Long-time Democrat, first-time delegate

Lawson Wetli may be a newbie but she has jumped into activism with a passion. She’s a leader in From the Ground Up, Moms Demand Action Upstate, and active on countless issues. We asked if she would report on her perspective on the SCDP convention. She agreed. Here are her newbie’s impressions of the convention.

By Lawson Wetli

Ive heard the stories, in whispers and fragments. Theres a fish fry, they say, and lots of resolutions, and quite-possibly also balloons. But Ive never been to a state Democratic Party convention before. What will it be like? I discover as I go.

April 16: I’m getting geeked

The delegate packet arrives, and there are resolutions for the party platform! They cover issues from infrastructure and education to reparations and ethics – the combination of practical solutions and focus on social and economic justice makes me proud to be a Democrat.

April 20: It feels good to be in a sea of Democrats

2:00​: I jump in the car: Columbia or bust!

4:00: I see my first campaign sign (Willis for Governor) sitting by itself. Apparently, the Willis team got here first. Will the other teams catch up? (Spoiler: Yes for Smith, No for Noble.)

4:05​: Entering my hotel, I see the first sign that Im entering the Blue Zone: a standing cut-out of Bernie Sanders at the Our Revolution display. The halls are full of what seem like Democrats. People are super-friendly, in the smiling-at-strangers kind of way. It feels good to be in a sea of Democrats.

5:30​: The Blue Palmetto reception starts at 6 and the program at 7. I head out of my room a little early to see whats shakingFollowing the sound of the crowd, I arrive at an Our Revolution event. Its standing room only, and Mary Geren (candidate for SC-3) is speaking to enthusiastic applause.

6:00​ I arrive at the reception for the Blue Palmetto dinner. More sign fairies have arrived, and tons of signs are outside now, especially for James Smith. Inside, there are reception rooms for Marguerite Willis (free champagne), James Smith (open bar) and Phil Noble (when I enter, I am waylaid by Phil Noble himself, and I then feel awkward about scouting for freebies).

Wandering around, I ask attendees how this convention feels so far compared to others. Everyone who has been a delegate before says that theres a lot more energy this year than usual.

7:00​: Jim and Mignon Clyburn arrive. In this space, Rep. Clyburn is royalty. The crowd parts parts before him and eddies around him, in many cases for selfies.

7:45​: The Blue Palmetto dinner starts out full of enthusiasm. Ive been randomly assigned to an eight-person table, and my tablemates include a candidate for Richland county council, her supportive but exhausted husband, a candidate for the SC-7 House seat, and a bunch of people who know things like who is running in their local State House primaries, which makes me like them immediately. Its delightful.

8:00​: I ask the person beside me in the buffet line how he thinks the convention is going compared to past conventions. He says: Its going great! Better than usual. They havent run out of food.

Speakers, we’ve got speakers

8:30​: A parade of speakers begins with Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state. Shes a fired-up speaker, and the essence of the message is unity: Unite, Rise and Organize.” She’s followed by Mandy Powers Norrell, John Scott (Willis running mate), and John Delaney, a US House member from Maryland. 

Were two hours in. Weve long since finished our food. The audience is done. Or maybe its just me. Heres the problem . . . Too many candidates or wannabe candidates want to talk. Theres too much talking. Delaney is saying that “nothing happens unless someone invests in someone. Its the most anodyne talk ever. Hes saying stuff that people will agree with (like we should focus on education) but is utterly uninspiring. We all just want to leave. (Or maybe its just me. But I doubt it. In fact, many people are leaving.)

9:25​: Jim Clyburn steps to the stage. He says he prefers hot fish to cold chicken. Theres applause — everyone is ready to get out of here. Or else likes the fish fry. Or both.

I’m hopeful for a moment, but my hopes are quickly dashed: Clyburn goes on to thank a bunch of people, including personal reminiscences about when John Delaney hosted him at his house at some point. Hes calling out towns in Ohio. Why? I have no idea. Oh — its because hes introducing another speaker, Tim Ryan. Noooooooo! Not another speaker!

