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September 3, 2012

S.C. delegates ‘are the big tent’

This week – for the first time ever – Democratic delegates will approve a party platform that supports gay marriage.

John Giles, a 38-year-old gay man and first-time delegate from Hilton Head Island, will be among the thousands of delegates from across the country to approve that platform

“The timing couldn’t be better for me,” said Giles, who is originally from Greenwood.

South Carolina Democratic Party leaders often point to their national convention delegation as proof of their party’s diversity. More than half – 52 percent – of the state’s delegation this year are minorities. Fifty-six percent are women. They are both young, a 22-year-old college student, and seasoned: a 67-year-old former Democratic convention CEO making his 12th trip to the convention.

And a small, but growing, number are gay. Of the 68 delegates, the party’s goal was to have 5 percent from the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender community. The party exceeded that by 2 percentage points with five delegates.

State Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian says people try to paint the party as socially liberal while many like himself – “I own guns, I’m for the death penalty,” he says – are socially conservative. Harpootlian says the party offers people “a voice, and they are listened to.”

“We are the big tent. (Republicans) are the pup tent,” he said. “The Democratic Party gives an opportunity to gay people, black people, Hispanic people, women – no matter what your orientation is or racial background, you have an opportunity to play a role in the Democratic Party.”

State Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly dismissed Harpootlian’s criticism, pointing to the speakers at last week’s Republican Naitonal Convention that included many women and minorities.

“The Democrats always try to segment people. That’s what they use,” he said. “I think what you saw in our lineup is, it’s just people. They are American people who care about American values.”

Giles, who says he is a “full-time Democrat,” says his main job is to register voters. He carries blank voter registration forms in his reusable grocery bags, handing them out to people he meets at the produce department. Four years ago, Giles estimates he called thousands of people, urging them to vote for Obama.

“I kind of felt like I earned (a delegate spot),” Giles said. “So I pursued it based on that feeling and found it to be a challenge.”

Becoming a delegate isn’t easy. People have to first attend precinct organization meetings, county conventions and then the state Democratic Party convention where candidates must canvas for votes. More than 300 people ran for the 68 delegate slots.

Giles got a list of every Democrat in his congressional district, picked the 250 who lived closest to him and mailed them some information about himself. The flyer included a photo of his two dogs – Buddy and Boo – which prompted many people to recognize him at the state convention as “Buddy and Boo’s dad.”

At U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s Fish Fry the night before the state convention, Giles bumped into his former middle school principal, thanked him for being strict and asked for his vote.

“He said, ‘You got it,’” Giles said.

Giles said he has been invited to about seven parties so far, but he’s turning down all of them (although the one sponsored by a boat company was difficult, because he hopes to be a boat owner some day). He does not want to miss any good speakers, and he does not want to miss voting on the historic platform supporting gay marriage.

“I don’t know how to make a difference, but I’m willing to do whatever I can to make a difference,” he said. “I don’t want any more young people killing themselves because they think having sex with a same sex person is wrong.”

At 22, Lauren Bilton is just glad she can attend the parties. Four years ago, as an 18-year-old high school senior, Bilton was the youngest female delegate in the nation at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

“I wasn’t able to go to half of the parties I was invited to because you had to be 21,” she said.

Bilton got a lot of attention at that convention – interviewed on CNN, meeting Maria Shriver – but this time she has a goal: encouraging young people to vote.

“I think a lot of the college-age students don’t understand how much of a difference their vote can make,” she said.

Bilton’s quest ties in nicely with Obama’s campaign strategy. While Republicans were meeting in Tampa last week, the President was visiting college campuses in swing states, encouraging young people to vote.

“You know as college students, not very many of them are too worried about going out and voting,” Bilton said. “I think that having a friend my age that’s able to show them and explain to them how important this is for our country, it was kind of, you know, really cool for them to learn it.”

While Bilton and Giles are just now finding their voice at the convention, delegate Don Fowler is just hoping for a mistake-free event.

Fowler has attended every Democratic convention since 1968 – and even some Republicans ones, too. Fowler was chief executive of the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta that nominated Michael Dukakis.

Fowler, like many seasoned political types, says modern conventions have become “produced theatrical performances that are delivered to the public via television” – but that does not lessen their power.

Fowler is convinced that George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 because Clinton had a good convention while Bush had a bad one – marred by a critical speech by Pat Buchanan, who challenged Bush for the nomination.

Fowler said the Republicans have given Democrats a similar opportunity by using Clint Eastwood to introduce nominee Mitt Romney. Eastwood spoke for several minutes without a script, addressing an imaginary Obama in a chair in what pundits have described as a rambling speech.

“I would give $1 million to know who made that decision. It was just preposterous,” he said. “We’ve got a good shot of getting a pretty good bump.”

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