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Jewish World Review August 18, 2000 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Consumer Reports

The People's Convention? -- THE DEMOCRATS promised a "people's convention," full of working Americans whose lives mirror the electorate's. They promised "real diversity" in their ranks, not the carefully scripted, minority podium speakers the Republicans offered. They promised an issues-driven agenda, with plenty of details so voters can make an informed choice. This week the Democrats had their chance to deliver on their promises. So, how do the Democrats stack up to the Republicans?

For starters, neither group of convention delegates are "average Americans," a majority of whom don't even bother to vote these days, much less run for election as convention delegates. Both Democrats and Republicans are wealthier than most Americans, according to a New York Times survey, with 57 percent of both parties' delegates earning more than $75,000 a year, though Republican millionaires outnumbered Democrats 2-1. If by "working people" the Democrats mean union members and officials, they do have the edge here. Nearly a third of all delegates to the Democrat convention are union members, while only 4 percent of Republican delegates were.

But union members are hardly representative of the American working public, and the union bureaucrats who make up a hefty portion of the Democratic delegates are even less so. Only about 14 percent of all U.S. workers belong to unions, a number that has been declining for decades. Nonetheless, unions have become a huge -- and in some respects, problematic -- special interest group in the Democratic Party. Union endorsements for a candidate usually mean more votes from union members come November. But more important -- from the candidates' perspective --union endorsements bring huge campaign contributions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has already donated $1.8 million in soft-money this election cycle, with the Communications Workers of America not far behind at $1.6 million. In all, the unions will spend well over $100 million to try to elect Democratic candidates.

So, what about diversity? Democrats seem to have the edge here, at least in numbers. Almost 1 in 5 Democratic delegates is African American, compared with only 4 percent of Republican delegates. But blacks represent only 2 percent of Republican voters overall but 19 percent of all Democratic voters. Black GOP delegates, therefore, represented twice their proportion of all Republican voters, while Democrats were simply on par. What's more, the much-maligned cavalcade of black, Hispanic and women speakers at the Republican convention were actually more diverse in their backgrounds, professions and life experiences than the Democratic speakers appear to be. Virtually all of the high-profile minorities at the Democratic convention are politicians or advocacy group heads.

Indeed, special interest groups are dominating the Democratic podium this week. Among the speakers: Kate Michelman, president of the radical abortion-rights organization NARAL; Elizabeth Birch, head of the gay-rights Human Rights Campaign; and several labor union officials, including the presidents of the National Education Association, the AFL-CIO and AFSCME. Hollywood, too, is amply represented -- with Jimmy Smits and others onstage, while a bevy of Hollywood's most beautiful people wined, dined, and stuffed the Democrats' campaign coffers all week long.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment is the Democrats' approach to issues -- not that there's anything wrong with concentrating on the policy differences that set Democrats apart from Republicans. But the Democrats are too clever by half in their presentations, turning part of the convention into a mini-seminar. It's more like an agitprop session than a dialogue, however. And there's no indication voters want to spend their evening being "instructed" by Jimmy Smits on health care, for example.

The Democrats have proved this week they're still the party of big labor and left-wing advocacy groups -- a fact they can't afford to hide since the polls show Gore has yet to sew up support from the Democratic base. The convention may help energize those voters who always vote Democrat, but it hasn't done much to attract the independents and swing voters. These are the folks the Republicans aimed their convention program to appeal to two weeks ago -- and they're the ones who will determine the election outcome in November.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate