The recent Republican National Convention in St. Paul-like most staged media events-operated on two levels. There was the carefully crafted show inside the Excel Energy Center, a hockey arena cloaked in red, white, and blue, and adorned with banners proclaiming “Country First.” In videos and speeches, John McCain was put forth as a presidential candidate committed to principle, a maverick and a reformer who will change Washington. Most of all, we were told, the Arizona senator has dedicated himself to a cause larger than himself and is a man who will stop at nothing to protect our freedoms.
Another side of the convention took place outside the arena, and viewers didn’t see it on their televisions. Republican activists, staffers, and lobbyists toasted their reform candidate at receptions sponsored by AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Union Pacific, and many other corporations. Then there were the marches through downtown St. Paul in which thousands protested the party and the candidate who promised to defend their freedoms. Hundreds were tear-gassed and arrested, some on the distinctly unconstitutional-sounding charge of “unlawful assembly.”
For only the second time since 1980, no Texan appears on the national GOP ticket in 2008, and Texans were noticeably absent from the prime-time line-up. That was mostly because of Hurricane Gustav, which threatened to embarrass the GOP by reminding everyone of the Katrina fiasco. By the end of a successful convention for McCain, however, even the hurricane had helped the Arizona senator’s cause. The storm spared New Orleans, but wiped out the convention’s first night, when President George W. Bush was scheduled to speak. This conveniently allowed Bush-the man whose record McCain tries to distance himself from-to skip the convention entirely (he did provide a little-noticed video message). Otherwise, the party’s two-term sitting president was barely mentioned.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry also missed his speaking slot to stay in Texas as Hurricane Gustav rolled in. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was originally slated to speak on the third night, but GOP officials shuffled the speaking list and didn’t make space for her.
None of this dampened the enthusiasm of the Texas delegation. Many were especially fired up by the prospect of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the vice presidential nominee. To the extent that McCain’s choice of Palin has energized the once-lethargic base of his party, the convention was a wild success. Some GOP activists who just weeks ago were moribund and resigned to a Democratic victory were suddenly alive with verve and passion, and spoiling for a fight.
“She exceeded my expectations. I think we have a winning team for sure now,” said Texas delegate Dotti Egger, a 72-year-old retiree from McAllen, after Palin addressed the convention.
Twenty-one-year-old college student Paula Stang, an alternate delegate from Houston, was not very excited about McCain, but the Palin pick changed everything. “I don’t think we’ve had a presidential or vice presidential candidate as conservative as she is,” Stang told me. “I’m concerned about truly conservative principles and her record has shown that that’s what she believes in.
“Republicans are not very popular now around the world and here,” Stang said. “People don’t like Bush and she will make such a good ambassador for Americans and for the rest of the world.”
But Stang wanted the Iraq War to end. “I’d like us to finish and leave,” she said. “My big thing is soldiers. I don’t want any more to have to die.” This seemed a little out of step with her party’s nominees. McCain has made “winning” the Iraq war a centerpiece of his campaign. He’s one of the few national politicians who refuses to embrace a firm timeline for American withdrawal. As for Palin, she once called the Iraq war a “task that is from God.”
The economy also weighed heavily on Stang, and the dwindling power of the U.S. dollar. She hoped that Palin’s fiscal policies would fix the economy. In the days following Palin’s surprise selection, it hasn’t been immediately clear what those policies are. But if the details of Palin’s beliefs aren’t quite evident, that only underscores the emotional and ideological connection she quickly formed with the GOP base. She is one of them, and they can sense it.
Stang had wanted to hear Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s speech, but she was too busy. Paul, who unsuccessfully ran for president during the Republican primary, organized a three-day “Campaign for Liberty” counter-event in Minneapolis during the RNC. Fifteen thousand people arrived at the Target Center to hear Paul speak. The congressman told reporters he was barred from the RNC, but party officials denied that was the case.
Paul did manage to get a few delegates to the RNC. Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia cast votes for Paul before the roll call vote was replaced by acclamation for McCain. Paul did not have any delegates from Texas, a winner-take-all state. But that didn’t mean Paul didn’t have Texas supporters in St. Paul.
Joel Tofte, a guest of a Texas delegate, went to hear Paul’s speech. Tofte told me that 28 of the 277-member Texas delegation had gone to hear Paul speak. “I’m not a huge fan of McCain at all,” Tofte said. “I’m a Ron Paul guy.”
Tofte, a salesman from Beaumont, wasn’t too happy with most of that evening’s slate of speakers, which included Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani, but he did like Palin. “I think she’s injected new blood into the party,” he said. “She may be able to listen and hear the Liberty group, and hear the people who really choose to follow the Constitution. I have hope with her.”
As an unknown candidate with a thin record, Palin seems to be succeeding, at least initially, because many Republicans look at her and see whatever they want to see-somewhat akin to the effect Barack Obama had on some Democrats during the primary season.
On the convention floor, I spoke to Texas delegate Sandra Ojeda Medina, an assistant principal at Crockett elementary in San Antonio. She was whipping up the delegates, getting them to whoop, holler, and clap. Her long black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and like most of the Texas delegation, she was wearing a red polo and jeans on the convention’s third night. (The Texas delegation dressed in matching outfits every night. On the last night, they all wore shirts designed like the state flag.) “We are so excited and energized about our ticket,” she said. “Palin is going to do a lot of good for us. I think a lot of women can identify with her as a mother now and certainly the issues she’s having to deal with at this time.”
