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Ten Years Later, Did the 2012 Democratic National Convention Matter?

A dream deferred

The Time Warner Cable Arena during the Democratic National Convention in 2012
The Time Warner Cable Arena during the Democratic National Convention in 2012. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

For me, covering the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte was a dream gig. At the time, I was a law student and freelance reporter for Creative Loafing. I loved writing about politics and I was still something of an idealist. I grew up reading about our history and believing in what this country could be.

That sense of citizenship stayed with me even at times when it turned into a critique. I protested the Iraq War in college and interned on Capitol Hill during the first months of President Obama’s administration. That was back when “Hope” and “Change” were real and big things were happening in Washington, D.C.

That didn’t last very long.

In September 2012 I was living in Charlotte, and the arc of the moral universe was getting harder to bend. We had already seen the Tea Party movement, the rise of birtherism and, here in North Carolina, a vote in favor of Amendment 1, making us the last state to ban gay marriage by voter referendum.

Those were omens of what was to come, but we didn’t know that yet. The summer of 2012 was a simpler time for our country and our politics. It was a simpler time for Charlotte, too. And with the Democratic National Convention coming to town to lead into what would surely be Obama’s reelection, it was hard not to get excited.

For one week, every four years, a national party convention is like the center of the universe. It’s like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards, only bigger. Someone gets nominated to lead the free world and even the speeches themselves can change the course of history.

The DNC is where FDR proposed a “New Deal for the American people” and where JFK summoned us to a “New Frontier.” It’s where Hubert Humphrey called on the Democratic Party to back a civil rights platform “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” That’s politics at its best. That’s why people still watch and stay up for the balloon drop.

And all of that was coming to my neighborhood. At the time, I lived off Morehead Street within walking distance of where the Democratic National Convention would take place in Uptown. Preparations started months in advance. One could argue that the DNC was Charlotte’s national coming out party — it’s around that time you started to hear that term “world-class city” coming from all sorts of city leaders — and everyone wanted in on it.

Thousands of people volunteered. Restaurants had specialty drink and menu items. I remember the early staff meetings at the Creative Loafing office and how we divided up the coverage.

The DNC was a boon for local restaurants, bars, hotels and the like. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

I would cover the politics from inside the hall because I was interested in that kind of thing, Ryan Pitkin would be out in the streets on the protest beat, and Joanne Spataro would write about parties, nightlife and celebrity sightings. Editors Mark Kemp and Ana McKenzie would roam around.

Conventions are less newsworthy now than they used to be (the party’s nominees are selected in advance by primaries now) but there were still plenty of stories to be found, we just had to look.

We put out a DNC preview issue of Creative Loafing that depicted Queen Charlotte on the cover lying in bed with a donkey, the two of them smoking cigarettes. We created a timeline of prior DNC moments (Robert Kennedy eulogizing his fallen brother, Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson in 1984, the Al and Tipper Gore kiss in 2000) and we conducted a series of interviews with leading Democrats (Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, and Harvey Gantt) to hear what it was like inside the arenas of conventions past.

The Gantt interview was particularly noteworthy. There’s a famous photo of a then 29-year-old Barack Obama wearing a “Harvey Gantt for U.S. Senate” T-shirt in 1990 while he was a student at Harvard Law School. Gantt didn’t win that election against Jesse Helms, nor the rematch, but Obama had won North Carolina and it wasn’t hard to catch the symbolism of the president coming to Charlotte to be re-nominated in the heart of the New South. Before we knew it, the first week of September was here.

The Democratic National Convention comes to Charlotte

The convention was officially held Sept. 4-6, though related festivities, protests and parties were planned throughout the week. Friends from Washington, D.C. and friends I’d interned with one summer in Burlington, Vermont, began arriving the week prior. A couple of them slept on the couches in my living room and I took them to Common Market and The Diamond to show them the real Charlotte. But this was hardly the real Charlotte.

There were police barricades and fences blocking off access to Uptown. An estimated 35,000 visitors came to Charlotte that week — 5,000 of them delegates. The rest were journalists, staffers, security and protesters.

A federal agent with a bomb-sniffing dog screens a vehicle for bombs during the 2012 Democratic National Convention
A federal agent screens a vehicle for bombs during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

The convention gaveled in from Tuesday to Thursday. The preceding Monday was for people-watching. I made my way up to the Epicentre where Morning Joe and Hardball with Chris Matthews were doing live shows and delegates were wandering in and out of the clubs upstairs. It was a very different Charlotte for those few days.

