Monday, August 25, 2008

New York Delegation Is More Than the Sum of 2 Clintons

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The Rev. Wendell Foster, left, and Ronnie Eldridge, former City Council members, are among New York’s delegates.

Published: August 24, 2008

DENVER — There are the bureaucrats and hardened political hands, the newcomers and neophytes. There are some who aspire to higher elected office, and some from the political graveyard. There are names known to most everyone and others mostly anonymous outside political circles.

The 361 people who make up New York’s delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Denver include a former majority leader of the United States Senate, two Clintons and a Cuomo. All 25 Democratic members of New York’s Congressional delegation have a seat, as do the governor and 20 or so state legislators.

For some, it will be their fourth convention. For others, their first.

Like children headed off to sleep-away camp, New York delegates arrived here with a list of dos and don’ts. As in do drink a lot of water because hydration is necessary to combat the effects of high altitude. And do not consume too much alcohol because the effects of drinking are heightened in the thinner air.

“As you enjoy all the events that Denver and the convention have to offer, please monitor yourself, and remember that drinks may go to your head faster than you’re used to in New York,” cautions a letter from June O’Neill, the state party chairwoman.

The demographics of this well-looked-after delegation cover just about every conceivable census designation.

The average age is 53, with the youngest 20 and the oldest 84. They are split almost evenly by sex, with 180 men and 181 women. More than 200 are members of ethnic or racial minorities. There are 19 disabled delegates, and 14 are veterans.

“We are black and white and brown and everything in between,” Ms. O’Neill said. “We’re a very diverse group.”

New York has the second-largest delegation at the convention, behind California, which has 503 delegates. The state Democratic Party booked 201 seats on two round-trip flights from New York to Denver and has virtually overrun the Sheraton hotel downtown.

Besides the party luminaries at the convention, there will be some lesser-known Democratic faithful, like a 24-year-old woman with cerebral palsy whose family ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist for more than four decades; an 84-year-old former New York City Council member and pastor from the Bronx who fled the South for New York when he was a teenager for fear he would be lynched; a 77-year-old self-described “old liberal West Side housewife politician” who gave up politics for most of the last decade and found her interest reignited this year by Senator Barack Obama’s campaign; and a 20-year-old former United States ski team hopeful turned Democratic fund-raiser who is skipping his first week of college to go to the convention.

Anastasia Somoza’s first brush with politics came before she even turned 10, attending City Council meetings at her mother’s side. She and her twin sister, Alba, were born with cerebral palsy. Their mother, Mary, fought bitterly with the city school system to have Alba, whose case of cerebral palsy is more severe than Anastasia’s, placed in a regular classroom instead of in special education.

The case drew national attention after Anastasia, who was 9 at the time, appealed to President Clinton from her wheelchair during a question-and-answer session for children at the White House.

That encounter, she said, forged her bond to the Clintons. When she was 16, Ms. Somoza volunteered for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first Senate campaign. She then interned for Mrs. Clinton after she was elected and volunteered for her again during this year’s presidential campaign.

Now 24, Ms. Somoza, whose father’s family ruled Nicaragua for much of the 20th century, said that as a disabled person, she admired how Mrs. Clinton continued fighting to become the Democratic nominee even after many people were counting her out. “If you believe in something, don’t give up,” said Ms. Somoza, who advocates for the disabled and will be an alternate delegate in Denver. “I really, really felt that she had the experience I experienced.”

At 84, the Rev. Wendell Foster has the distinction of being New York’s oldest delegate. He will also be half of the delegation’s only father-daughter pair. His daughter is Helen D. Foster, who was elected to his old seat on the City Council after he had to leave office because of term limits.

Mr. Foster, who has largely retired from political life and now is a pastor at Christ Church in the Bronx, said he was drawn to politics as a way to fight segregation when he was growing up in Alabama. Memories like his pneumonia-stricken sister’s being forced off of a crowded bus because a white person wanted to board and his mother’s being told she could not vote are still raw in his mind.

“My anger stayed with me, and I discovered that politics could be a way to make things happen,” he said.

Some 70 years have passed since Mr. Foster left Alabama for New York. And while he said he is proud to be serving as a delegate who will select the first black nominee of a major political party in American history, he expected it would have happened sooner.

“To see what has happened gives me pride, gives me joy,” Mr. Foster said. “But it also resurrects anger in me because it took us all these years.”

Ronnie Eldridge, 77, had been on a political hiatus since 2001, when term limits forced her to step down from her City Council seat. A former special assistant to Mayor John V. Lindsay and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, she became disillusioned by politics early in President Bush’s first term.

She started writing a book, spent more time with her 12 grandchildren and started a weekly cable television talk show through the City University of New York. But she said she saw something in Mr. Obama that drew her back into politics. She canvassed for Mr. Obama on the Upper West Side, sold buttons and held informational events.

Having been at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when the vote to elect Hubert H. Humphrey as the party nominee was marred by bitter dissension, Ms. Eldridge said she was glad that it appears the vote in Denver will go smoothly.

“I just don’t want to get into any of those floor things,” she said. “It’s time that we stay unified.”

Until about two years ago, Arthur Leopold, 20, the youngest member of the New York delegation, was focused on skiing, not politics. While he was attending boarding school in Vermont, he was training to make the United States ski team.

“I didn’t even know what a convention was three years ago, to be honest,” he said. When he fell short of making the ski team — “I didn’t make the cut,” he explained — he began to immerse himself in politics. He interned for Representative Carolyn B. Maloney and was quickly tapped to manage her campaign for re-election in 2006.

“I definitely didn’t see myself getting this involved,” he said. Mr. Leopold deferred his enrollment at Duke University for two years (he will not attend his first class there until after the convention is over) while he worked for Ms. Maloney and started a political consulting firm. Using Facebook and the old-fashioned telephone, he has raised money for Mr. Obama this year — “the campaign has me at a little more than $200,000 right now,” he said.

“This is my first convention, my first time voting for the president, the works,” he said.

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