by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Delegates, L to R: Jess Durfee, Don Mullen, Evan Parent, Andrea Villa, Susie Ditmars, “Aussie Mike” Thomasen
Delegates, L to R: Craig Roberts, Marty Block, Jess Durfee, Don Mullen, Evan Parent, Andrea Villa
The rainbow flag Democrats for Equality members had autographed during the convention
Signs carried on the convention floor by delegates
Susie Ditmars wearing the “Robin Hood” hat worn by progressive Democrats to demand a tax on financial market transactions
Craig Roberts holding a floor sign
Assemblymember and State Senate candidate Marty Block
“I really enjoyed 99.8 percent of it — everything except the hotel,” said “Aussie Mike” Thomasen, one of nine members of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality who were delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina September 3-6 at the club’s September 27 meeting. “I really had fun. This was stupendous. The best part was the night [former President Bill] Clinton spoke. I take my hat and everything else off to him.”
Thomasen’s exuberance seemed to have been shared by the other club members who served as convention delegates and talked about it at the meeting. Thomasen’s wife, Susie Ditmars, said that her big thrill of the convention came the night before her husband’s, when she went to a Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) event at a church at which luminaries of the Democratic Left — PDA head Tim Carpenter, Congressmembers Dennis Kucinich and Raul Grihalva, former Congressmember Alan Grayson, Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, and talk-show host and Progressive magazine columnist Jim Hightower — spoke. “When JFK was nominated [in 1960], I was taking a summer class in college and I said, ‘Someday I’m going to go to a convention,’ — and it only took 52 years,” she recalled.
“I was a first-time convention delegate, and I want to support everyone who voted for me,” said former club president Andrea Villa. “I wanted to go, but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I felt infused by a dynamic optimism. There were people from different economic classes and education levels, a huge mix of ethnicities, experiences and ages, a lot of women and an engagement with what American society is all about.” Villa added that she was “pleased with the ability of our party to stay on message” — something that hasn’t always been said about Democratic conventions — and she said that many of the meetings were so well attended that if you had to leave the room, you’d have a hard time getting back in.
Evan Parent said that going to the convention as a delegate was a badly needed political “up” for him after he’d lost a race for president of the San Diego County Young Democrats. “I got a call from Craig [Roberts, former club president], who said, ‘You’re part of our club. Let’s put you on our slate,’” he recalled. “To know so many of you came out [to the delegate-selection caucuses] to vote for me amped me up.” He said that “one of my challenges was fundraising,” but he was “amazed by the support” he got from people not only electing him a delegate but donating the money he needed to go. He said among his high points were “to get carded into cool parties with Al Franken and get to sit by the pool at the Blake Hotel with a Hollywood celebrity.”
Don Mullen held up the rainbow flag he brought to the convention and asked elected officials and other party luminaries to autograph so the club could auction it later as a fundraiser. He thanked Cindy Green for suggesting the idea and fellow delegates Roberts, Villa, Jess Durfee and Matt Corrales for helping him get the signatures. His personal high point during the convention came when he got a text from his husband back in San Diego that Congressional candidate Scott Peters had got him an appointment to be in the Electoral College if, as expected, President Obama carries California, “so our club will be represented in Sacramento when I go to cast one of our 55 votes for Obama.”
Like Andrea Villa, Jess Durfee — former club president and current chair of the San Diego County Central Committee — made the mistake of leaving one of the convention’s LGBT [Queer] Caucus meetings to use the bathroom. “When I got back, the room had filled up and I couldn’t get in,” Durfee recalled, adding that the only way he finally did get back in the meeting was that one of the officials running it recognized him and called, “Jess, we need you in here for your presentation.” He said that on the last day of the convention, the LGBT Caucus met at 2 p.m., the floor session started at 4 p.m. and it lasted to midnight, “but it seemed like only about three hours.”
The Drake Hotel “was horrible,” said Assemblymember and State Senate candidate Marty Block, reflecting the general consensus among all the club’s delegates who stayed there. He said he’d served as a convention delegate before but this was the first time he was there as a “PLEO” — party leader or elected official. “The weather was humid, and the traffic was so heavy at one point it took us two hours to get three blocks on a bus,” Block said.
“It’s really interesting to be in the eye of the media storm,” said former club president Roberts. “Around the corner from the California delegation was the MS-NBC set and Chris Matthews. And I’d never seen so many street preachers all saying we were going to hell. Matt Corrales and I had to walk half a mile out of our way because of the protests. I had a great time, and I want to thank all of you for supporting the club members who ran for delegate.”
The club also heard from Mike Thaller and Jon Mattis, who set up a Web site called www.muchbetterchoices.com because they were tired of Republican candidates and propagandists being able to create the “frames” around which political issues are discussed in a way that favors their ideas and handicaps the Democrats. As an example, Mattis, a former investigative reporter for the local Fox News outlet (which is considerably friendlier to progressives and Democrats than Fox News nationwide, he said), cited “Paul Ryan’s success at setting the debate on Medicare: ‘It’s going to run out of money!’”
Their idea was to produce their own ads targeting Republican candidates and issues, often in a comical way, and get them out not with multi-million dollar TV buys but through social media. “We found a little group support from the county party, put up a Facebook page, and started shooting videos,” said Thaller. “Then our rapid response team of 90 people distributed it to their Facebook friends.” The idea was to create videos so arresting and amusing that they would “go viral” and get reposted again and again on Internet sites like YouTube, spreading the ridicule of Republican candidates like Brian Bilbray and Nathan Fletcher, both of whom they targeted in this year’s primary campaign.
Fletcher finished out of the money in the primary for Mayor of San Diego despite his much-ridiculed decision to leave the Republican Party in mid-campaign, but Bilbray is still around for the Much Better Choices people to target. Their most devastating ad against him came when they found a house he owned in Imperial Beach that had a rusting trailer and gas cans in the back yard and a front yard overrun with weeds. They filmed it and used it for a spot denouncing Bilbray as a slumlord — and they did a press event at which they invited their friends and the mayor of Imperial Beach to visit the property.
“The neighbors were upset because this is a public health hazard,” Mattis said. “It’s five minutes from a public-school playground, and the fence between the playground and the property was taken down because of a campaign orchestrated by Bilbray and his brother three years ago. Why has this gone on for three years? Because the neighbors are traumatized by a certain Congressmember [Bilbray] and his son, who sits on the Imperial Beach City Council.” The press event started at 10 a.m., and by 11 Bilbray himself showed up, said he’d told his older brother to clean up the property, and asked Mattis, “Why weren’t you man enough to tell me [about the property] instead of reporting it to the city?”
Later, when local TV stations aired the story, Bilbray said the house was in disrepair because he’d inherited it from his late mother, he hadn’t got around to having it cleaned up, and the property was run by a professional manager who hadn’t got around to it either. Within a week, the weeds, trailers and gas cans disappeared from the property — but in the meantime the Much Better Choices video had spread through the Internet as far as New York.
Bilbray also blamed the video on the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Scott Peters — who had nothing to do with it, said so publicly and seized on the opportunity to denounce Bilbray as a liar. “We never told the Peters campaign,” Thaller insisted. “It wouldn’t have been legal to do so. We gave Bilbray the opportunity to blame it on his dead mother and Peters the opportunity to tell the truth about Bilbray being a liar.”