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An American experiment in democracy 

Our politics reporter's journey through the Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention was the cause of my sleep paralysis and a 0-1 start to my fantasy football season. But no matter. As a reporter, I was looking forward to properly documenting the first black president coming to the "New South" to be re-nominated.

I cast aside law school and amassed a stockpile of accoutrements for a week of cutthroat journalism: an unreliable laptop covered with stickers, a tape recorder prone to run out of battery power too quickly, a handful of ties (none of them lucky anymore), a new smartphone and three Honduran cigars acquired on a summer mission trip where I found Jesus and quit smoking cigarettes.

A week out, I turned my apartment into a hostel for visitors: comrades from days spent interning on Capitol Hill or working on campaigns. Many of us had made the pilgrimage to Washington after Obama was inaugurated, to help him save America. But our idealism was scarred by the gridlock caused by the passage of the stimulus package. I ultimately escaped the nightmare of the capital, where hope had come to grips with the reality of a broken political system. By the fall of 2010, I had exiled myself to Charlotte for a law degree, only to end up blocks from the launch of the Democrats' 2012 campaign.

I felt like the McLean family during the Civil War. They moved away from Manassas, Va., after the first battle took place in their front yard, only to end up living in Appomattox and having the final surrender signed in their living room.

I hoped Obama hadn't come to Charlotte to surrender but to carry on the fight, and I didn't have far to walk up West Morehead from my house to Time Warner Cable Arena to find my answer.

My first friend, Franco, arrived the Thursday before the convention. We'd interned together in 2007, bonding over an ability to defy stereotypes: him a baby-faced Nicaraguan from Miami who loved the Goo Goo Dolls, and me, a sarcastic WASP from Appalachia who worshiped the Wu-Tang Clan.

I took him to Common Market for a peek at Charlotte's weird side, knowing the truth. If these SOBs drinking tall-boy PBRs didn't show up to vote the jig was up, because the good ol' boys in Gastonia certainly would.


I stopped by EpiCentre to see how that speck of nightlife had transformed into the hub of convention activity. For a week the frat dudes were gone, replaced by Ivy League wonks and Beltway pundits for what felt like nerd prom.

Photos by Justin Driscoll
  • Photos by Justin Driscoll

Delegations had taken over nightclubs, where ambitious pols came to speak on a rotating circuit of glad-handing pep talks. Charlotte was in essence the first primary of the 2016 presidential race, so I journeyed down to the convention center to set up for the horse race.

Home now to the media, the inside bottom level had all the intimacy of an abandoned airport hangar. I took a tour to check out the digs of heavyweights like The Washington Post and those soulless stenographers of Politico and stumbled upon a press conference with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a meaningless conversation so the regulars of the press corps could size him up before he spends the next four years running for president.

I wasn't on the list of designated questioners, so I slipped into the back of the session. When it wrapped I snuck to the front, getting right beside the commander of the Maryland National Guard.

I asked a couple questions about where the party was headed in the 21st century. Upon discovering that I was local, he pivoted each answer to nonsense about Research Triangle Park.

I foolishly left for Time Warner Cable Arena to try to catch a James Taylor performance, only to get caught in a monsoon on the way. My tape recorder got waterlogged. I walked puddled streets home, stopping only to give a drenched Van Jones directions.

With little preparation made for the heat, humidity, hippies and rain, Monday felt like a wasted effort.


After Monday's irritable weather, Tuesday morning called for a cab ride. I felt bad for my West African driver, who had the unfortunate pleasure of battling traffic while I tried to battle my smartphone's Pandora app for some driving tunes.


Tuesday's mission was to meet my photographer, Justin, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, home of North Carolina's delegation. They were going to start their morning with breakfast featuring state Democratic bigwigs. Justin was dressed in hot-pink hipster sunglasses and faded jeans, his large chest tattoo hidden only by the top button of his worn, long-sleeve shirt. I had on a dark-blue tie with donkeys, trying to look the part.

Retiring Rep. Brad Miller spoke somberly, a victim of redistricting who'd shown class by leaving Congress rather than forcing a primary fight. His colleague and opposite Mike McIntyre had shown up to the breakfast after threatening to skip the convention altogether.

As the delegates feasted over coffee and pastries, McIntyre took an approach that seemed to fit his persona as a survivor without a backbone. "With your support, I move up to No. 3 on Armed Services and 2 on Agriculture," McIntyre said, referring to the committees he sits on in Congress. No rhetoric about what's at stake in the election — only self-absorbed appeals.

Justin and I left and found ourselves following a skirted Ashley Judd into the convention center. We went into the dungeon to file, and Justin launched into a playlist of Lucero on his laptop ... without any headphones.

Protocol for press row is that you kept quiet, and Justin had violated this cardinal rule. But the squares just had to suffer. Meanwhile I was cursing at a screeching tape recorder filled with water.

This convention had one thing on the Republican's: The audience in Charlotte actually looked like a sampling of America, which was about the only interesting thing I noticed inside. The days of floor fights and dark-horse candidates were long gone, with conventions now judged by poll bounces.

Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker presented the party's platform with a rousing defense of liberal causes, and I couldn't shake the feeling that if there had been no Barack Obama, he would have been our first black president. Michelle Obama gave the best speech by a sitting first lady I'd ever heard.

I left the arena and joined Franco and our former boss Arshad, a gay Muslim from North Dakota, at Crave Dessert Bar on West Fifth Street for a youth delegate party.

I'd long given up on sinful habits and after a long day was in little mood to spend an entire evening surrounded by professionals whose lives had become never-ending campaigns. So I took Franco and a few others out into the night, venturing from the heart of Uptown to Midnight Diner on a pedicab.

