Behind the scenes with Montana’s DNC delegation

Trips to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) are rare for most of us, but, still, the possibility exists that some of you reading this will someday attend one. For you, I offer a few helpful tidbits that I learned accompanying Montana’s state delegation to this year’s convention.

Advice: When riding on a bus for 16 hours, be sure your toothbrush is not packed under the bus with your luggage.

This seems pretty self-evident, doesn’t it? But the details tend to get lost when you’re on a trip to your first national convention. A small group of Montana journalists and delegates decided to hitch a ride on a bus full of young activists from Oregon. Only we had to meet it in Twin Falls, Idaho. And then the bus was three hours late. And we were so glad to see the bus pull up at midnight, and for our vigil in IHOP to come to an end, and for all the aforementioned activists to pour out of the bus and hand out stickers and buttons, that my bag was stowed away underneath the bus without a second thought.

Montana’s other delegates were less adventurous. Most arrived by plane. When we all arrived at our designated Denver hotel, Montana flag flying in the lobby, there they all were, including Missoula legislators Carol Williams, Michele Reinhart and Diane Sands, with teeth shining and clean clothes. Unlike some who, say, just rolled off a bus and were perfumed with a fitful night of half-sleep.

Advice: Bring your business cards.

One of the first things you realize about a convention is that it’s less about politics and more about networking. Someone will mention, for instance, the importance of alternative energy, and there are universal nods but little debate. When I met Seattle-based freelance journalist Dave Neiwert, he said he wanted to discuss Montana issues and then asked for my business card—as in, we’d talk later. An awkward silence followed. “I’ll have to e-mail you,” I said. I now have a card from almost every member of the Montana delegation, one from the governor’s brother, Walter Schweitzer (he’s working with Monica Lindeen’s campaign) and cards from enough bloggers to fill my suitcase.

Advice: Throw away your calendars.

For some reason, Montana is the center of the political universe this year. It’s where the Democratic primary was decided, spurring the Clintons and Obamas to crisscross the state. Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s name kept circulating as a potential vice presidential candidate. The pundits now say the West is a valuable battleground for this presidential race. Polls show McCain and Obama virtually deadlocked, and the Democratic nominee is pouring money into the state with offices and ads.

So maybe that’s why there was such palpable excitement at our delegates’ breakfast Monday morning. A television crew was filming and reporters knee-walked by the tables, interviewing anyone they could find. Sen. Max Baucus sat at my table and had granola and fruit for breakfast and even blushed when we clapped for him. That’s not something that happens every day.

Advice: Always carry an extra clean shirt.

The DNC is filled with perks and services for convention-goers. Take, for example, the system of free bike stations scattered throughout downtown Denver. You show ID and they give you a bike to ride, and you give it back when you’re done.

So when I was in a rush to make a fundraiser for Steve Bullock, the Dems’ state attorney general candidate, I had two choices: cab it or ride a bike. Being a Missoulian (and on a tight budget) the latter seemed a no-brainer. Two miles and several high-altitude hill climbs later, I arrived at the fundraiser—swarming with cocktail dresses and casual suit jackets–sweat-soaked and with helmet-head. It’s worth noting that Montana delegates, overall, look like they’re more ready for a backyard barbecue while representatives from other states are wearing $3,000 three-piece suits. Even so, I was embarrassingly disheveled for the Bullock event.

Luckily, Bullock’s campaign manager, Anthony Jackson, recognized me and let me in. I met and chatted with a number of Bullock supporters, passed Gov. Schweitzer (wearing a bolo tie) and talked shop with party staffers, like Missoula’s Jim Fleischman, who’s running Baucus’ re-election campaign. (Max has got a shot at his race, opined Fleischman.) As Baucus and Schweitzer gave short speeches and urged the crowd to support their guy, we ate Chinese dumplings, vegetarian sushi and chocolate-chip cookies, and I wondered how exactly I was going to get back to the hotel, the convention center or the next mixer.

Advice: Sleep is overrated.

The best stuff happens off the schedule and late at night. You like to party? There’s a “Rock the Vote” concert with acts like Fall Out Boy, N*E*R*D and Jakob Dylan. You like to chat? Just hang out in the lobby and compare notes with delegate for Obama and Lewis & Clark County Commissioner Ed Tinsely, who’s blogging for the Billings Gazette.

And don’t sleep in, either. The delegation has breakfast at 7 a.m. sharp, and you don’t want to miss it if you want to eat with Baucus or hobnob with former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams. The latter relayed a story Tuesday morning of how he watched a line of protesters dressed like Grim Reapers march imposingly toward the convention center, only to stop when a traffic light turned red.

“They wouldn’t have stopped in Chicago,” he quipped, referring to the riots that occurred during the 1968 Chicago convention.

Advice: Don’t forget why you came.

In a moving set of speeches and ceremony on Monday night, an ailing and weakened Sen. Edward Kennedy passed the torch of leadership to Obama. The speeches emphasized social justice and public service and, above all, family, as Michelle Obama finished the night with a stirring speech about her life’s experience and how they fit into her husband’s purpose for running for president. For Democrats, caught between nostalgia for past liberal icons—the Kennedys—and hope for their current icon—Obama—the messages inspire.

I sat with Missoula legislator Michele Reinhart in the early hours of Tuesday morning in our hotel lobby, and tears streaked down her cheeks as she remembered that night’s events. The speeches and sentiments and shared experience of the Democratic delegates reaffirmed her dedication to public service. “It’s good to be reminded of the big picture,” she said, “so we can take it home with us.” .
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