Bun B's Convention Dispatch Five: Behind the Scenes on Barack Obama's Big Night
Wednesday night was Barack Obama's shining moment—and his party was soaking it up.
All photos by Jason Bergman
Editor's Note: You might know Bun B as the Texas-based rapper, professor, and activist who's one half of the legendary Houston duo UGK. He's also VICE's political correspondent, reporting on the ground from the campaign trail of the strangest presidential election in recent memory.
It's the third day of the Democratic National Convention, and it's actually pretty beautiful in Philadelphia. I'm sure walking a few miles around the Wells Fargo Center will change that sentiment, but the sun is shining, and the Philly homies Freeway and Jakk Frost always hold me down out here, so I'll be OK.
Today, I'm meeting with California secretary of state Alex Padilla, a rising star in the Democratic Party whose been in politics since he was 26 and was actually the first Latino elected president of the city council in Los Angeles. More recently, Padilla's been making his name on the issue of expanding voting access. While Republican state lawmakers across the country push voter-ID laws that effectively make it harder for people to cast ballots, Padilla has been trying to make it easier. Last year, he supported an automatic voter-registration bill that would put people on the rolls whenever they go to the DMV—a position that's all the more interesting given the immigration and border security issues that California has to deal with.
We meet Padilla at the Marriott in downtown Philadelphia, where the California delegation is staying, and the lobby is jumping. Every table in the bar is full, with delegates quietly strategizing or reporters doing interviews and filing stories. The energy is kinetic—it feels like a lot of shit has gone down behind-the-scenes here this week. And I want in.
Secretary Padilla is predictably charming and engaging, and he speaks with the confidence and authority of someone with a higher elected office than the one he currently holds—and the one he holds is pretty powerful to begin with. As the secretary of state, he's in charge of administering all elections in California, and he tells me it's one of the primary reasons he ran for the position in the first place.
"I figured if I could run for secretary of state in California, I'd be in a position to serve as the counter example of how, yes, you can maintain the security and integrity of our elections, but you can also facilitate people being registered to vote," he tells me. "You can facilitate people participating because that's what democracy is all about."
I ask him whether he thinks that Donald Trump's campaign is going to drive Latino voters to the polls this fall. He says yes but adds that it's not just about the Republican candidate's hateful rhetoric and anti-immigration positions.
"It's one thing to say, 'Shame on Donald Trump,' for what he's saying," Padilla says. "But we have to not just complain about it—we've got to do something about it. I do see the numbers. People are registering, and people are going to continue to turn out in higher numbers. I think that's what happens." Clearly, this guy was born for this. He's absolutely in his zone.
As the interview ends and Padilla exits the bar, I hear a commotion coming from somewhere else in the lobby. As it gets louder, I realize it's chanting. Suddenly, the Marriott has been occupied by about 60 Free Palestine protesters, chanting about ending Israeli apartheid and waving signs that, for some reason, are all pink. Amazingly, hotel security lets them do their thing, at least for a couple of minutes, and then the protesters leave in the same orderly way they came in. Welcome to the DNC.
I follow them out the door and make my way to Aprons Soul Food, a restaurant just south of downtown. I'm meeting with Houston mayor—my mayor—Sylvester Turner. Newly elected to his current post, Turner spent more than 25 years as a lawmaker in the Texas House of Representatives, and we've developed a relationship over the years. Because of the rise in violence in our city, we've been talking more often than usual as of late.
Today, though, we're at the Democratic National Convention, so I want to talk about party politics. I ask him how the Democratic Party has changed, in terms of the demographics of its leadership and the voices it incorporates, since he first started coming to national conventions. He tells me it's gotten better at incorporating different voices and perspectives—and is miles ahead of the GOP in that regard—but that there's still work to do. Turner points to the LGBTQ community as an example of how minority communities and interest groups can get their voices heard, because, as he says, "they know what they want, and they're not afraid to fight for it." He's got a point there.