The biker and I haggled over what to listen to on his iPhone before we settled on some Grateful Dead. Jerry's guitar played as we traveled down Tryon Street, passing Washington VIPs waiting on cabs.



After a scripted Day 1, I opted to sacrifice the formalities, ditching my suit for a blue Adidas jacket.

Convention affairs of the day were gaveled in by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who came bearing an amendment to the platform. Republicans had been bashing Democrats for omitting the word God from the document, so Villaraigosa came to appease them.

After two votes from the delegates, there was no clear majority to accept the platform. The "noes" clearly had the third vote, but Villaraigosa called it a win anyway.

At about 8 p.m., I took up a spot with a view of the stage, waiting through the filler speeches for Senate hopeful Elizabeth Warren and former President Bill Clinton.

Warren's speech catered to, and maybe reassured, progressives. "No, Romney, corporations are not people ... people are people," Warren said. "They dance, they live, they love, and they die, and that matters." It was simple, empathic rhetoric, and I liked her.

Then came the Big Dog, who delivered the greatest speech from a former president since Teddy Roosevelt took on his successor and declared, "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord."

Half of Clinton's speech was ad-libbed. I hung on every word. My tongue was in my throat. There was new momentum in the air.

Clinton smiled, waved to the crowd to the usual "Don't Stop" of Fleetwood Mac, and Mr. Obama made his cameo on stage. The two presidents embraced, the music switched to Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down" and chills went up spines.

The moment was historic and personal. Whether or not Bill and Barack liked each other, both had legacies on the line. And this was happening in Charlotte, of all places.

Too bad I'd quit smoking cigarettes. I turned to my news editor, an imaginative redhead from Texas, nodded my head and got the fuck out of that building, into the fresh air.

Luckily, I found a friend on the sidewalk and we headed to the nearest empty bar, under the sort of sensation you get after a Radiohead show, when you can't hear anything and you're pretty sure the last four hours will be the coolest thing you ever do in your life.

Inside Bar Charlotte, I bought her Jack & Gingers to match my Diet Cokes as "Time to Pretend" by MGMT rang out of the speakers. I had flashbacks to innocent nights of 2006, when the world felt like it was for the taking. Now, I just wanted to live long enough to visit Ireland.

But this was a night for celebration. I joined my friend Ace out on the sidewalk to smoke Cloves (which I don't think count as cigarettes), blow smoke into the night, talk SEC football and swap war stories.

She revealed in passing that she knew the son of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. The governor was reporting to prison the week after the convention and in town now to lobby for his freedom. My editor had nearly placed a bounty on tracking him down.

After a couple hours of revelry we left, me promising her free dinners for life for booking Siegelman.


I slept in Thursday morning, waking at 10:30 a.m. to Steve Earle and The xx. Ace had bagged our man, my only meeting before seeing Walter Dalton's speech that day.

After a photo shoot, I took Siegelman to a shaded concrete bench outside the arena, breaking the ice by revealing a couple skeletons from my own closet. He was going to federal prison for six years, seemed a broken man, and I wanted to get on his level.

"I am going to prison on Tuesday, September the 11th," Siegelman said, as we chatted more freely now. "After that, my voice will be silenced and I won't be able to speak out."

After we finished our depressing interview, I went to a Foo Fighters sound check. Then, I traded my lime-green press pass for an orange one which earned 20 minutes of floor time. I was going to see Walter Dalton, part of a contingent of North Carolina politicians opening the proceedings.

Things were running late, so I circled the floor, chatting with Kitty Dukakis and state Senator Eric Mansfield, who I'd endorsed for lieutenant governor in the spring. He lost, but I'd had a hunch he'd be back.

Dalton, the current lieutenant governor, came in with the most riding on his speech. He was down in the polls to devil's advocate Pat McCrory and had only a minute to speak.

Showing rare emotion, he talked about a father who preceded him in public service.

"My father, a state senator, taught me that the right policies can lift lives," Dalton said. "He died when I was 8."

Clinton had basically won the presidential election for Obama the night before with a point-by-point takedown of the Republican ticket, their policies and their attacks on the current president. So it was no surprise that Obama kept his remarks short and to the point. He came out to raving cheers only to cover general themes, in what was essentially a State of the Union speech with a live, partisan audience.

It wasn't the lofty Obama of 2004, but Clinton had won the game. Now Obama was being brief, and spiking the ball.

I stayed at the convention past midnight, filing a story and savoring the atmosphere. Then I joined Ace, our mutual friend Vincent and other millennial activists at Champions Sports Bar, where chants of "Fired up, Ready to Go" still echoed.

There I was at a table full of youth with hands glued to phones, updating the world to what they had seen. I, an iconoclastic white guy from NASCAR country, was joined at the table by a sagacious black woman from Birmingham, Ala., a voguish gay Filipino, and a group of other advocates whose brown and yellow faces represented a future more welcoming than the century we'd emerged from.

CNN was replaying the image of Obama being joined on stage by his family. This was happening in America, during our lifetime. I ate a cheeseburger to hold back tears as my tablemates retold their favorite moments of the week.

The Obama "Change" slogan from 2008 seemed prescient, at least when it came to the faces of the folks who were with me inheriting the Democratic Party. Obama's new slogan, "Forward," keeps me hoping that that's where we are headed.

My buddy Franco was in the city somewhere having all the fun he wanted. But I was emotionally drained, physically exhausted and still recovering from all the fun I'd had at his age.

So Ace and I caught a cab on a North Tryon, which felt more Haight-Ashbury than Wall Street. I played "Sloop John B" by The Beach Boys on Spotify for the ride home and slept for two days.

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