Conventions leave lasting impressions

Posted: Monday, September 18, 2000

Three Kenai Peninsula residents traveled great distances to represent this region in the national party nominating conventions.

Away from the hectic schedules, bright lights and endless handshaking, two of them shared their thoughts and recalled their experiences.

Attending their respective conventions were Democrat Iola Banks, Reform Party member Bob Bird, and Republican Larry Smith.

This year's Democratic convention wasn't the first Soldotna resident Iola Banks has attended, and it might not be her last. But she said it will be among the memorable events in her life.

She spent four days and nights in Los Angeles, in a hotel near Hollywood, and enjoyed exceptional breakfasts, courtesy of various representatives of the oil industry. There were meetings with congressmen, campaign coordinators, and big shot executives; there were protesters on the street and senators in the elevators.

It's nothing new for Banks, who has attended two Democratic conventions before, both in New York, in 1976 and 1980. It was, however, an experience she found invigorating and inclusive.

Inclusive -- it's a buzzword, a term politicians use to describe their efforts to reach everybody. It means even more, perhaps, to Banks, who can walk but frequently uses a wheelchair. She said she was thoroughly impressed with the accommodations and the level of participation she enjoyed.

"It was nice I could go to that convention as a handicapped person and do things and participate in government," she said.

Banks said she saw a man in a wheelchair who appeared to be severely handicapped and could not speak. Other people in his delegation were carefully explaining everything to him. She was impressed that people had made an extra effort to include him.

Her hotel, the Hollywood Roosevelt, provided her wheelchair.

"We were very fortunate" to stay at that hotel, she said, noting hotels and other businesses in convention cities often raise prices.

Banks said her experience in Los Angeles reminded her of her trip to the 1976 Democratic convention.

"I thought this year was just fabulous," she said. "We were all yelling for one purpose, to get our candidate elected."

She said this convention and the one in 1976 contrasted sharply with the 1980 convention, when delegates fought bitterly.

"1980 was a terrible one," she said. "This was more like '76, when everybody loved everybody, almost like a love-in."

People in convention cities always are nice, despite the political situation of the party, Banks said, even in New York.

"The joke was that they took all the rude people and put them somewhere else" during the conventions, she said.

Banks has enjoyed minor celebrity status as a Democratic convention delegate and as a longtime party member.

Vice President Al Gore asked her in 1997 to join his honorary committee for his presidential campaign. Committee members help make some decisions, including the color of the candidate's suits. Some committee members weren't concerned about the color of Gore's clothes, she said.

"It matters to me!" Banks said, adding that the vice president should wear suits with earth tones.

In those clothes, she said, "He looks like you could walk up to him and hug him."

Banks said the convention left her feeling optimistic.

"It really leaves you with a lot of high hopes," she said.

Will she attend another convention?

"Oh, God bless me, I probably would," she said.

Former Republican Bob Bird, now a member of the Reform Party, attended the Reform Party convention in Philadelphia in the spring. He's no newcomer to the party or to political conventions but still found the experience an eye-opening one.

It certainly wasn't anything like the media's depiction of the convention, the Nikiski resident said. He called coverage of the event "news service garbage."

He said Pat Buchanan, whom he favors and who is one of two controversial Reform Party candidates, is not the "Klansman-Nazi combination" the media portray him to be.

Bird has worked closely with Buchanan, another former Republican, in the past. Most recently he's been working to establish the Reform Party in Alaska.

"Buchanan made a call to us in an effort to organize ... a Reform Party organization here in Alaska in February," he said.

Bird and other Reform Party members traveled to the party's national headquarters in Tennessee last year to receive official recognition for the Alaska organization.

Bird said his visit to Philadelphia helped him to realize that while the Reform Party is comprised of several factions with varied interests, many of its members share common ground.

"I was impressed with the guy from Kentucky, the guy from Colorado," said Bird. "You can see we have a lot in common."

Some delegates apparently found more differences than shared goals and left the convention.

A number of party members loyal to founder and two-time presidential candidate H. Ross Perot staged a walkout after Buchanan received the nomination, Bird said. He said their actions did not constitute a protest and that their demonstration was merely a "media theater."

Bird said fighting and divisive attitudes did not dominate the convention. He also said the party is not comprised entirely of disaffected fringe elements, although he did apply that term to co-nominee John Hagelin and his Natural Law Party supporters.

Overall, he said, the event was a positive experience that opened his eyes to the common ground party members share and to new sides of familiar stories.

Bird said he has never opposed immigration to the United States, but was moved by a man's speech against illegal immigration.

"There was a black man -- and this was an eye-opener for me -- invited to speak about illegal immigration," Bird said. "He said, 'My God, I can't even get a job at McDonald's because I don't speak Spanish.'"

"That's pretty remarkable," he said. "I think that had to come from a minority member to make a speech like that."

Most surprising, Bird said, was meeting people with views more conservative than his own.

"I met a lady from Poland who said she thought Lech Walesa was a Communist agent," Bird said.

"I finally met some people more conservative than me, and that's pretty hard to do," he said, laughing.

Bird said he enjoyed representing Alaska at the convention. He had the privilege of reading Alaska's votes during the roll call.

He also enjoyed having his 13-year-old daughter at the convention. She got to go onto the convention floor.

Bird said that the entertainment for the delegates, which included a fireworks show, was impressive.

"I went for political reasons, but that (entertainment) is always nice," he said. "It really was an exciting thing."

Cooper Landing resident Larry Smith attended the Republican convention, but efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.

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