9:40​: Seriously? Tim Ryan is talking, presumably because he also wants to run for President. More thanking, more shout-outs. Hes funny and has a good comic leadin, but still . . . were ready to go. The message is that ordinary people do extraordinary things. Thats what it means to be a Democrat — its about helping ordinary people do something extraordinary. 10 minutes later, hes still at it. Two-thirds of the crowd is already gone. Ryan is talking about Bacons Rebellion and how the oligarchs divided a united group of poor people to weaken them. Its almost 10 pm, we’ve been here for hours, and hes still going strong.

10:00 Finally! Its over! The James Clyburn Fish Fry ends at 11:00 – time to hustle over.

10:15​ Free fried fish! (It’s very tasty.) The same speakers from the Blue Palmetto dinner are speaking again, but more briefly. Pretty much every candidate running for a SC office gets a minute or so to talk.

It seems like a lot of what is going on involves luring people (with things like food and drink) to places where they will have to hear people speak. It clearly works for me – I happily nosh on my fish and then head back for a big day tomorrow.

April 21: The real work begins

7:45: A pre-convention breakfast is about to start. Also, its 7:45.  I hit the snooze button.

8:45​: Convention time! At the top of the escalator down to the convention floor, Willis staffers are handing out stickers. At the bottom, a Smith staffer waits to try to sticker us up. (There are no Phil Noble sticker-givers, here or anywhere. The Phil Noble signs arealso absent – there are 10 James Smith signs for every 1 Willis sign, and no Noble signs anywhere. Its puzzling, and the people I talk to chalk it up to a disorganized campaign.)

Delegate check-in happens county by county, and its nice to see familiar faces at the Greenville County table. People running for local office are milling about the table to shake hands.

9:20​: The convention begins!

9:40​:  Candidates for state office are given an opportunity to speak. First up is Melvin Whittenburg for Secretary of State, followed by Rosalynn Glenn for Treasurer, and then Constance Anastopoulo for Attorney General.

The candidates for governor are the headliners, and they dont just get to speak —they also get to have a hype team speak for them ahead of time. First up is Phil Noble, and his campaign manager gives the introductory speech for him.

9:55​: Noble takes the stage to the strains of “The Champion” by Carrie Underwood (Im a fighter like Rocky”). It’s an interesting musical call.

Noble’s speech includes elements of his own accomplishments and also direct attacks on James Smith, which does not go over especially well with the crowd.

10:10 The hype team for Marguerite Willis takes the stage. It’s a four-person Motown-style singing group come up and sing a religious song Motown-style. 

10:15 Willis is a good speaker,  funny and engaging. A lot of her focus is on being a female candidate (the signs her team passed out say “GIRL POWER”) and on attacking Donald Trump.

10:30​: The Smith campaign kicks it up another notch – there is a whistle sounded from the back and then the Benedict College Band of Distinction marches in. His hype team is also high-powered – the first introductory message is from Joe Biden (pre-recorded).

10:35​: Next on stage is Clyburn, the rock star of the day. In a big win for Smith, Clyburn endorses him. (It feels like everything was a tee-up for Smith. He definitely comes across as the favorite.)

10:40​: James Smith speaks. He jumbles his speech a fair amount . . . speaking in front of big groups like this seems not to be his forte. Among other things, he pledges to have the most diverse cabinet in SC history.

11:00​: The keynote speaker is U.S. Sen. Jeff  Merkel of Oregon. He lists four points that need to change, and the first is gerrymandering— its so fun to get to scream and clap for redistricting reform.

“Let us not be hypocrites…”

11:30​: The next 30 minutes are consumed by a fight over a candidate believed to be a Tea Party Republican who has filed to run as a Democrat in SC-2. Motions go back and forth on the issue of whether Phil Black should be allowed to speak. There’s a lot of Robert’s Rules going on. SCDP Chair Trav Robertson stands on moral high ground, explaining that Democrats do not have litmus tests for who can run and urging us to be impartial in who is allowed to speak: Let us not be hypocrites and deny an opportunity of somebody to be heard. The delegates vote to allow Black to speak. The anti-Black contingent keep throwing motions out; Trav keeps disallowing them. That’s how it rolls at the GCDP convention, it seems – parliamentary rulings as sport, kind of.

12:00​: Finally, it’s time for the party platform resolutions!

