Politics

I WAS A SUPERNUMERARY IN A NATIONALLY TELEVISED SPECIAL EVENT

Kenneth Sherrill
Aug 13, 2020 · 6 min read

Most political science only happens in publications and conferences. For me, being a political scientist has also meant experiencing politics up close. As we approach the presidential conventions, this is my story about how I landed at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, where, before the pandemic, I hoped to attend the APSA meeting this year. Get ready for a party hosted by Willie Brown where Jefferson Starship dueled with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus for our attention.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

Part 1

Wanting to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention

I was raised by very political grandparents in Brooklyn. We all read the daily papers — the Post, News, and Times as well as the Brooklyn Eagle and Mirror — from front to end, listened to news and special events on the radio, and as soon as we were able to afford a television, watched the nightly news. I remember watching the 1952 Republican Convention, featuring competing demonstrations by Eisenhower and Taft delegates.

My grandparents really hated Taft for the Taft-Hartley Law and they disliked Ike as soon as they learned that he was a Republican. In the Democratic convention, they liked Stevenson because he was smart. The highlight of 1956 was the multi-ballot contest for Vice-President between the gallant young JFK, the unexpected NYC mayor, Bob Wagner, and Estes Kefauver. We sat on edge watching it, fascinated by the interviews of the delegates and watching the competing demonstrations up and down the aisles of the convention halls with strange names in far-away cities.

Then came 1960.

We hated Nixon and loved Stevenson until Eleanor Roosevelt gave a televised speech saying that a Catholic couldn’t win. We were Jews and loved FDR and Eleanor but we thought that it was wrong to say that someone couldn’t win because of his religion. And there were all of these televised interviews of the delegates. Delegates also were interviewed during the debate over the civil rights plank in the platform. Oh, these delegates were important people!

Then came 1964 and the Freedom Delegates’ fight to be seated instead of the segregationists “elected” by states that prevented Blacks from registering and voting. My grandparents died in early 1963 and I went to the University of North Carolina to study Black political participation. My whole life surrounded the Civil Rights Movement. My dissertation advisors were national experts on Black voting rights and we were all glued to the television, watching the convention delegates vote to seat the Black insurgents. These delegates were making important decisions about the greatest issue facing the US.

Oh, how I wished I could have been there!

Then came 1968. By then, I was home in New York City and taching at Hunter College in Manhattan. I was 25 and a Ph. D. in political science, teaching courses in parties and elections and in public opinion and political participation. I wandered into Bobby Kennedy’s headquarters and the great Ronnie Eldridge asked me to be the office manager for the Kennedy campaign in the 20th CD. We had three candidates for delegate: Bill Ryan, our Congressman, Freddy Ohrenstein, our State Senator, and Margie Cox, a Democratic State Committee member from Central Harlem.

There I was, running the day-to-day campaign operations for three delegates to a convention that we hoped would dump Johnson, end the War in Vietnam, bring about racial justice, and end the problems of the cities. We know how that ended for us but I’d gotten to know many people in the McCarthy campaign and saw those delegates get bloodied and beaten, heroically standing up for all that was great in America. My sister and many of my friends were bloodied in the streets at that convention too, but I *really*wanted to be inside. I wanted to be one of those people who fought for justice. I wanted to be a delegate.

I was still under 30 at the time of the 1972 DNC but that wasn’t enough for the McGovern campaign and even I couldn’t stay up late enough to watch much of it. After the convention, Bobby Wagner told me that Carol Greitzer, a notoriously lazy member of the NY City Council, missed some key votes because she left the convention floor to get some sleep. I helped to run a failed campaign against her by Jim Owles in 1973, the first openly gay candidate in NYC. Jim got 14% of the vote.

My strongest memory of Birch Bayh’s campaign in 1976 is that he became the first presidential candidate to campaign in a New York City gay bar. It was on a weekend afternoon and we were able to fill the Upper East Side neighborhood bar with what passed for the LGBT establishment. Bayh got up to speak in front of a potted palm tree and constantly had to brush palm branches from his face. He was courageous but visibly nervous as he spoke to the small crowd, constantly referring to us as “you people”, something that did not go over well. Finally, Arthur Bell of the Village Voice shouted out, “Say the word! GAY!!! Say the word!!!”

Things went downhill from that as the executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Task Force, standing next to Bayh, said, “Oh, Senator, we’re not all like that.”

In 1977, I won a primary for now-US Congressman Jerry Nadler’s old seat as Democratic District Leader in the 69th AD, becoming New York’s first openly gay elected official. In early 1980, all of the Manhattan District Leaders were invited to Jimmy Carter’s White House for a briefing in the hope of preventing our supporting Teddy Kennedy’s candidacy. We paid for our own AMTRAK round trip and for our own lunch, got a perfunctory summary of all the good things President Carter had done, were told that the President had hoped to see us but was in a more important meeting and we were invited to walk through the Oval Office before leaving the White House.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

Most of us supported Kennedy and my only connection to the convention was to help escort a group of delegates on a bus tour of The Bronx. Designed to show how the President had helped to restore The Bronx, two sparkling clean NYC buses drove to Banana Kelly, a model of urban renewal, to the Bronx Botanical Garden and then past a block of burning houses, to Yankee Stadium, where the then hapless Yankees lost the game. Two delegates from the state of Washington sat behind me at the stadium and offered me a bag of dust from Mount St. Helena’s recent eruption.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Finally, in 1984, a group of local leaders persuaded the Mondale campaign that the New York delegation should include some gay people and I was invited to run in Charlie Rangel’s district, with Charlie’s support. The only problem was that we were running against a Jesse Jackson slate in the congressional district in which Jackson got more votes than any candidate in any other congressional district. Fortunately, the well-intentioned party rules worked out in my favor. Mondale got enough votes for a single delegate and alternate delegate in the district. The first alternate seat went to the highest vote getter, who turned out to be a woman. This meant that Mondale got the male delegate. Even though Herman D. Farrell, III, got more votes than I did, I won the primary.

Next up was a trip to San Francisco which I’ll get to in Part 2.

Kenneth Sherrill

Written by

Professor Emeritus of political science at Hunter College, CUNY and Graduate School, CUNY. American politics, New York politics, elections, LGBTQ politics.

3Streams

3Streams

3Streams is a blog for anyone interested in the convergence of politics, policy & ideas. It elevates the work of scholars interested in reaching a wider audience on timely topics with novel perspectives. To write for the blog, just leave a message or email 3Streamsblog@gmail.com.

Kenneth Sherrill

Written by

Professor Emeritus of political science at Hunter College, CUNY and Graduate School, CUNY. American politics, New York politics, elections, LGBTQ politics.

3Streams

3Streams

3Streams is a blog for anyone interested in the convergence of politics, policy & ideas. It elevates the work of scholars interested in reaching a wider audience on timely topics with novel perspectives. To write for the blog, just leave a message or email 3Streamsblog@gmail.com.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store