AAUW Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Lisa Maatz reported from the Democratic National Convention this week and from the Republican National Convention last week. See her updates at AAUW Dialog, on Facebook, and @LisaMaatz on Twitter.
Politics matter. Don’t ever doubt it. We’ve all been through two weeks of carefully scripted theater, but politics and policy still matter. Leaders matter, and role models can still make a difference. This was abundantly clear in Tampa, Florida, where people gathered even in the face of a hurricane. It’s been true here in Charlotte, North Carolina, where grinning boys waved and yelled “four more years” at me as I walked by with convention signs. It heartens me that people are paying attention, but I wasn’t sure if that was true beyond the convention bubble.
Charlotte was buzzing with anticipation on Thursday, the culminating day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were speaking in the arena that evening. First lady Michelle Obama and fair pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter headlined the Women’s Caucus in the morning. Cabinet secretaries walked the streets, and governors roamed the convention floor. Marc Anthony sang the national anthem, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and Mary J. Blige did an amazing cover of U2’s “One” to a standing ovation. Celebrities were all around town despite the MTV Awards being held at the same time.
I spent the day surrounded by important people, but it was an interaction with a Rite Aid cashier named Sharon that will be my defining memory of Charlotte. I was in the checkout lane buying some medicinal chocolate and tweeting madly, just as I’d done all week. As she rang me up, Sharon asked good questions: What did I think of the convention, and will it matter in November? It brought me out of my Twitter fog and into an engaging conversation.
As we were chatting, it occurred to me that I still had an extra ticket for the evening’s festivities. In a wonderful twist of fate, I ended up with two DNC credentials every day. One of these I would typically trade for other tickets or give to friends who had not been as lucky. But as I talked to Sharon, I had an epiphany. Sharon needed to see Obama speak. More than anyone I’d seen or talked to that day, Sharon deserved to see Obama speak.
I asked Sharon about her schedule — when did the store close, and when was her shift over? In retrospect, she probably thought I was a bit odd, but I was trying to see if maybe I should offer the credential. It was the big ticket of the week, and spare credentials were few and far between. Finally, I just said, “I have an extra pass for tonight. Would you like to be in the hall to hear the president speak?” At first, I think Sharon didn’t believe me. She stopped the transaction and just looked at me. “What?” she said. I repeated my offer and held out the green credential, which was covered with official DNC logos.
Sharon took the credential from me like I was offering her my first-born child. She held it carefully and just looked at it for a moment, clearly speechless. When she looked up, she said, “I think I may cry.” In fact, tears were already running down her face. We clasped hands and introduced ourselves, and I told her I hoped she could get off work early enough to go to the arena and grab a good seat. By this time, her co-workers had gathered around. This had become an event, when I really was just offering something in the moment. I didn’t do it for me — it just seemed like the right thing to do. It occurred to me that Sharon was exactly who needed to be in that arena for the president’s speech. Not well-heeled special interests or the party faithful or cynical lobbyists who take such opportunities for granted. Sharon.
I could tell that this opportunity meant the world to her, that it might be something Sharon told her grandchildren about someday. But no matter how important it was for her, in the end it was the sharing of this experience — the simple communion between complete strangers over the importance of politics to our everyday lives — that was the true highlight of both conventions.