Richard Riley, former governor of South Carolina, and former secretary of education, greets a delegate. (Photo by Ruth Todd)

A motion to lower the proposed minimum wage on the party platform from $15/hour to $12/hour fails.

At least 5 proposed changes have been made, and there are almost 15 people in line with additional proposed changes to resolutions. (Argh.) A solid set of the people proposing changes are somewhere past eccentric, and they tend to make long, confusing statements that are not clear. proposed changes. They don’t give up easily. When a proposed change loses out, they get right back in line to make more. Argh!

12:25​: There is a point of order made requesting that we suspend the rules to have a lunch break. It requires a two-thirds vote. It passes overwhelmingly. Democrats come together on the importance of lunch.

1:30​: Now that we’re back, the first motion is to limit further discussion of resolutions to 20 minutes. It overwhelmingly passes. (Way to be, fellow Democrats!)

Many motions fail to get a second (which requires more than 25 percent of the delegates to indicate their desire to second it by standing). Those are dead. If a motion is seconded and does not receive any objections, it passes. Many motions pass like this– to ban large-capacity magazines, to give DREAMers access to in-state tuition and licensure, to change “decriminalization” of marijuana to “legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana, to add protections for transgender students, etc. Some motions receive a second but are also receive objections, so they are set aside for debate. These include whether to remove a proposal for “performance-based incentives” for teachers, whether to let party officials endorse candidates pre-primary in their unofficial capacity, and whether to change the proposal for a non-partisan commission for redistricting to a citizen’s commission, among others.

2:00​: Times up for discussion! There is now a cloture motion. More parliamentary procedure debate ensues. Ten minutes later, the challenged changes are adopted. 

“… any old blue just won’t do”

2:15​: The resolution debates have clearly gone longer than people thought. Our Revolution’s Nina Turner is the other scheduled speaker, and she has to leave to catch a plane. The rules are suspended to let Turner give her remarks.

Nina Turner energizes the delegates. (Photo by Ruth Todd)

2:20: Nina Turner takes the stage. Her core line is the state of the streets. She said that any old blue just wont do”, which, I assume, means that we need candidates who are not just Democratic but progressive. But at the end, I still don’t know what her substantive point is.

2:45​: Aaaaand we’re back to the debates about the party platform resolutions.

2:50: But not for long! We have another motion to suspend the rules to let congressional candidates speak. First up are SC-1 candidates (Joe Cunningham and Toby Smith) followed by our very own SC-4 candidates: Brandon Brown, JT Davis, Eric Graben, Will Morin and Lee Turner

3:40​: Back to debating resolutions. The motion to allow private endorsements by party official and the motion to change language about redistricting reform both fail, and the motion to remove the proposal for performance-based incentives for teachers passes.

4:00​: Resolutions are finally over! Big applause. Its time for some awards, and Upstate folks who get them include Chandra Dillard and Henry Lear. Everyone is exhausted, and probably only 25 percent of the audience is still here.

4:10​: More Congressional candidates speak, probably bummed that they didn’t get to talk until the room is almost empty and everyone is dying to go home. There are four candidates from SC-5, which is a whole lot of speeches at a very late hour. The crowd energy level is low at this point (and the room is mostly empty), but Archie Parnell of SC-5 gets an enthusiastic response. I head out into the hall and end up chatting with a charming woman. I introduce myself, and it turns out to be Sarah Parnell, Archie’s wife – good pick, Archie!

4:40​: It’s time for SC-2 candidates. First up is Phil Black, the Tea Party Republican whose ability to speak was subject to a convention vote. Unsurprisingly, he is not well-received

The last speaker, Mary Geren, candidate for SC-3, discards her prepared remarks.

4:50​: SC-7 candidates are up and then, at 5, it’s time for the final contested district, SC-3. (I take a picture of the remaining Greenville contingentwe have a lot more people left than the other counties. (We’re heroes. Or martyrs.)

Mary Geren of SC-3, the last speaker (who was supposed to speak hours ago), literally balls up her speech, throws it behind her and laughs. She’s not going to be the thing that keeps us from going home.

5:05​: OMG! Were done!

Lawson Wetli, left, and GCDP Chair Kate Franch: Making the world safe for democracy! (Photo by Ruth Todd)

Photos of the convention can be viewed and purchased from Ruth Todd’s online gallery.

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