Last week, 15 Tulsans joined thousands of other delegates and alternates to the 39th quadrennial Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. They braved near-perfect late summer weather and extreme niceness by the locals, a schedule turned upside down by a hurricane thousands of miles away, and the occasional annoying protester, so that they could listen to speeches from their party's stars and network with delegates from other states who are just as manic for politics as they are.
Oh, and they came to cast their votes for the party's presidential nominee, but that didn't quite happen.
Oklahoma was apportioned 41 delegates and 38 alternates to the 2008 Republican National Convention. Of that number, eight delegates and seven alternates were Tulsans.
The Tulsa contingent included the current Tulsa County Republican Chairman and Vice Chairman (Joy Mohorovicic and Frazier Henke), the three previous chairmen (State Rep. Pam Peterson, Don Burdick, and Jerry Buchanan), the county's State Committeeman and District Committeewoman (Chris and Cheryl Medlock), and two members of Congressman John Sullivan's staff (communications director John Tidwell and veterans liaison George Wiland).
Also in the delegation were two recent statewide candidates (State Treasurer nominee Howard Barnett and gubernatorial primary candidate Bob Sullivan), two major party donors (Daryl Woodard and Ben Latham), the head of a conservative interest group (Tony Lauinger of Oklahomans for Life), and a party headquarters volunteer (Maureen Kinney).
Delegates could browse historic campaign posters, tour the C-SPAN mobile studio, pose behind the desk in a scale replica of the Oval Office, and view a collection of first ladies' gowns, a presidential limousine, and the fuselage of a presidential plane.
A convention store sold all sorts of clothing, each item bearing Republican elephants or the John McCain campaign logo. Other vendors pushed novelty items like the Democratic rocking chair (it flops from side to side). Political authors signed their books.
With Hurricane Gustav taking aim on the Louisiana coast, the only thing the delegates knew about the Monday schedule was that no one knew what would happen. Convention organizers and the McCain campaign did not want the appearance of frivolity, festivity, and partisanship while millions were evacuating coastal areas.
Behind the Scenes
The speeches you see in prime time are just a small portion of what happens at a national political convention. Delegates' days are filled from early in the morning until late at night.
A typical convention day began with breakfast at the hotel, hosted by a corporate sponsor and featuring talks from Oklahoma elected officials and other dignitaries.
Over the course of the week, the delegation heard from Sen. Jim Inhofe, all four Republican congressmen from Oklahoma, New Mexico Congresswoman Heather Wilson, former Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Tom Kirk, one of John McCain's cellmates at the Hanoi Hilton, Andy McCain, the nominee's son, and Ron Kessler, Washington correspondent for NewsMax.com.
Wednesday morning, Oklahoma traveled to a joint breakfast with the Louisiana delegation at their hotel, the Crowne Plaza in the far northwestern suburb of Brooklyn Center. Oklahoma's bus took the long way around after Oklahoma Republican Vice Chairman Cheryl Williams directed the driver to the Crowne Plaza in downtown Minneapolis.
The buffet, sponsored by Trail Blazer Campaign Services, a Minnesota-based political software company, included grits and andouille sausage. Delegates from the two states mingled around the tables. At one table, Oklahomans quizzed the Louisianans about why they built cities below sea level and why they persist in living there.
Before the speeches began, Chris Medlock led his fellow Sooners in singing "Oklahoma!" The Louisiana delegates did not offer a response.
Party officials from the two states vamped while we awaited the arrival of our speaker, former Oklahoma Congressman and Corporation Commissioner J. C. Watts.
(Watts's non-English speaking cab driver had first taken him to the Minneapolis Crowne Plaza.)
A Baptist preacher, Watts is regarded by his fellow Republicans as one of the party's best orators, and his wide-ranging, extemporaneous talk made him Oklahoma's favorite breakfast speaker.
Watts talked about his 2002 decision to leave elective office, how personally drained he felt and how he wanted to be "a good dad, good husband, good something else besides a member of Congress."
Despite the desire to refocus his life on his family, Watts said he found it hard to leave public acclaim behind, but he knew that if he stayed, he'd be pulled toward seeking the speakership or the presidency.
"The cheer of the crowd is so seductive . . . You need checks and balances . . . "
Tom Cole made a return appearance at Thursday's breakfast, praising Palin's acceptance speech the night before, saying it reminded him of the 1968 Jeannie C. Riley hit "Harper Valley PTA."
Between breakfast and the evening sessions, conventioneers could attend their choice of brunches, lunches, panel discussions, and rallies.
