Netroots Nation draws 3,000 to Philly for annual progressive convention

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The 2019 Netroots Nation conference, a political event for progressive activists, is being held at the Philadelphia Convention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The 2019 Netroots Nation conference, a political event for progressive activists, is being held at the Philadelphia Convention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Today and tomorrow, many of America’s most prominent progressive activists will be in Philadelphia for an event called Netroots Nation.

This is the 13th year of the annual conference for liberals, and a handful of Democratic presidential candidates are flocking to the event. One of the frontrunners, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, will speak on a panel Saturday afternoon.

“It’s exciting to see candidates come and have conversations here because it’s a really unique space, in that a lot of those conversations are not tightly moderated or choreographed,” Anita Sarah Jackson, a member of the Netroot Nation board who has been attending the conference since 2011.

Anita Jackson is on the board of Netroots Nation. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Netroots Nation is the product of a surge of progressive activism during George W. Bush’s presidency. It was started by the Daily Kos, a website that typified the liberal blogosphere in the 2000s.

In the wake of Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential candidacy, followed by the rise of socialist and other more radical politicians, the political factions that founded Netroots are no longer the most left-wing in the Democratic party.

Toni George is a first time attendee to the Netroots Nation conference. She heard about the event while watching CSPAN. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jackson says Netroots Nation is welcoming of all factions of liberal politics.

“The community has evolved over the years, but to me that’s only made it stronger,” said Jackson. “It’s very true that you come to this conference and you find people with whom you disagree, but you don’t have to feel like your defenses are up all the time.”

Most of the attendees who WHYY interviewed about their presidential preferences said they supported Warren or U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris. Asked about former Vice President Joe Biden, the reactions ranged from guffaws to eye rolls.

“I’ve seen a lot of Warren shirts, Pete Buttigieg shirts, a lot of Bernie swag,” said Adrienne Standley, deputy director of outreach with Harrisburg-based We The People PA. “I haven’t seen any Biden gear.”

The 2019 Netroots Nation conference, a political event for progressive activists, is being held at the Philadelphia Convention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

On Thursday, many of the candidates had ground teams at Netroots Nation but none of the actual candidates had arrived yet. Prior to the presidential panel on Saturday evening, many of the breakout progressive stars of the new Congress will host another panel, including U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

After that, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will join Warren on the presidential panel.

The 2019 Netroots Nation conference, a political event for progressive activists, is being held at the Philadelphia Convention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Many other Democratic presidential candidates, including the other front-runners, were invited, but chose not to attend.

A variety of other Democratic Party luminaries are making guest appearances.  Randy “Ironstache” Bryce attended a rally in support of Hahnemann Hospital workers Thursday. City Councilwoman Helen Gym is a ubiquitous presence, speaking on numerous panels and attending rallies around the convention center space.

On Thursday too, Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke on a panel about “Defending the Census.”

Former Attorney General Eric Holder and his former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta spoke on a panel at the 2019 Netroots Nation Conference in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Here’s the bottom line, if we don’t participate in this census, they win,” said Holder. “We have to make sure that count is as accurate as is possible. Given all that is dependent on a fair and accurate census count, among which is the political direction of this country.”

The panel occurred just hours before President Donald Trump announced that he would abandon his quest to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Nonpartisan experts have estimated that the addition of such a query could suppress nonwhite Hispanic participation by between four and 6.5 million individuals. (The Census is used to apportion seats in state and federal legislatures, as well as social spending.)

There were also attendees who came, like the presidential candidates, to promote their mission. A group called Healthy Campaigns tried to spread the gospel of  fruits and vegetables to political activists who often subsist off of pizza and coffee for weeks at a time.

Healthy Campaign aims to get donuts and pizza off the campaign trail menu. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Health is sort of an afterthought when people are putting in 16-to-18 hour days and getting by on coffee donuts and bagels,” said Daniel Simon, with Healthy Campaign. “If you go on Federal Election Commission’s website, you can type in keywords for how campaigns spend their money. If you type in donuts or pizza, you see a lot being spent on those items.”

Asked what he had for breakfast on Thursday, Simon said he’d avoided the bagels on offer at Netroots Nation in favor of homemade chia seed pudding.

“Anyone who gets by on caffeine and adrenaline alone knows that doesn’t last,” said Simon. “It contributes to the burnout. A sick or sluggish campaigner is at a big disadvantage.”

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