Making my way into the Wells Fargo Arena later that afternoon, it's easy to see the difference between the DNC and the Republican convention in Cleveland last week. The Democrats have a bigger stage, for starters, which leaves little room on the floor for delegates or anyone else. There's a lot of love on the floor, but the DNC handlers aren't showing any of it, constantly shuffling people along like cattle and making it impossible to get anywhere.
I literally run into Oklahoma state senator Anastasia Pittman, who tells me its her fourth convention. I ask how she thinks the voices and the faces of the party have changed in that time, and she tells me the 2016 election cycle has been eye-opening. In the past, she explains, the Democratic Party was divided not just by policy issues or political views, but by ethnicity. "At times, the Democratic Party has not properly represented the communities and people that they serve," she explains. But this year, she adds, that seems to be changing.
I eventually head toward the Texas delegation—stopping to take a photo with US Representative Elijah Cummings on the way—and try to see if I can spot a familiar face in the crowd of cowboy hats and new Clinton-Kaine signs. I find one, but it's not who I'd ever imagined it would be. Her name is Tawana Walter-Cadien, and we met at in the summer of 1990 as juniors in high school, attending the Minority Scholars Institute at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. The program was designed to push high school kids to go to college. It was also the first place that I ever performed a rap song in front of a crowd. Obviously, it worked for both me and Tawana pretty good: She's running for Congress in Texas's 10th congressional district, which stretches from the northwest part of Harris County, near Houston, out to Austin.
I have some time to kill before the speeches start, and that's when I notice another big difference between the DNC and Cleveland: There are no bars open in the arena at the DNC. You have to go all the way across the security zone to get liquor, so by the time you've walked back to the arena, you'll have sweated it all out. No buzzes allowed for Democrats, apparently. I walk back inside the arena in sober disgust and spot Donald Trump's campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson. I don't know what she's doing here, but as I walk past, I tell her, "Welcome to the danger zone!" Caught off guard, she turns and replies, "Yes I am!"
I sit through a couple of the early speeches, but things don't really get going until about 9 PM, when Joe Biden, vice president of the United States, takes the stage. The delegates are immediately on their feet, roaring with applause, and they stay captivated until he leaves the podium, cheering and hanging on to his every word. Like most of the audience, I assume, I can't help but wonder what this presidential race would have been like if Uncle Joe had decided to run for president. I'm not sure Trump would still be in the game. If Biden has regrets, though, he doesn't voice them, going to bat for Hillary Clinton—and effectively bashing Trump—and then exiting the stage to louder applause and an even longer ovation.
It's getting closer to Obama time, and the delegates are getting restless. I meet a couple of gentlemen from Washington, DC, in the hall who invite me up to a suite to watch Obama speak. I have some trouble getting past the Secret Service—apparently Jill Biden is in the vicinity—but eventually make it in. Once I'm in there, though, a woman asks me for my credentials, giving me a look that tells me she thinks I'm crashing this suite. I find the right passes, but she still spends the next half hour giving off vibes that let me know I'm not welcome.
Still, the Democrats are definitely partying tonight. Before Obama speaks, Lenny Kravitz gets on the stage and rocks this funky joint to the fullest. That's followed by a video of famous people singing "Fight Song"—Clinton's campaign theme—and everyone in the crowd laughs and sings along. The singalong seems to amp the room up for Tim Kaine, who accepts the party's nomination for vice president. In the next suite over, I see NBA legend Isaiah Thomas.
I go back downstairs just as the opening video for Obama comes on the screens. And when it's done, the crowd just erupts. The president's speech is long, and people have been in this room for hours, but almost everyone holds their ground, cheering and clapping and waving Obama sticks at all the appropriate pauses. The moment is just too big for anyone to leave now.
As the speech winds down, Obama moves on to his praise for Clinton, rhetorically passing the baton to his former primary rival and now would-be successor. Then, as the crowd cheers, Clinton herself joins the president on the stage, and the crowd goes fucking nuts. The party may be in for a rough fight this fall, but for tonight, the Democrats are having their shining moment—and they're soaking it up.
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