For some delegates, political conventions hold real promise, not empty rituals

    Second Congressional District volunteers work the phones for Hillary Clinton in Mt. Airy. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    Second Congressional District volunteers work the phones for Hillary Clinton in Mt. Airy. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    Let’s just get this out of the way: you might not know, or care who your delegates to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions are.

    But some people are drawn to the process in this unusual election year. Delegates and convention volunteers who don’t feel represented by their party — or by the Congressional district — and have latched onto the process to try to make their voices heard.

    NewsWorks spoke to delegates and volunteers from Pennsylvania’s 2nd Democratic district, which is sending more Democratic delegates to Philadelphia next week than any other district in the state.

    Year of the outsider continues

    Delegates to the presidential nominating conventions tend to be political insiders.

    Many of the 15 Democrats representing Pennsylvania’s 2nd district — union leaders, local elected officials and party operatives — fit that bill.

    This year, many Bernie Sanders delegates buck that trend. Take 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania student , Yasmeen Kaboud. Kaboud, a political science major said she’s going into next week with an agenda.

    “We are still fighting for key platform ideas, so at the convention itself, we will continue to vote for and support any policy that Bernie backs,” she said. Hillary Clinton may have sown up the nomination, but Kaboud said she still plans to vote for Sanders during the roll call.

    Supporters of the Vermont senator will also have the opportunity to learn and network at a variety of caucuses during the convention — including one about how to run for political office as a progressive. Some see it as laying the groundwork for veering the Democratic Party to the left.

    “Because he has been so progressive, especially with issues that surround young voters — debt free college, minimum wage — and that’s a huge group of people he’s been able to mobilize and are going to turn into lifelong political activists,” said Kaboud.

    Suburban Democrats, urban Republicans find an opening

    Sanders’s campaign has mobilized young people across the country. Closer to home, another pocket of the voters in the 2nd took the convention as an opportunity to get more politically involved: suburbanites.

    Pennsylvania’s 2nd Congressional District covers the Western half of Philadelphia, encompassing many facets of city life: new immigrants and long-timers, areas on the rise and in deep decline, Rittenhouse Square to Strawberry Mansion to Mt. Airy.

    In 2010, strongly Democratic Lower Merion Township was carved out of a suburban Congressional district and added to the 2nd, to make other Montgomery County districts more competitive for Republican candidates.

    Suburban Democrats in the 2nd, meanwhile, became outnumbered nine to one by their Philadelphia counterparts.

    “When you are just a sliver of things, you are less likely to want to be involved and do something,” said Bill Madway, a member of the Lower Merion Democratic Committee.

    This year, he and a group of other Lower Merion Democrats put the DNC in their sights as a way to secure greater representation for suburban Democrats in the district.

    “It was just hours at the polls trying to explain” to voters why they should vote for local delegates, he said. “It’s a hard concept to explain to people because we were telling them to vote for delegates who didn’t necessarily represent their candidates. ‘Why? Why would I want to do that?'”

    In the end, Lower Merion is sending two delegates to Philadelphia for the convention — one each for Clinton and Sanders — a larger than proportional showing for such a small slice of the district.

    “As a result of this, I feel much more optimistic, I’m volunteering for all sorts of things at the convention,” said Madway.

    Madway himself isn’t a delegate, but because he feels represented he’s joining 18,000 other convention volunteers helping the process run smoothly.

    That leaves one more category of people in the Second District who feel outnumbered: Republicans.

    That party’s nominating rules mean that each district sends three unbound delegates to Cleveland, regardless of how many, or in the case of the 2nd District how few GOP voters they represent.

    Aaron Cohen, a Republican party media specialist living in Philadelphia, ran as a delegate committed to picking a candidate the entire party, not just moderate urban Republicans could get behind.

    “Coming from one of the most Democratic congressional districts in America, saying that you would vote the way the district went wasn’t necessarily the smartest way to pick a candidate who could carry the Commonwealth,” he said.

    In April, Republican primary voters in the 2nd district picked John Kasich, that candidate’s only win in the Commonwealth.

    As for the Republican Party’s nominee, Cohen doesn’t flat out support Donald Trump, but says the alternative is to rally around…no one.

    “He has presented a very strong message that has resonated with voters,” he said. “Right now, I think it’s hard to say which candidate will pick up steam,” between Clinton and Trump.

    Considering 2nd district Republicans’ moderate bent Cohen still doens’t think he could advocate for crossing the aisle in November.

    “Probably not…emphatically not. At the end of the day, I have worked diligently hard to elect Republican candidates in Harrisburg and Washington,” he said.

    Going to the convention means, even if the second district will never elect a Republican congressman, Cohen can at least try to help his party pick a Republican president with a shot at winning.

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