The official DNC took place inside of Time Warner Cable Arena (now the Spectrum Center). That’s where I picked up my press credentials. I headed next for the Charlotte Convention Center, which was something of an overflow space for the folks in town who weren’t delegates.

There’s a critique of the modern Democratic Party that it’s just a collection of interest groups now (labor, environmental, women’s rights), and this is where they were set up (AFL-CIO, SEIU, Emily’s List, NARAL, Sierra Club, etc.) with free buttons, coozies and all sorts of swag. After grabbing some souvenirs, I landed the first big interview of the week, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.

I asked O’Malley what it would take for Democrats to win North Carolina again and compete in the South. He talked about how great the Research Triangle Park was — the perfect political deflection, answering a question that wasn’t really asked.

The Epicentre was home to MSNBC and served as the center of festivities outside of the arena during the Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

Afterwards I tried to catch some of the James Taylor concert outside, got caught in a monsoon, and headed home down Morehead Street, stopping only to give a drenched Van Jones directions.

On Tuesday, I was ready to do it right. This was a big opportunity. At the time, Hunter S. Thompson was one of my heroes. I’d devoured his Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 and recently read Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968.

Now it was my generation’s turn to try and make sense of it all. That morning, I teamed up with CL photographer Justin Driscoll and headed for the arena.

The programming inside of Time Warner didn’t start until late afternoon/early evening. Before that were various delegation and caucus meetings (Women’s, Hispanic, LGBT), luncheons hosted by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and special events with figures like Madeleine Albright, Al Sharpton and Abby Wambach. Every building in the city was, for all intents and purposes, booked up by a cause, a news outlet, or a lobbying firm.

NCDP in decline

Justin and I stopped by the North Carolina delegation breakfast, which carried all the vibes of a last hurrah of the old guard. Republicans had taken control of the General Assembly two-years earlier — for the first time since 1896 — and they had just redrawn North Carolina’s political maps.

Democrats in the room had grown up when North Carolina was a one-party state, coming of age as Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt were investing in education and modernizing North Carolina. But that era was coming to an end.

Congressmen Brad Miller and Heath Shuler had announced their coming retirements, Gov. Bev Perdue had already opted against running for a second term. Congressman Larry Kissell ran but skipped the convention (and lost anyway).

Here the delegation was hosting a national convention, the culmination of years of hard work, while anticipating losses in November and preparing for the wilderness. The moment was bittersweet.

Next, Justin and I walked through Marshall Park where scores of protesters were camping out in tents. Having been kicked out of their original space in front of the Old City Hall, Marshall Park was a regrouping point for Occupy Charlotte, which had formed in October 2011. The scene was disorganized and lacked urgency.

There were exceptions that week, such as the massive March on Wall Street South held on Sept. 2, or the “No papers – no fear” demonstration by undocumented migrants at the intersection of East 5th and North College streets, but Chicago 1968 this was not.

a protester holds a sign that reads "undocumented" during the 2012 Democratic National Convention
The Democratic National Convention drew activists from around the country. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

Still, it could be said that the haphazard scene at Marshall Park that week was the start of something.

Less than a year later, the park would host one of the first Moral Mondays, a tradition that still goes strong today elsewhere in the state and country. Whether it’s voter ID, gerrymandering, or Black Lives Matter issues, North Carolina can’t stay out of the news, protests have gotten serious, and sometimes it does seem that “the whole world is watching.”

To get into Time Warner you had to go through a security perimeter and metal detectors. As it was often raining and you couldn’t take umbrellas in with you, there were stacks of them on the sidewalk. It became customary to ditch one on the way in and pick up a new one on the way out.

A man dressed as Abe Lincoln holds a sign that reads "Republicans for Obama" at the 2012 Democratic National Convention
Republicans for Obama. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

It was also common to recognize the people standing in line with you (from historian Douglas Brinkley to journalist Jonathan Capehart to actress Ashley Judd). There were lots of celebrity sightings in the city that week.

But it was time to get to work. The Charlotte Bobcats practice court served as the designated press area. That’s where we filed each day. Creative Loafing also had a couple seats in the rafters looking down from behind the podium. It wasn’t the greatest view, but it’s what we had come to expect as the local alt-weekly. As long as our press passes still got us free food and beer at Blackfinn, we were good.

In the arena

The best way to get access was to wait in line on the concession level for a 30-minute floor pass that got you down to where the delegates were seated. That’s also where most of the cameras were. A couple times that week my phone blew up with texts from friends watching at home who saw me standing behind someone’s shoulder as they spoke live on CNN.

