by Jo Freeman
As my parting piece, I will describe a little of the behind the scenes activity at the Republican Convention, similar to what I wrote for the Democrat's gathering.
Like the Democrats, the Republicans rely on voluteers for much of the labor of putting on this convention. I was told that were were approximately 10,000 volunteers, 8K volunteering for the RNCC, and 2K for the host committee. Of the latter, approximately 1,000 worked at Civic Fest, and another 1,000 were greeters and helpers at the delegation hotels. Many put in long hours and showed up at odd times.
On Tuesday I took the convention bus from the Xcel Center in St. Paul to one of the delegation hotels in Minneapolis, arriving about 11:00 p.m. As we stopped, a young woman in a convention t-shirt rushed to meet the descending delegates and make sure they knew where to go. She told me where to find the train — on which she had just arrived. Meeting delegate buses late at night for four nights was her assigned volunteer job.
The RNCC began recruiting volunteers last April. They were subject to background checks, probabably to avoid bringing ringers (e.g. Democrats or protestors) into the fold. No one knew how many were rejected because of some blur. Most were local, but a couple thousand came from out of town and had to find their own accommodations. Shifts were six hours,and most got at least one box lunch. In addition to their t-shirts, they got a commemorative button.
Their jobs were known by their t-shirts. Red stood for Security, for which a background in the military or police was a requirement. I saw a lot of those; they didn't have much to do beyond stand around and examine badges. Orange meant Hospitality. They gave directions and answered questions. Green t-shirts escorted the disabled to where they needed to go. Off-white meant Operations — and I never did figure out exactly what they did. I saw few of those.
The press support operation was less organized and more dispersed than I have ever seen before. There was no media guide in the press bags that were handed out with the press credentials — just product promotionals. Nor did the Minneapolis Convention Center have a press operations office. That was in the Xcel Center, which you had to have a convention credential to enter. Once inside, it was challenging to find, since we weren't given maps.
In Denver the Dems had erected four tents in parking lots to house the press working areas for those big media who paid for them, and a small office with volunteers to give out materials and anwer questions.
In St. Paul, the press working area was in The River Center and the Wilkins Auditorum — two buildings attached to the Xcel Center. It was a maze on three levels, with ramps and elevators and staircases which sometimes led to locked doors and barriers one could not cross.
The Republicans had turned down Microsoft's offer to sponsor a press lounge as it had for the Democrats. The closest equivalent was a few square feet at the edge of a hallway where Lexis-Nexis provided six comfortable chairs in front of a TV screen with electrical outlets, network connections and a coffee urn.
The Lexis staff did searches for reporters. I asked them to find out how many women delegates there were at this Republican Convention, but the RNCC hadn't released that information so it was not to be found. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies had counted 36 African Americans among the delegates (and released that information to the press) but no one was counting the women.
Outside of these buildings, ten foot tall iron fences blocked off a major section of downtown St. Paul; going through or around the security zone was difficult and time consuming.
The Democrat Presence
The Democrats had set up their own media center in a building about a hundred yards from the Xcel Center. On paper it looked like a great location — an easy walk for the press covering the convention. The DNC originally planned to do press briefings on the Republicans every day at 8:30 a.m., using free breakfasts as an inducement for the press to attend.
It didn't work. The Monday morning briefing was canceled after the Republicans shortened their convention business to two hours because of Hurricane Gustav. The rest just didn't happen.
While the DNC didn't say why, the placement of the security fences made it all but impossible for press to go from their warrens inside the security zone to the building where the DNC had set up shop. I tried to do this on Wednesday, and just couldn't get there from here. The main street access to the building where the DNC had their Media Center was blocked by a security fence, and there were no gates anywhere near.
Thursday I started from the outside and finally found the Dems' door, but only after asking directions of many, many people. I walked through a museum parking lot, down an up ramp and around some back streets.
Inside I picked up the DNC press kit, saw the unused briefing room, and the war room where DNC press volunteers hammer out those ten or more press releases the DNC e-mails to me every day.
Walking the Fence
After Wednesday's trek I knew better than to try to enter the Xcel Center from there (even though I could see it clearly) so I took a walk around the outside of the security fence to see what I could see.
The first thing I stumbled on to (literally) was the official protest zone, the one the courts ordered to be within sight and sound of the convention center. It was, but since the delegate busses and delegate entrances were on the other side, no one going in and out of the Xcel Center were likely to see any protestors.
Not that there was anything to see. The only people at the protest zone at about 11:a.m. on Thursday were the employees of the St. Paul Dept. of Parks and Recreation, who were in charge of the speaker's roster. The city of St. Paul provided a trailer with a stage from which to speak in front of a space that could have held a couple thousand people. It was empty.
To allocate the 48 speaking slots of 50 minutes each, the City held a lottery. All but a few of the winners came to do their thing on Monday, but their numbers declined each day. They had to bring their own audiences. The most people anyone brought in four days was five, I was told.
If you wanted to reach a crowd with your message, the place to be wasn't the Open Forum Stage provided by the Parks Dept., but The Place for Politics — the stage where MSNBC taped live talk shows in Rice Park. Two 'pigs' from PETA were among the many people with signs and costumes wondering around the plaza talking up their topic. PETA's sign said "Cut the Pork; Tax Meat."
I also saw a couple pro-lifers declaring that "John McCain is not pro-life" and a couple of Codepinkers plotting their next assault on the Republicans. They got convention seats both Wedneday and Thursday, but were shouted down and ushered out as soon as they unfurled their pink banners. On Wednesday a few rolled underneath the fences to get inside the security zone, but were promptly arrested before they could do anything.
I followed the security fence to where it came to the Mississippi river. A cop told me that only a couple blocks away were stairs which I could descend in order to walk under the promenade and back up the other side. I decided not to do that.