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Democratic Platform Hearings Keeping the Issues in Their Place By Alfred J. Watkins Houston Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit sat impassively, not to say stoically, on the dais in the Embassy Room at the Shamrock Hilton. In front of him sat an audience of several dozen “witnesses,” or advocates, each of whom had keen interest in telling Young, as panel chairman of the Southern Regional Hearings of the Democratic Party Platform Committee, what should be included on the party’s 1980 agenda. There also to hear the testimony were some 40 platform committee members. It wasn’t the first time Young had listened to such an audience. In fact, during the last six weeks he’d presided at three regional platform discussions. He looked tired. On this day, June 3, he had begun hearing testimony at 9 a.m. and now it was after five in the afternoon. As a new speaker began, Young again reminded the audience of the ground rules: prepared statements must be limited to five minutes; questions from panel members must be confined to questions of fact; debate with the committee or partisan outbursts are strictly forbidden. . . . Glancing at the remaining agenda, Young realized that because the assembled Democrats were, typically, fudging with the rules, the hearing likely wouldn’t be over for another four hours. It was enough to try the patience of Job, to say nothing of the forbearance of a mere elected official in service to his party. Earlier in the afternoon, Young had tried to cut each witness’s allotted time in half, but his colleagues on the panel, sensing the hostility of the audience, rebuffed his suggestion. And now the ultimate ignominy the audience was giggling as he struggled to pronounce the name of the next witness. “Does his name rhyme with vanilla?” Judging from the audience reaction, that didn’t seem quite right. “Is there a misspelling on the list of witnesses?” he inquired. Aides and a few people in the audience assured him that the name was spelled correctly. Now the audience was becoming raucous and yelling the Spanish name at him. “Ruben Bo-nil-ee-a,” he attempted. “Is Ruben Bo-neel-ya prepared to testify?” Realizing that the Mayor of Detroit would never pronounce his name correctly, Ruben Bonilla, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, read his testimony to the largely indifferent audience that was milling about the half empty banquet room. Like the other regional hearings in Seattle, Baltimore, and Columbus, the Houston session was designed to solicit grass roots opinion on the burning issues of the day. But after hours of testimony, one could only wonder what the whole affair was really about. As the day wore on, it became increasingly apparent that the people who had the greatest interest in the proceedings were the invited speakers. Many members of the platform committee, on the other hand, acted more like reluctant participants than gracious hosts. Perhaps they had all stayed up too late playing urban cowboy at Gilley’s the night before. Perhaps Detroit was in trouble and that was why Coleman Young was in such a hurry to leave. Or perhaps they knew that the regional hearings were just a charade an exercise designed to give the grassroots a chance to speak up but not necessarily to be heard; an opportunity for the grassroots to voice their concerns about the issues they want their leaders to address, but not an opportunity to control the political process and shape their party’s platform. Even before the primary season hit full tilt, the political pundits and campaign media experts had defined the issues and mapped out campaign strategies for their candidates. They told them to focus on such “major” concerns as MX missiles, defense budgets, the Panama Canal, Afghanistan, Iran, the Soviet threat to Western Security, Ronald Reagan’s age, and Chappaquiddick. The grassroots, however, had other interests their jobs, their businesses, their human and political rights, their ability to support their families in the midst of high unemployment, inflation, and government induced usurious interest rates. So, from Louisiana and the Panhandle, from Oklahoma and Virginia to the Rio Grande, the grassroots came to pledge their fidelity to the Democratic Party and to ask party leaders to hear their concerns. They talked about passenger trains and energy, National Parks and the disabled, children’s issues and legislative redistricting, free enterprise and Cuban refugees, women’s issues, Latin American issues, Native American concerns, Hispanic rights, abortion, nuclear energy, family planning, literacy, farm economics and gay rights. Sometimes the points of view presented were so diametrically opposed that even the wisdom of Solomon would have been insufficient to forge a compromise satisfactory to everyone. Bettie Naylor, for example, a lobbyist for gay rights in the last session. of the Texas Legislature and chair of the Women’s Political Caucus for Bexar County, exhorted the platform committee to adopt a “strong and unequivocal gay rights plank” committing the Democratic Party to the proposition that “sexual orientation should not be a barrier to full and equal participation in our society.” She was countered by Sally Ple THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5