As I mentioned in my last column I spent the past two weeks traveling for work to Cleveland and Philadelphia, the sites of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, respectively. Every four years since 2000 I’ve had the pleasure of being in and around these national political happenings. This year my daughter was able to accompany me – that’s her in the photo.
I’ve traveled to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Denver, Minneapolis, Tampa, Charlotte, Cleveland, and now Philadelphia again, each time having the opportunity to observe the workings of our country’s elective process.
The conventions are a wonderful manifestation of our democracy. Thousands of Americans, who are called delegates and entrusted with the power to choose their party’s nominee for president, travel from all over this great nation and congregate in one select city. Their longstanding dress code mantra of “No color too garish, no bedazzling too shiny, no embroidery too elaborate,” seems to have given way over the years to more sedate business casual dress, but the passion still flows through these delegates.
I’ll mention here that there are several other national political parties – Libertarian, Green, and Constitution are examples – that also hold national nominating conventions every four years. However, in my lifetime the political system in this country has been dominated by the Republican and Democratic parties, so that’s where I’ve traveled.
Having had the “convention” experience 10 times now, and with both of this year’s fresh in everyone’s minds, I thought I would pass along some interesting observations I’ve made over the years while attending them.
The first is about the office-seekers. The primary reasons for these conventions are to nominate each party’s president and vice-president candidates for the upcoming national election. The conventions do take care of lots of mundane-by-comparison organizational business, but the focus is on the nominees. Especially the nominee for President of the United States.
The President of the United States. One of the most powerful people in the world. Sounds like a great job. An elected office that anyone in this country would be honored and humbled to be chosen by the people and for the people. But let’s think about that for a minute…
There have been 44 United States Presidents. Eight died in office. Four of those eight were assassinated. If you take the job of President of the United States you have a more than one-in-six chance of dying in office – and exactly a one-in-eleven chance of being assassinated. What does it say about someone if they aggressively pursue a job where you die at such a rate? If actions speak louder than words then perhaps the action of desiring a job like that says more about our presidential candidates than anything else they do.
And how do the delegates feel about choosing someone who has a better than 18 percent chance of dying? This is one of those things I’ve always found fascinating. Of course we the people will eventually elect one of them, so we’re as complicit as anyone.
A frequent result of the conventions that I've noticed is the effect on the local populace. Each convention hosts thousands of delegates, media members, legislators, party and government officials and guests. Generally more than 20,000 people descend on the lucky host city.
In theory, only places with a number of hotel rooms well in excess of that quantity should be considered for these events. Those cities have names like Orlando, Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix.
Then how do cities such as Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Tampa, Charlotte, Cleveland, and Philadelphia (twice!) with barely the necessary hotel capacity somehow manage to become host cities?
My observation is the host cities are sold on the potential economic windfall from these tens of thousands of visitors. Except, in my years of venturing to these events, the only economic windfall I see is for the hotels that for one week are able to charge $400 - $800 a night for rooms that normally bring 25 percent of that, and the limo, car service and cab companies who have to transport these people. In the case of the car and limo services, the business often goes to places far outside the local area because there is not enough local capacity to fill the demand. For example, our bus driver in Philadelphia was from South Carolina.
What has happened at every convention is a portion of the residents who work in these cities and support local businesses every day vanish for the week of the convention. They either go on vacation, work from home, their company closes or works on skeleton staff for the week, or they otherwise find reasons not to venture into the city. And they take with them all of their normal commerce.
A perfect example: During the 2004 Republican convention in New York City I was able to drive the 70 miles from Trenton, N.J. into Manhattan during a morning commute without once bringing my car to a stop until the red light at Canal Street as I exited the Holland Tunnel -- something unheard of in the annals of modern history.
The ease of getting around cities compared to their norms during convention weeks is a little secret we regulars share. Except, Philadelphia on this latest go-around somehow managed to do the impossible and find ways to buck this trend. They took a local road infrastructure that is confusing and strained at best and blocked off lanes on major arteries leading into the city while also prohibiting any vehicle over five tons from Interstate 95 between exits 13 and 22.
This caused weeklong traffic jams on several local highways as all the truck and bus truck traffic was re-routed onto the Schuylkill Expressway and local streets. It also made departing the convention at night the longest wait of any convention in recent memory according to many longtime attendees I spoke with. Luckily all of my highway travel during the week was between exits 15 and 22 on I-95, making my trips a joy. Driving I-95 around Philadelphia was surreal when void of trucks and buses.
Another observation I’ve made is that the time zone the convention takes place in is of great interest to many regular conventioneers. Since prime time television coverage in this country revolves around the Eastern Time Zone, the further west the convention moves, the more respectable the local time it finishes each night. When a convention is held in the east, they regularly schedule its finish every night at 11 p.m., and often go 20-30 minutes late. But on the west coast that 11:00 p.m. close becomes an 8:00 p.m. local close and post-convention events can start and finish at reasonable hours.
In addition to these large-scale observations, traveling to the conventions over the years has provided me with a thrilling personal experience or two.
I’ve witnessed lots of great music at post-convention events but my favorite was the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing a fantastic cover version of Brandy (a No. 1 song from 1972 by a band named Looking Glass) which they released one week later on their Live in Hyde Park album. The dichotomy between the Chili Peppers normal stage presence and that required to accurately duplicate this song was a sight to behold.
Another was assisting in the production of an event to support Michael J. Fox and his foundation soon after he announced his diagnosis with Parkinson’s. Helping Michael, Muhammad Ali and other luminaries in their effort to increase awareness of this disease was an honor and a humbling moment. I have a very good friend who succumbed to that disease and would love to see it cured.
Those are a few of the observational tidbits I’ve made over the years while attending the Republican and Democratic national conventions, and given the current state of federal politics in this country I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to make a few more in the future. I’m looking forward to 2020 and the excitement of whatever cities I’ll be visiting then.