In his senior year of high school at Mound West Tonka in 1988, Carleton Crawford thought he was a Democrat.
“We were doing this debate in a class,” recalled Crawford. “I was one of four people who was supposed to represent Michael Dukakis. I kept researching and researching, and at some point it dawned on me: ‘Oops, I think I might be a Republican.’ ”
Crawford will be a first-time delegate supporting John McCain at next week’s Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
When Kim Nelson was a junior at Punahou High in Honolulu in 1979, there was a senior on the basketball team, a lanky kid named Barack Obama.
“I didn’t really know him in high school,” said Nelson. “I just knew who he was.”
She certainly couldn’t have imagined that nearly three decades later that he would be atop the Democratic Party’s ticket and that she would be a Minnesota executive and a delegate to the national convention, which begins today in Denver, where Obama’s nomination will be officially confirmed.
“Amazing,” she said.
Rick Stafford will be attending his ninth presidential convention, the first coming in 1972 when he was motivated by his opposition to the war in Vietnam to become a delegate.
Back then, Stafford was a closeted gay man. The former DFL state party chairman — he came out in 1983 — will again be leading the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender caucus at the Democratic convention.
“When you have been at as many conventions as I have,” said Stafford, “you can become jaded. But when you sit back and think about it, you realize we’ve come a long way.”
Mike Vekich grew up on Minnesota’s Iron Range, the son of immigrant parents who idolized FDR.
“But they taught their children to think independently,” said Vekich, who will be an alternate in the delegation of Minnesota Republicans.
This will be his first political convention, but he’s hardly new to politics. In 2001, he was briefly in the Republican race for governor against Tim Pawlenty and Brian Sullivan.
How’d it go?
“Not so well,” said the Twin Cities businessman, laughing.
After months of waiting, nation’s delegates converging
Finally, the time is here. Finally, after months of primaries and caucuses and rallies and punditry, the campaigns are reaching the starting line. Finally, thousands of delegates from across the country — and places such as American Somoa and Puerto Rico as well — will converge on Denver and St. Paul to set the final stage for this year’s presidential election.
Like Vekich, Stafford, Nelson and Crawford and all of the other delegates will bring their life experiences to the convention halls.
The delegates know that their roles, which were so large as Obama and McCain battled to gain majority support in their respective parties, have shrunk. When the camera lights are on for the carefully scripted conventions, their job will be to show great excitement for their parties and their candidates.
In truth, many delegates probably harbor some of the same concern that Nelson has: “I just hope it doesn’t turn out to feel like a waste of time,” the General Mills vice president said.
But there are rushes of excitement, too.
“I will witness a historic event,” she said.
These delegates and alternates (there will be 2,380 Republican delegates with 2,227 alternates and 4,069 Democratic delegates with 562 alternates) represent the best of a process that is long, costly and often crazy. They defy stereotypes, and they are informed and willing to make sacrifices of time and money.
By all standard political logic, Crawford should be a Democrat. He’s African-American. His parents are Democrats. He went to one of the state’s most liberal colleges, Carleton College in Northfield. He lives in the heavily DFL Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis and yet, he’s one of 44 Minnesota delegates to the Republican convention.
How’d that happen?
“I think I’m destined to be a contrarian,” said Crawford, 37. “Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked McCain. That’s his reputation, too.”
Crawford signed on early to support McCain. When his guy was out of money and laying off staff, Crawford was almost on the verge of graciously throwing in the towel.
“I’d see somebody who was supporting (Fred) Thompson or (Rudy) Giuliani and I’d say, ‘Congratulations, looks like my guy lost and your guy has a good chance,” he recalled. “But don’t worry, I’ll support your guy.”
He’s hoping others in the party are equally magnanimous.
He is moved by the sight of a black man at the top of the ticket. But he believes race cannot be the basis for making political decision.
“I always believed that in my lifetime there’d be a black man in this position,” Crawford said. “I just always hoped that it would have been a Republican.”
Nelson’s politics are different from Crawford’s but she understands his reasoning. An African-American female, she believes she set aside race and gender in coming to Obama as her choice.
“I admire Hillary Clinton, and I was a big fan of hers in the beginning,” said Nelson, 46. “But in the end, it came down to character. Hillary’s a fighter, and that’s wonderful. That’s who she is. But I look at how he works, more in collaboration. I truly believe that’s what the world needs now.”
She doesn’t believe sharing the same high school was a big factor in her thinking, adding that she didn’t really get to know Obama until reading his book, “Dreams of My Father.”
“When he wrote about his experiences in Hawaii as a black man, it reminded me so much of my own experiences,” she said.
Vekich, 60, and Stafford, 56, each see themselves playing similar roles at their respective conventions.
Scattered disputes appear possible at both conventions
Despite the fact that all of us know the outcomes, there are going to be behind-the-scenes disputes boiling up among delegates.
Within the Minnesota Republican delegation, there are Ron Paul supporters, who believe their man has been shorted, despite virtually no primary or caucus support. Other Republican delegations have substantial numbers of social conservatives who remain unsatisfied with McCain.
“I don’t mind civil debate,” said Vekich, “but in the end, what I want to remind people of is that the idea is to win. I believe this is the most important election in my lifetime. I think this election will set the course for this country for the next two decades. In the end, I will remind people that this election is too important to stay home just because it’s not your favorite person at the top of the ticket.”
Stafford echoes Vekich, but his job of rallying the troops is emotionally tougher. Vekich was in McCain’s corner throughout the campaign. It’s easy for him to say it’s time for everybody else to rally ’round the party’s winner.
Stafford, though, was a leader of the Clinton campaign in Minnesota. He’s one of 29 delegates in Minnesota’s 88-member delegate supporting Clinton.
“Most (of those 29) will likely vote for Clinton,” he predicted.
He’s not yet sure what he will do when it’s time to vote on that first — and only — ballot.
“I was an activist for Clinton but as a superdelegate, my position is a little more nuanced,” Stafford said.
Though he understands their passion, Stafford has little time for those Clinton diehards who are saying they’ll vote for McCain or not vote at all rather than support Obama. In that regard, he believes the Clintons — Bill and Hillary — are key players in the convention that begins to unfold today.
“Their message must be clear,” said Stafford. “When we leave Denver, we’re all Democrats.”
Vekich believes a similar message of party unity must ring out when Republicans leave St. Paul. Of the convention atmosphere, he says, “I believe it will be electric.”
Doug Grow, who will be in Denver to cover this week’s Democratic National Convention, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.