Delegates cherish diversity that McGovern began
North Carolina delegates recites the Pledge of Allegiance on Tuesday during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When Laurel Dagnon went to her first Democratic National Convention in 1968, women accounted for just 13 percent of delegates. Even fewer were under 30, and hardly any were lesbians like her.
That was the last convention before the Democratic National Committee adopted reforms requiring states to ensure their delegations more closely reflected wider demographics.
Now diversity is a given in the Democratic Party and a reality at its convention.
"We're leaps and bounds from where we've been in the past. Every four years you see a very, very positive move toward representation of the United States," said Ms. Dagnon, a delegate from Butler County and an administrator at Slippery Rock University.
Former U.S. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota is credited with spurring reforms within the Democratic party that 40 years ago laid the groundwork for the current primary system and established quotas to ensure convention delegates better represent demographics of the general population.
Without them, there would be many more white male faces in the convention hall, and at the podium, this week.
Beyond that, it's changed the presidential selection process in profound ways for both parties.
Many political scientists say President Barack Obama would not be in the White House without Mr. McGovern's reforms, and it's unlikely President Bill Clinton would have been, either. And Arizona Sen. John McCain -- whose party over time came to adopt similar reforms -- would not have been on the GOP ticket in 2008. Some say Mitt Romney wouldn't have had the chance to accept his party's nomination last week, either.
"I don't know that we would have had any of the presidents that we saw since Nixon," said Dennis Plane, a political scientist at Juniata College, who brought several students to the Democratic convention this week.
Democrats celebrate the results of the McGovern reforms.
Inclusion makes the party stronger and allows party platforms to more directly reflect the wants and needs of all segments of the population, said York's first African-American mayor, Kim Bracey.
You don't have to be a woman or a minority to value diversity in the delegation. Just ask delegate and state Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia.
"It matters in defining what the Democratic Party is. There are subtle but real effects," said Mr. Cohen, who attended his first convention as an observer in 1964 when he was just 15. "It was almost all white, and there were many fewer women," he recalled over breakfast at the Pennsylvania delegation hotel in Charlotte.
It isn't just about appearances, said Jeanne Clark of Shadyside, who chairs the women's caucus for the Allegheny County Democratic Party.
It's about opportunity, she said during an interview Monday in Charlotte, where she attended a reception sponsored by the National Women's Political Caucus.
"Being here helps women and minorities move into positions of authority in the party," Ms. Clark said. "When you're at a convention, you meet the people who fund the campaigns. You're sitting side by side with members of Congress and having the hours to sit and talk and show yourself as a party leader. It's about access. It speaks to the beliefs of the party."
Delegate Ruth Rudy of Centre County, a former state representative, attended her first convention in 1972 when the McGovern reforms were just beginning. She's encouraged that the conventions she's attended -- 11 in all -- have continued to grow more diverse. So are national party officials.
"We are incredibly proud of our party and our delegates," said Melanie Roussell, Democratic National Committee spokeswoman. "More than 40 percent of our delegates are people of color -- including at least 27 percent African-American and at least 13 percent Hispanic -- and half of our delegates are women."
Said Democratic National Committee secretary Alice Germond: "We are a convention that really looks like America: every race, every ethnic background."
"The diversity I've noticed spans across all groups, including people with physical challenges and people from races that I didn't see such great representation from even four years ago," said delegate Priscilla Sims Brown of Philadelphia. "There are enough of them that they're not just here as tokens but they're here feeling comfortable having a voice around their own issues."
Republicans have had less success than Democrats in diversifying their convention delegation. At the last convention, for example, nearly half the state's delegations had no African-American delegate.
Overall, just 2 percent were African-American, the same percentage as 1968, before the reforms were enacted. The percentage of female GOP delegates, meanwhile, doubled to 32 percent over the same time period.
Republicans are less interested in race and gender diversity because, for them, it's about ideology above all else, said Rosalyn Cooperman, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.
"Party loyalty is prized over all else, so these claims about constituencies -- African-Americans, Hispanics, women -- have always made Republicans uncomfortable. They say, 'We don't care what the color of your skin is or if you're a woman or a male. We care about the party ideal,' " Ms. Cooperman said.
Still, speaker lineups for both parties were heavy on blacks and women. Some experts say there was a downside to the changes, though.
"We want a system of primary elections where voters get to select candidates because we were fed up with party machines, but some say we went too far by decimating the strength of the parties," Mr. Plane said.
Political scientist Ernest McGowen of the University of Richmond said the diversity of the conventions can mask the underlying reality of how political decision-making happens.
"While the convention delegation has become more demographically diverse, it is still dominated by those at the ideological extremes who have the ability and desire to attend multiple daylong meetings," he said. "Opening up the nomination selection to more voters is more democratic, but the primary electorates are usually made up of the same small, nonrepresentative swath of people."
Meanwhile, the changes made it unlikely for a moderate to win the White House because candidates have to appeal to each party's ideologues just to get on the ballot.
"To be sure, the parties have polarized over time. ... It's like a dance. You have continue to woo and court your base so they remain happy with you," Ms. Cooperman said.
"Democrats have kind of leaned to the left and Republicans have run to the right and no one occupies that middle space."
First Published September 5, 2012 12:00 am