Lauinger and Peterson were at Tuesday's "Life of the Party" Party, hosted at each convention by longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly to promote the pro-life cause. The event is always well attended, but this year attracted more attention than usual because of its headliner: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
But demands on Palin's time as McCain's designated running mate required her to step aside. Instead, talk radio host Laura Ingraham took her place, praising Palin and skewering Palin's critics on the left, to the delight of the audience.
While there were news reports of clashes between police and protesters near the State Capitol, Peterson didn't encounter any violent confrontations. Buchanan came across one anti-war protester who was shouting at delegates in hopes of provoking a confrontation that could be captured on video by the protester's camera-wielding companions.
Many Oklahomans attended Wednesday's Veterans for Freedom Rally at St. Paul's Union Station to see one of their own honored. Retired Army Lt. Col. Steve Russell commanded the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regulars, which was involved in the pursuit and capture of Saddam Hussein. Just a week earlier, Russell won a Republican runoff to be elected a State Senator, representing District 45 in Oklahoma County.
The rally was addressed by South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, Orson Swindle, and actor Jon Voight.
Earlier in the week, Voight made a surprise appearance at a rally of Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission. Voight expressed admiration for the patriotism of the current generation and sorrow for his opposition to the Vietnam War:
"I got a little wayward at the end of the '60s, with celebrity--it does something to your mind. It drops your IQ . . . It distracts you from the truth . . . I got into this anti-war stuff in the late '60s and early '70s, and I pray to God everyday that he would forgive me for that nonsense . . . "
A rare conservative in Hollywood, Angelina Jolie's dad seemed to feel he was among his own people at the Republican convention.
Peterson encountered Voight on Radio Row and had her picture taken with him. "He was very approachable." Buchanan said, "(Voight) hugged me when he found out I was a vet and chatted endlessly...."
Buchanan also attended a bipartisan discussion on education featuring former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Democratic Presidential Candidate Al Sharpton. The event was called "Time to Choose -- Children or the Bureaucracy." Buchanan said his "preconceived idea of Al Sharpton was shot." Sharpton and Gingrich "were on the same page" regarding parental involvement, merit pay for teachers, and reducing top-heavy school administrations. The crowd responded to their remarks with a standing ovation.
Oklahoma media had a small presence in St. Paul. 740 KRMG had the biggest contingent, with Joe Kelley and Rick Couri doing their morning show and a special evening edition from a booth on Radio Row, snagging famous politicians and media personalities as they passed by. Program Director Drew Anderssen rounded out the three-man team as producer.
Chris Medlock conducted his afternoon 1170 KFAQ show each day via phone, broadcasting interviews and speeches collected the previous day, with Bruce Delay holding down the fort back in Tulsa.
The state's two dailies had their Washington reporters on hand, and the Oklahoma Gazette had a couple of delegates blogging the convention on their website. I was credentialed for both Urban Tulsa Weekly and my blog, batesline.com.
For Peterson, the convention was old home week. In the late '70s, while her husband was in medical school, Peterson worked for a Minneapolis TV station. These days, her son lives in the area. Monday evening's cancellation gave her a chance to join her son and some old friends at an historic downtown restaurant.
She also caught up with an old political ally, former Wisconsin Gov. and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. During his time as governor, Peterson was the legislative director for the Wisconsin branch of Concerned Women for America.
Peterson hosted a coffee for Thompson during his first campaign; she has a photo of him holding her infant daughter. Later Thompson appointed her to a state commission on families and children; today she chairs the Oklahoma House of Representatives' committee on families and children.
For delegates who went to Philadelphia in 2000 or New York in 2004, Minneapolis-St. Paul offered a very different convention experience because of the way hotels and event venues were scattered around the seven-county metro area.
About 50,000 people come to town for a national political convention, including delegates and alternates, spouses, family, and friends, elected officials, political consultants, and media from around the world. Cities bidding to host the 2008 Republican convention had to be able to offer 20,000 hotel rooms and 2,000 suites.
In 2004, everyone could be accommodated within walking distance or a short cab ride of Madison Square Garden. Midtown Manhattan alone boasts 49,000 rooms. It was possible for delegates to return to the hotel after the convention session, freshen up, then head out again for late-night food and entertainment. During the day, delegates could walk or take a cab, bus, or subway to get to tourist attractions and convention-related events.
Metro Minneapolis-St. Paul total has about 35,000 hotel rooms, spread over 500 sq. mi. Oklahoma, Colorado, and American Samoa were stuck at a Four Points Hotel in the middle of an industrial park, nine miles away from the Xcel Energy Center. For nightlife within walking distance, they had a Wendy's and a convenience store.
This made them highly dependent on the convention-provided charter bus to get from place to place. Some delegates rented a car for transportation during the day, but nearly everyone used the bus to get to St. Paul for the convention sessions.
