AUGUST 9, 2004
It's the afternoon before the start of the Democratic convention,
and I'm standing in the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel, the
temporary home of New York's Democratic delegation. Around 4:30
p.m., I notice Senator Chuck Schumer, dressed in a blue blazer,
khakis, and a red-and-white striped shirt, 15 feet in front of me
and fast approaching. He's coming to talk to New York Attorney
General Eliot Spitzer, similarly clad in a blue check shirt, a blue
blazer, and khakis--apparently the official uniform of the 2006 New
York gubernatorial primary, which both men are expected to contest.
Schumer and Spitzer exchange polite hellos that take all of five
seconds. Once Schumer moves on, Bronx Borough President Adolfo
Carrion ambles over to the attorney general. "I saw you talking to
Schumer," says Carrion, with a mischievous grin on his face.
Spitzer breaks into a smile of his own. "Yeah, I was talking to
him," he says, while making a melodramatic stabbing gesture toward
Carrion's back.Welcome to the 2004 Democratic convention. All week, pundits have
been lamenting the increasing pointlessness of conventions and the
attendant decline in network coverage. But there's at least one
group of people who still approach the conventions with a real
sense of purpose: the dozens of state and local officials hoping to
run for higher office. To these politicians, the convention
presents a rare opportunity to improve their prospects. In one
convenient location, they can size up likely rivals, connect with
potential donors, and schmooze party leaders. And, of course, those
lucky enough to secure coveted speaking slots get a shot at raising
their public profiles substantially--witness Illinois Senate
candidate Barack Obama's national debut at this year's convention.
For up-and-coming Democratic politicians, such as Spitzer,
California Treasurer Phil Angelides, and Baltimore Mayor Martin
O'Malley, there may be no more important time in a nonelection year
than these four days in July.
The Schumer-Spitzer face-off in Boston is a particularly juicy
subplot given that each man is vying for the attention of the same
donors and party bigwigs. Schumer is one of the first politicians
to enter a reception sponsored by New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon
Silver on Sunday afternoon. The way he works the room is probably
best described as deliberate. He quickly finds a top official at
the Rochester-based Kodak Corporation and proceeds to catalogue his
efforts to get the upstart JetBlue airline to extend service to
Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany. Moments later, Schumer is in
another conversation, expressing confidence that Yankees pitcher
Jos Contreras (the starter in that evening's Yankees-Red Sox
matchup) is much improved since his family arrived from Cuba.
Spitzer arrives at least 15 minutes after Schumer. But, when he
does, his relaxed style is in marked contrast to the senator's. He
answers a few questions from reporters, then chats breezily with
some local officials. All this as Schumer watches intermittently
out of the corner of his eye, apparently determined to keep Spitzer
within a six-foot radius. After about 20 minutes, Spitzer appears
to lose interest in the exercise and leaves to attend the evening's
Yankees-Red Sox series finale. "That's the difference," sighs a
Spitzer aide. "Schumer will talk to one hundred people, and it's all
impersonal, like he's got a list. Eliot talks to ten people, but he
makes them all feel like real people."
The reception circuit is only one dimension of the convention-week
drama. Equally alluring for an up-and-comer like Spitzer is the
possibility of a televised convention speech, which makes a nice
splash with the media back home and bolsters a politician's
national reputation. Joe Andrew, the Democratic National Committee
(DNC) chairman who presided over the 2000 convention, recalls that
a bit speaking role helped raise the profile of then-Kansas state
Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius, who went on to win her
gubernatorial race in 2002. "Even if she was speaking to a
half-empty hall," says Andrew, "there were five cameras there from
Kansas. It was a big deal." And, though Bill Clinton famously
bombed in his 1988 nominating speech for Michael Dukakis, many
(including the former president himself) credit his self-effacing
discussion of the debacle on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson"
the Thursday after the convention with boosting his image
Spitzer won't get the opportunity to test this theory. He has not
been allotted a speaking slot at the convention. The attorney
general graciously accepts the decision to pass him over, telling
me, "This convention has one purpose, to elect John Kerry. Those at
the center of it make that decision. It isn't something that means
a lot to me." But others are less forgiving--and more
conspiratorial. One rumor circulating among the New York delegation
is that Schumer intervened to deny Spitzer a speaking role.
California Treasurer Angelides is luckier. A second-generation Greek
American who made a fortune in real estate before taking over the
state party in 1991, Angelides is one of two or three prominent
Democrats likely to challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor in
2006. At first, it was unclear whether Angelides would, like
Spitzer, be left off the speakers' roster in Boston. But, at the
last minute, the Kerry campaign appears to have decided they could
use a rich white guy from a safely Democratic state after all. An
Angelides aide claims not to know what accounted for the last-minute
decision. But the fact that Angelides was an early Kerry
endorser--back in June 2003--and that he was a leading member of
Kerry's California fundraising effort, one of the most successful
in the country, might have something to do with it.
Angelides is clearly delighted by the three-minute speech he
delivered early Monday evening, safely out of prime time. He misses
few opportunities to remind people of it. Addressing the California
delegation in a cavernous hotel ballroom Tuesday morning, Angelides
enthuses, "The thrill of speaking before the convention last night
was overwhelming. I want to thank California for the great support
you gave me." Later that day, at a private lunch in honor of
Kerry's California fund-raisers, Angelides quips, "For those of you
who missed my speech last night, the DVD is available."
