September 9-15, 2004
Photo By: Michael Mergen
Brace yourselves, Pennsylvanians. At their NYC gala, the Republicans said you're their key to keeping the White House.
NEW YORK At last week's Republican National Convention, party leaders gave the arduous task of explaining the GOP's ideology to an Austrian-American movie star.
"My fellow Americans, how do you know if you are a Republican?" Arnold Schwarzenegger asked. "I'll tell you how." Before a packed stadium of delegates, journalists and party faithful, Schwarzenegger began reciting a checklist akin to a "How to know if he likes you" Cosmo quiz.
If you believe that government should be accountable to the people then you are a Republican!
Photo By: Michael Mergen
If you believe your family knows how to spend your money better than the government does then you are a Republican!
If you believe our educational system should be held accountable for the progress of our children then you are a Republican!
Schwarzenegger, citing his trajectory from "once-scrawny boy" to Terminator to the governor of California, explained that the GOP's inclusive platform now offers something for everyone, regardless of political stripes.
"Maybe you don't agree with this party on every single issue," he said. "I say to you tonight, I believe that's not only OK, that's what's great about this country. Here we can respectfully disagree and still be patriotic, still be American and still be good Republicans."
And so went all four days of the convention, as prominent women, outspoken minorities and even a Democrat senator oozed support for what they call a kinder, gentler Republican party.
But looming in the background were thousands of conservatives, who argue that while the GOP may don a centrist face, neither its values nor stance on social issues have changed. Worse, they say, moderates are communicating mixed signals. But the GOP is not a party of contradictions. A quick look at the platform exposes that the familiar diatribe of deeply conservative talk is still alive: tax reductions, no abortion or stem-cell research, marriage protection and prayer in school.
Maybe it's not a paradox, but rather a well-planned attempt to garner every possible vote in what have emerged as 10 states that political strategists say could just as easily go red as blue. And the fiercest battle is being waged in Pennsylvania, where local party leaders and delegates mirror the convention's inconsistency.
While U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum spoke candidly about welfare reform and laws banning abortion, delegation chair Reneé Amoore promised new hopes for forward-thinking women and African-Americans.
Republican strategists now say there are enough swing voters in Philadelphia, its highly coveted suburban counties and across the state to deliver the White House. (Exactly how many, they couldn't say.) But with increased television ads, a new Pennsylvania-produced documentary about Kerry and the deluge of planned Bush campaign visits, the GOP will spend significant time and money here between now and Nov. 2.
"You're going to see a lot of us, maybe too much of us," said Karl Rove, chief political adviser to George W. Bush, told Pennsylvania delegates during a surprise breakfast visit. He noted that while 80 percent of Philadelphia's older neighborhoods in the Northeast will always go Republican, delegates need to focus on the swing voter in Chester, Montgomery and Bucks counties. "We're going to need your help. Victory will depend on the state of Pennsylvania."
On Monday, Aug. 30, Pennsylvania delegates start their first convention day at a state-only breakfast at the Hilton where they, along with the delegations from Texas and Florida, are staying. Although it is just before 7:30 a.m., nearly 100 people are seated around tables to hear White House briefings, motivational speeches and a list of the day's schedule.
Reneé Amoore, a Philadelphia-based health-care professional who emerged as a prominent African-American leader during the convention, speaks about how this will be the most diverse convention in GOP history. But looking around the room, it's clear that the homogeneity is only broken by she and the kitchen staff.
The theme for today is "A Nation of Courage," and it will be marked by dozens of speeches about how this country continues to be affected by terrorism and the lessons we learned from 9/11. Just hours before, more than 100,000 people had taken to the streets outside, some carting flag-covered coffins, to denounce the war in Iraq and the GOP's decision to launch its campaign platform from the ashes of terrorist strikes.
The delegates shuffle outside to a line of green coach buses, which will shuttle them between their hotels and Madison Square Garden all day. As some of the Philadelphia delegates move to their seats, a man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Worst President Ever" passes by on the sidewalk, in an act of quiet defiance.
"If people would just do some research and investigate our party, they'd see what we're all about," says Amoore's daughter Cherie, a junior at Hampton University in Virginia. "My friends at college are all Democrats because they were raised to believe that anything besides an opposition to the Republican Party was wrong. All of these people are wandering around the city protesting what they think are evil politicians with horrible policies. But I wonder how many of them have done enough research or reading to really know what's happening in Iraq, or what moves our economy."