While some of the younger Oklahoma conventioneers enjoyed the nightlife in St. Paul before taking a cab back to the hotel, most Oklahoma delegates did their post-session socializing in the hospitality suite at the hotel, paid for by Williams Companies.
The hotel was also home to some CNN talent, including prime-time anchor Anderson Cooper and commentator Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. The final night of the convention, this writer encountered Brazile in the lobby of the hotel, where she was telling an Oklahoma delegate to look her up if she ever came to DC. "I'm in the book. You come to my house, I'll cook you some gumbo."
Right Place, Right Time
Prime seating on the convention floor is reserved for critical swing states, with Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado front and center, flanked by Florida, New Mexico, Michigan, and Missouri, states critical to a Republican victory. Reliably red Oklahoma (all 77 counties voted for George W. Bush in 2004) was seated at the back of the floor to the speaker's right.
This location was not without its advantages. It was easier for delegates and alternates to find each other and trade places.
Being right next door to Alaska, home state of the VP nominee, added some excitement. Peterson said that Alaska delegates had "nothing but wonderful things to say about Palin."
Oklahoma had a great view of the VIP box, which held, over the course of the week, members of the McCain and Palin families, former President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was seen clapping with the music during the Thursday night balloon drop.
In response to Gustav's landfall, convention officials reduced Monday's schedule to the bare minimum required by party rules to constitute a legal nominating convention. Committees, which met provisionally the previous week, were formally constituted by the delegates, and their reports were approved without dissent.
The rearrangement of the convention schedule hurt Oklahoma's visibility on the podium. Originally, an Oklahoma official was scheduled to speak each night of the convention: Congressman Tom Cole, Senator Tom Coburn, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, and Congresswoman Mary Fallin.
Cole is chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, the group charged with retaking the majority in the House of Representatives by making independent expenditures in key races across the country. Cornett is the president of Republican Mayors and Local Officials.
With the hurricane-upset schedule, only Cole and Fallin were allowed to speak, on the final night of the convention. Coburn was offered a spot on Wednesday's program, but a family commitment made it impossible. Coburn was the only Republican member of Oklahoma's federal delegation not to spend any time in St. Paul.
Coburn's new mayor, by contrast, was the life of the party. Barely-20-year-old John Tyler Hammons (his birthday was the last day of the convention) was elected Mayor of Muskogee in a landslide back in May, and as America's youngest mayor, he was in constant demand for interviews.
His fondest convention wish was fulfilled with the help of Jerry Buchanan, who approached New York chairman Frank Mondello to set up a brief meeting and photo op on Thursday afternoon between Hammons and Rudy Giuliani. "America's Mayor" is Hammons' role model and was his first choice for President.
Older readers may remember when the roll call of the states was the centerpiece of a political convention. A politician from each state elaborates at length about the virtues of his home state's produce, industry, beauty queen, and football team, before announcing the delegation's vote for president.
The roll call still happens, but this year the Republicans pushed it to late Wednesday night, freeing up prime network coverage for more compelling content. After Palin's rousing acceptance speech and a brief recess, the roll call began.
A bit of drama developed, as two supporters of Ron Paul in the Oklahoma delegation, unbound after Mike Huckabee's withdrawal from the race, wanted to abstain. They were urged by Sen. Inhofe and Oklahoma state chairman Gary Jones to vote for Paul if that was their desire, rather than abstaining. So Inhofe prepared to announce Oklahoma's vote as 39 for McCain, 2 for Paul.
Oklahoma passed the first time around, part of a plan that would allow Arizona to put its favorite son over the top. When Oklahoma's turn came up again, Inhofe began his spiel. When he uttered the phrase "war hero of all war heroes, John McCain," the convention secretary assumed she'd heard the vote and announced, "Oklahoma, 41 votes for John McCain." Inhofe tried to correct her and continue, but his mike had already been cut, and the secretary had moved on to Oregon. Attempts to get the attention of convention officials to correct the vote were unsuccessful.
Oklahoma's delegates were energized by the week. What had promised to be a dull and predictable event was transformed by McCain's Palin pick the Friday before. Peterson summarized the reaction from many Republicans: "They were going to vote for McCain but weren't really excited about it. Once he picked Sarah Palin, they want to work for him."
No one I spoke to seemed shaken by the media barrage aimed at Palin with the revelation of her eldest daughter's premarital pregnancy. Peterson said, "She's approaching problems with integrity and character, in the public eye . . . She hasn't compromised her values. She seems to be the same in her public life as in her private life."
On Friday, as workers transformed the Xcel Energy Center back to home ice for the NHL Minnesota Wild, Tulsa's Republican delegates headed home, loaded down with McCain-Palin buttons and convention souvenirs, and perhaps for the first time fully persuaded that John McCain could be the next President of the United States.
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