Angelides is a passionate but not quite gifted public speaker--his
voice a little more Ray Romano than Norma Rae. But he knows how to
impress potential donors. In this case, Angelides and his co-host
for the luncheon, Mark Gorenberg, the Kerry campaign's California
finance chair, have scheduled a surprise visit from a secret guest.
Just as Gorenberg is introducing Angelides as an "effective public
leader and businessman for three decades," a middle- aged woman
sitting at the high-roller table starts shrieking, "Hey, there's
Cam!" Sure enough, there's John Kerry's brother gliding into the
room, having apparently slipped into the restaurant through a back
door. Suddenly everyone in the place is tittering and craning their
necks. A fund-raiser sitting at the table nearest to me leans over
and whispers reverentially to his young son. The woman who first
spotted Cam is ready to hyperventilate.
Even if you don't enlist Cam Kerry in your cause, donor outreach is
unquestionably one of the convention's most important activities.
Joe McLean, a fund-raising consultant who counts Senate candidates
Obama and Joe Hoeffel of Pennsylvania among his clients, considers
the convention a prime opportunity for challengers to meet
out-of-state donors. And the tried and true way to do that is to
"cruise the sky suites"--the luxury boxes that house the big
Democratic donors high above the convention floor. "You just go
knocking on doors," McLean says. "You go see people. It's not hard.
The doors stay open most of the time."
Still, if the idea at the convention is to distinguish yourself from
your colleagues and potential rivals, it's possible to do so too
well. In less than four years as mayor of Baltimore, Martin
O'Malley has developed a reputation as an urban reformer and a
homeland security guru, two traits that, along with his boyish good
looks and natural charisma, have marked him as a good bet to win
statewide office, maybe as early as 2006. The only blemish on his
record is his extended flirtation with a gubernatorial run two
years ago, which some Maryland pols blame for helping undermine the
campaign of then-Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. "A
lot of people like him because he projects a can- do spirit," says
one former fund-raiser for the Maryland Democratic Party. "But
there's the question of whether he's maybe a little arrogant, too
big for his britches. ... Some people thought O'Malley should have
stepped up more to back [Kennedy Townsend]. That he subtly pulled
the rug out from under her."
O'Malley's speech Wednesday night, while unquestionably a boon to
his political fortunes, risks heightening this feeling. So, unlike
Spitzer and Angelides, who must promote themselves whenever
possible, O'Malley's chief aim is to demonstrate his humility. This
is no small matter. As The New Republic reported two years ago,
keynote convention speaker Harold Ford Jr. proved so resistant to
input from Gore-Lieberman officials in 2000 that the campaign
ultimately bumped him out of prime time (see Ryan Lizza, "Hurry Up,"
November 25, 2002). According to Andrews, there's always a risk in
these situations that you acquire a rap for being a prima donna,
one that's hard to shed down the road. "People who are perceived to
be good soldiers--people want to work with them [in the future],"
If this is O'Malley's goal, he succeeds marvelously. As we pull into
the entrance of the John F. Kennedy Library in his entourage's blue
SUV, O'Malley's driver tells a cop manning the security checkpoint
that he wants to drop off the mayor of Baltimore. Before the cop
can respond, O'Malley interjects, "I don't care. I can park. I'm
not proud." (The cop lets us pass.) O'Malley has come to the
library to attend a Maryland delegation luncheon, and, from the
outset, it has the look of an event that could drag on for hours.
That's apparently what big-name Maryland politicians like House
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer have concluded. Hoyer delivers his
remarks early in the program, then leaves immediately. But, while
O'Malley's aides are furiously Blackberrying back and forth to
devise their own graceful exit, O'Malley himself just sits in his
seat, listening attentively to speaker after speaker. He sticks
around for the duration.
Even on the subject of his much-anticipated speech, O'Malley is pure
humility. When a Maryland state senator tells him she's heard from
people in the know that the speech is a real winner, he mocks its
mediocrity in a joking attempt to "lower expectations." O'Malley
also praises the team of DNC and Kerry aides keeping tabs on the
convention speeches, saying he's grateful they've left his thoughts
intact. One Democratic official confirms that O'Malley and his
aides have behaved like "real pros."
Ultimately, though, maybe the sweetest convention accomplishments
are the kind you don't have to work for. Late Monday afternoon, I'm
sitting alongside Spitzer in his New York delegation seat at the
FleetCenter, asking him about the difference between this
convention and 2000, when he was just a little- known state
regulator who had squeaked into office by the narrowest of margins.
Suddenly CNN's Jeff Greenfield spots him and rushes over to
introduce himself. "I had to struggle for every little piece [of
attention in 2000]," Spitzer confides shortly after Greenfield
leaves. "I won't deny that this is enjoyable. " Somewhere, Chuck
Schumer is getting indigestion.
Correction: This article originally stated that Phil Angelides was
the only California gubernatorial candidate to speak at the
convention; he was not. It also stated that Angelides was co-chair
of Kerry's California fundraising operation; he is not. And it
referred to the mayor of Baltimore as Tom O'Malley; his first name
is Martin. We regret the errors.