Cherie, a fourth-generation African-American Republican, says that the party has room for everyone; she notes, "This isn't a party for rich, white men, or my family wouldn't have been active [in it] for so long."
Her friend, Maria Papadakis, a sophomore at Drexel and daughter of university president Constantine Papadakis, agrees.
Photo By: Michael Mergen
"I'm pro-choice, I want gay people to have the option to marry," she says. "Look at [Vice President Dick] Cheney. His daughter is gay. I think he represents how a lot of us feel. It's totally possible to vote on the basis of terrorism policies, health care, insurance and taxes without worrying about rights to abortion or marriage, because it takes so long for those sorts of laws to get passed. They probably won't."
On the bus, George Shore, an alternate delegate from Chester County, agrees that the party has been misinterpreted.
"I think that the president is personally misunderstood," Shore says. "He is extremely compassionate. I believe he tries very hard to do what is right. Unfortunately, you often see those to the extreme right voicing their opinions or those religious zealots speaking out on social issues. And you see these things in the conservative media, such as Fox, or you see them in editorials in The New York Times. It's very difficult to get a fair shake when the entire nation pigeonholes you to a certain viewpoint it assumes you subscribe to."
At Madison Square Garden, dozens of police are standing guard in full riot gear. Streets have been cordoned off in wide perimeters around the center, so that it takes on a DMZ feel. Fences and heavily armed police mark checkpoint areas where photo ID and RNC passes must be displayed around the neck.
Inside, security is equally as tight. Hundreds of volunteers and Secret Service agents check tags. Only delegates and certain media are allowed on the floor itself. Everyone else is sent to the stadium seats.
Journalists, though, are afforded an unexpected luxury: in a building behind the Garden, connected by a climate-controlled bridge, is a free spa for working reporters and editors. Sponsored by the RNC and Barney's department store, journalists are offered facials, makeup lessons and application, haircuts, massages and waxing in a makeshift oasis above a journalist-only restaurant. Sandwiches cost a couple bucks, but microdermabrasion treatments? Priceless. (Literally!) One reporter, lounging on one of the tony leather sofas, remarks that the RNC must have thought that the more relaxed and pampered we are, the more favorable our stories will be.
That night, the RNC officially kicks off the prime-time coverage of its ceremonies with a commemoration of 9/11 and New York City. The Pennsylvania delegation has copped prime seating, right in front of the stage and it's no happy accident. They're next to Ohio, Iowa and Michigan which just happen to be states that, like Pennsylvania, are home to a significant number of swing voters.
During the next few hours, actors such as Ron Silver give impassioned speeches about Bush's leadership after the terrorist attacks. Families remember the tragic losses of their loved ones. The Christ Tabernacle Choir sings a USO Medley, bringing some party representatives to tears.
"My goodness, people hate us," says Ronald Crane Jr., who is an alternate Arkansas delegate and works in bioterrorism at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. "They think we're here to capitalize on their tragedy. Instead, we're here to show that we're not afraid of the terrorists and that we support this city. I say mission not accomplished. We need four more years to keep people safe and strong."
Just then, a college student wearing a powder-blue "Sign Distribution Team" T-shirt begins passing out signs reading "We Support Our Troops." Another from the team follows with another stack of signs: white posters, painted with red and blue slogans such as "Cheney Rocks!" and "NYC (heart) Bush!"
"It's about time they passed these out," he says, thrusting his into the air as he cheers.
Tuesday at breakfast, it's becoming apparent just how important Pennsylvania is to the Bush campaign. Rove makes his surprise entrance to talk about how great the commonwealth is, how to get out the vote and what we stand to gain if Bush is re-elected. He talks about how Sens. Santorum and Specter are advisers to the president and how much he cares about the people of this state.
Rove's plan is to attract new moderate voters in Pennsylvania, but he's also interested in getting the millions of "new conservatives" out to the polls.
"It's going to be a very close election," he says. "We've got a lot to do. In old Philadelphia suburbs, up to 88 percent of our people are reported to vote."
The importance of Pennsylvania's electorate isn't lost on the delegates.
"It's pretty obvious how important we are, or we wouldn't be sitting so close to the stage or having people like Karl Rove to show up and give a little speech," says Ann Coleman, an alternate delegate from Hermitage.