Medina’s top election issue is to “beat Obama.” I asked her to be specific. “We want to maintain our conservative values. We are pro-life. We are fiscal conservatives,” she said. “We want what’s right and good. We want people to take responsibility and initiative to succeed in America.”
David Savage works in the oil refining industry. He lives in Katy and said it’s a good idea to have another politician from an oil state on the GOP ticket. “It’s extremely important because she knows what’s going on up there. She supports drilling in ANWR,” he said. “People talk about Big Oil, but Americans have a big appetite, and we have to meet that need.”
Added Arlington accountant Ralph Brotherton a few minutes after McCain ended his acceptance speech on Thursday night, “A McCain-Palin ticket is just what all these party activists hoped for. It’s like a dream come true . . . I haven’t seen this party this energized in a long time.”
While the action on the convention floor received most of the media attention, events away from the arena were perhaps more revealing.
Corporations doing business in Texas, including Johnson & Johnson and Union Pacific Railroad, paid for parties and receptions. Sponsoring a breakfast gave companies the chance to meet lawmakers and party activists in a small setting. A loophole in federal campaign finance law allows companies to donate limitless amounts to party conventions.
Big business gave delegates ample opportunity to live it up in the Twin Cities. Country singer Gretchen Wilson performed at the “Texas Honky Tonk” party at Trocadero’s in downtown Minneapolis, sponsored by AT&T. The press was shut out of this party. Qwest Communications sponsored a hospitality suite for the Arizona delegation. The Edison Electric Institute and the Nuclear Energy Institute hosted a reception for the Republican Governors Association. Lifetime Networks and Rock the Vote held a “Political Chicks a Go Go Party” in downtown Minneapolis. (Representative Kay Granger of Texas was scheduled to be there.) Honeywell, Citi, and Anheuser-Busch threw a party at a local tavern. Delegates could go to the Mall of America on buses sponsored by Koch Industries.
Meanwhile, protesters received less cushy treatment. The U.S. Department of Justice gave St. Paul $50 million to spend on security for the RNC. St. Paul’s Police Department planned to spend nearly $2 million of it on chemical irritants alone. The police used these every day on protesters.
The crackdown began before the RNC even started. The Ramsey County police infiltrated the Republican National Convention Welcoming Committee, a self-described anarchist group. Based on information provided by paid informants, the police raided houses and arrested activists the week prior to the convention.
On Wednesday, September 3, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner formally charged eight members of the RNC Welcoming Committee with conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism. Gaertner used the 2002 Minnesota version of the PATRIOT Act in pressing charges. If convicted, the activists face up to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
The police arrested nearly 300 people on the first day of the convention and kept many of them locked up for the duration of the convention. The police in New York City used a similar tactic in 2004 when the New York Police Department arrested 1,600 people. The city is now paying out millions of dollars to settle the resulting lawsuits.
St. Paul police arrested journalist Amy Goodman, host of radio’s Democracy Now!, along with two of her producers, on the first day of protests. Video of her arrest, shot by Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films, showed Goodman asking a police officer about her already-detained producers when she was arrested. Goodman was not the only journalist arrested while working. Police also arrested filmmaker Rowley on the last day of the convention while he was covering a protest. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, producer of Democracy Now!, was arrested a second time while working. Rowley and Kouddous were handcuffed and detained for about an hour and a half before being released and issued citations for unlawful assembly.
Activists and reporters used digital technology to keep track of the protests and each other. All week long, Twin Cities IndyMedia ran a live news wire feed on the Web. Text messages were the preferred means of communication:
Thu, 09/04/2008 – 18:28.dispersal order given by police by national guard armory on cedar street. 5 minutes – cedar and 12th. looks like people are being forced back towards capitol.
Thu, 09/04/2008 – 18:35.cops putting on masks. cops appear to have chosen particular group at 12th and cedar for a dispersal order – protesters are just standing in intersection singing, chanting etc.; others have moved to high ground.
Thu, 09/04/2008 – 20:10.tear gas all around capitol area, reports of flashbangs; ** unconfirmed report: 5-6 concussion grenades shot off at sears parking lot by capitol. get people there! ** cops clearing marion street with snowplows.
The day after the convention, activists delivered a petition with more than 60,000 signatures asking the St. Paul police department to drop all charges against reporters covering the protests. The national media reform organization Free Press circulated the petition online and collected 50,000 signatures in less than 72 hours. Thousands of people sent e-mails and made phone calls to St. Paul officials. Activists and journalists, including Goodman and Nicole Salazar (who was also arrested) of Democracy Now!, and Mike Bucsko, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild, were on hand to deliver the petition at city hall. “The city of St. Paul has a black eye right now,” said Denis Moynahan of Free Speech TV. “I must say that Paul Wellstone would be rolling in his grave.”
The crackdown on free expression in the streets of St. Paul never became a storyline on television. Instead, talking heads described the McCain and Palin campaign pulling out of St. Paul with fresh enthusiasm, a mostly unified party, and a new message of reform, however undefined and factually dubious. Unlike the 1968 Democratic convention or even the 2004 GOP gathering, it seems the Republicans’ convention in St. Paul will be remembered for what happened on the inside.
Elizabeth DiNovella is culture editor of The Progressive. Despite her press credentials, she was not allowed into Gov. Perry’s prayer meeting for Texas Republicans or a party featuring Tom DeLay.