Photo By: Michael Mergen
Today's theme is "People of Compassion," and many of the Pennsylvania delegates have chosen to spend it working at various shelters around the city. Santorum will go to the Lower East Side Bowery Mission to spend an hour tutoring a resident. Others will work cleaning and painting the mission.
But protesters have found their way to the outside of the mission, where they condemn delegates for fronting a compassionate image of the Bush administration. They argue that the Republican Party is exclusive, anti-minority, anti-underclass, anti-woman and anti-gay.
And all across the city in Union Square, in Central Park, in the Theater District masses of protesters echo those sentiments.
At the Garden that night, the proceedings as they do on every day open with an invocation. One is Muslim and the rest are Christian, at times imploring the audience to pray in the name of Jesus. Only once does a member of the Jewish clergy speak the entire week, and she is the founder of Hineni New York, a newfangled sect of Judaism that preaches to a very small congregation.
Yet in the crowd, several people are holding up handmade signs reading "Jews (heart) Bush," which were given out by the Sign Distribution Team. And although there is a visible presence of orthodox and Hasidic Republican Jews visible because some men wear yarmulke and others have beards and long, curly sideburns none hold signs. Some even pull out their own Hebrew-language Bible to pray as the Christians ask Jesus to help the president.
"Look, George Bush is the best friend Israel has ever had," says James Lapin, an orthodox Jew who directs a fundraising group in New York. "We believe that it is our obligation to repay a kindness, and for his kindness to Israel, I believe we should repay Bush with another four years in office."
Seated below Lapin is a woman holding a "Jews 4 Bush" sign and in the row below her is Chaim Liebovitz, a Hasidic Jew from New York.
"For Jewish people, the only thing that should matter is Israel," he says. "It is of no consequence to me how anything else goes. I do not like everything the party does, but those things I just forget about. So right now I am Republican in support of Israel."
On the floor, actor-cum-minister Stephen Baldwin is talking God, too. "I am not political, I am here to support the man who has the most faith," says Baldwin, who became a born-again Christian three years ago. "The current president has the most faith in God."
Asked whether the ticket was split between Bush, an orthodox Jewish rabbi or a Buddhist monk, Baldwin consulted a gold-plated Bible and paused. "Jewish rabbi, maybe. I don't know anything about Buddhism, but they believe in many different gods, I think. Maybe no."
As to the concern about the party being anti-woman?
"In our state, Republicans are empowering women to have busy, active lives," says Christine Olson, chief executive of the S.W. Jack Drilling Co., the largest privately held land-based drilling company in the country and a Pennsylvania-based national Republican committeewoman. "We're not about trying to keep women in their places at home. [The state Republican party is] training women to run for office and to take a role in politics. We're encouraging them to create small businesses. This is an exciting time for women in Pennsylvania. You just have to keep in mind that the party is more than the platform, that we are a work in progress."
And minority representation? This year, convention organizers say that 17 percent of the delegates are minorities, an increase of 10 percent since 2000. Clinton LeSueur, a GOP congressional candidate from Mississippi, says that he can become the first black Republican congressman from the Deep South in more than a century, and he's at the convention to win support and national exposure. Maryland Lt. Governor Michael S. Steele and U.S. education secretary Rod Paige were both asked to speak at the convention to highlight the party's black constituency.
Reneé Amoore is the first African-American chairwoman of Pennsylvania's state delegation. State party leaders say that minority representation is 70 percent higher than it was last time around. Even so, Bush garnered only 9 percent of the black vote in 2000, and recent polls show that he may not do any better in November.
Pennsylvania's most prominent gay delegate, Philadelphia-based Jesse Walters, decided at the last moment not to attend the RNC, saying that he could not support the rightward movement of his party.
"To be very honest, I'm concerned with the kind of speakers and the message we're sending to America," says Florida delegate Pam Olsen, who also chairs an ultra-conservative political group in her home state. "I think that many of us would like to see a return to our core values and morals. If you look in the platform, it's in there. No gay marriage. No abortion. You can be with us, or you can join a different political party."
Photo By: Michael Mergen
By Wednesday, the scheduled peaceful protests have morphed into violent clashes. Riding on a downtown subway from 34th Street, a West Virginia GOP supporter, outfitted in snakeskin boots and cowboy hat, is approached by an angry 20-something. He gets right in front of the GOP man and shouts "Hail Bush" while pointing with a straight outstretched arm, Nazi-style.
In Union Square, a group of AIDS activists march around the perimeter banging on giant drums. One holds a placard reading, "Bring your war on terrorism home and fight the AIDS epidemic." Nearby police officers swarm to the group and silence their chants, asking to see demonstration permits.
That night, the Republicans want to talk about "A Land of Opportunity," to bring home the message that, through tax cuts, small-business incentives and educational opportunities, every American can succeed, can live out the dream envisioned by Schwarzenegger and every other immigrant.
Although no one speaks specifically about what opportunities Bush may bring, many of the delegates refer to the 98-page "A Safer World and a More Hopeful America: Republican Platform" book they were given on the first day. Inside, it advocates for government spending limits with the exception of defense.
"We applaud President Bush for submitting a budget for 2005 that provides significant increases in funding to win the War on Terror and protect the homeland while limiting the growth in all other non-security related spending," it reads.
The platform also endorses the creation of a line-item veto to reject new appropriations, to limit spending on government agencies and civil service programs, and to make the tax-relief programs of 2001 and 2003 permanent.
Democrat turncoat Zell Miller, a U.S. Senator from Georgia, along with all of the speakers begins their speeches as if to address the unemployment rate and the state of our economy. But his soon turns into an angry rant about terrorism and the kinds of defense spending Democrat challenger John Kerry has opposed as a senator.
"Kerry [has] opposed the very weapons system that won the Cold War and that is now winning the war on terror," he says to a crowd of excited supporters. "Listing all the weapon systems that Sen. Kerry tried his best to shut down sounds like an auctioneer selling off our national security, but Americans need to know the facts."
Cheney also starts on message but soon evokes al-Qaeda and challenges Kerry's ability to handle terrorists.
"When the president and I took office, our schools were shuffling too many children from grade to grade without giving them the skills and knowledge they need," he says. "America's schools are now on an upward path to excellence. Opportunity also depends on a vibrant, growing economy. Then came the events of September 11th."
By Thursday, the entire area surrounding the Garden is on complete lockdown. Helicopters circle overhead and police, armed with automatic weapons, are positioned on rooftops. A bomb threat is called into The Gap on 34th and Broadway. Police are saying that a militant group of protesters plan to infiltrate the subway station beneath the convention and set off explosives. Bomb-sniffing dogs are everywhere, patrolling the streets along with Secret Service agents, firemen, Army reservists and police officers from all five boroughs of New York.
Bush is set to arrive later in the evening, but even some delegates are having trouble getting into the Garden either they forgot photo ID, or they happened to bring hairspray in their purses, or the number of campaign pins is setting off the metal detectors.
The level of security is partly the product of our fears and the lasting impact of 9/11. On the other hand, America's current leadership isn't exactly favored worldwide. It's not even liked in many American households.
But on the final night of the convention, Philadelphia's delegation indeed, the state's Republican representatives are poised to return home and convince you that this election is more than just a debate over what has already happened in Iraq. That social issues such as gay marriage and abortion have unfortunately become mired in politics. That, although the GOP may look homogenous, it is working equally as hard for disenfranchised minorities as it does for wealthy, white businessmen.
By the time Bush takes his stage in the round, they are already chanting "four more years," and feeling confident that the constituency here will make good on that sentiment.
"Philadelphia, Cheltenham, Wyncote, Bala Cynwyd these are all potential support bases for President Bush," says alternate delegate Shore. "We're going to see a bump in the polls after the convention, and I think that a lot of people will be thinking about voting Republican. It's our jobs, now, to make sure people get registered and actually go to the polls to cast their votes."
For both the party faithful and for swing voters on the fence, Vito Canuso Jr., a longtime Philadelphia delegate and attorney, says that the GOP is Pennsylvania's best bet in the coming election.
"In every group, religion, you name it, there are going to be extremists," Canuso says. "And in our society, few people inform themselves when making decisions. In Philadelphia, we have a broad spectrum of Republicans, and in this state we have some of the most prominent national Republican leaders and they all have different goals and ideas. Everyone realizes this is one of the most significant elections in recent history. This would be a good time to think really hard before casting a vote."