Early in the evenings, I would go down to the floor to visit with North Carolina delegates — some of whom, such as Sam Spencer and Jennifer Roberts, are regular Queen City Nerve contributors today. At the time, Roberts was running for Congress, but would eventually settle for Charlotte Mayor.

Down on the floor, I watched speeches from Kay Hagan, Anthony Foxx, Walter Dalton and Mel Watt. The later in the week it got, however, the harder it became to get a floor pass. For that reason, I joined CL editors Mark Kemp and Ana McKenzie on the press level for many of the primetime speeches. It was often standing-room only, but I just was happy to be in the arena.

A man stands on stage in the Time Warner Cable Arena at the Democratic National Convention
In the arena at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

By 2012, political conventions were basically infomercials. The candidates ran in primaries and the platforms were worked out in advance (not that anybody reads them), but the speeches still mattered (Obama in 2004 being the best example).

That’s where the intrigue was: who got what time slot and what message would they try to send? On Tuesday, the speakers included Cory Booker, Jim Clyburn, and equal-pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter. An actress from Glee sang the National Anthem and a 3rd grade class from W.R. O’Dell Elementary School in Concord led the Pledge of Allegiance. Julián Castro gave the keynote address followed by First Lady Michelle Obama.

I remember looking out at a sea of people who looked like America. A woman in a hijab held up a sign that read “Arab American Democrat.” There were Black women in hats covered with campaign buttons. There were older men with baseball caps reading “World War II Veteran,” “Vietnam Veteran,” and “Purple Heart.” There were young people with “Latinos for Obama” signs. This was Obama’s coalition. His gift was making that work.

By nature of his story (Hawaii, Chicago, grandparents from Kansas, Michelle’s family), Barack Obama could appeal to people all across the United States: college-educated progressives, Black Americans, white farmers living in Iowa. He had appeal in the Sun Belt and the Rust Belt. He could win over labor leaders in Pittsburgh and Detroit and the tech industry in Silicon Valley.

Two men holding shirts depicting President Barack Obama
Selling merch outside the Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

They all thought he was theirs. They all wanted to be seen with him. They were all together in Charlotte — an audience as diverse as the country. Without Obama, that coalition eventually fell apart … and 2016 happened. But in 2012 it held. And inside the hall the delegates were focused on victory, provided with red/blue signs that said “Forward/Not Back.”

There were plenty of sights and sounds to experience that week. On Wednesday, there was Harvey Gantt introducing an In Memoriam video, Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas leading the Pledge, and Branford Marsalis playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his saxophone. Cecile Richards from Planned Parenthood addressed the crowd, as did Kamala Harris (then the attorney general of California), Elizabeth Warren, and former president Bill Clinton.

Warren was a senate candidate in Massachusetts at the time and she gave a moving speech with a passionate rejoinder to a recent Republican gaffe, “No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters. That matters because we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people.”

It was stirring. It was the best she has ever sounded and it connected in a way her 2020 presidential campaign never did. But maybe there’s still time for her to regain that voice?

Up next was the 42nd president of the United States. I don’t remember the expectations being all that high. Bill Clinton is no Jack Kennedy and no Barack Obama. He doesn’t write history with words like other Democratic presidents. We remember Kennedy’s inaugural, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” speech, as well as, “We choose to go to the moon.”

We remember Obama’s DNC keynote address in 2004, his “Yes, we can,” and him singing “Amazing Grace.” We don’t remember Clinton like that. The “New Covenant” never caught on. Clinton’s speeches aren’t inspirational; they’re conversational. He presided over a great economy, and we do remember that, so that was his mission on that Wednesday night: Sell Obama’s record and to ask for four more years.

A speech to remember

Clinton went off script at times and was easily the longest speaker of the DNC at 48 minutes. He dismantled Republican attacks on Obama with logic and arithmetic and the audience was riveted as Clinton spoke to undecided voters at home.

“[Obama] has laid the foundation for a new, modern successful economy of shared prosperity,” said Clinton. “And if you will renew the president’s contract you will feel it.” Everyone knew the stakes. “Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election,” he admitted. “I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it.”

Clinton was the best natural politician of his generation and, at the age of 66, he still had it. He closed his speech, waved, and smiled as “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac filled the air with nostalgia. President Obama joined Clinton on stage, the music switched to “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty and the two presidents embraced. The election felt like it was in the bag.

There were other big moments to come in the campaign. The polls remained tight, Obama lost the first debate, but there was a decisive feeling to that Wednesday night following the Clinton speech. It felt like a backbreaking touchdown at the start of the 4th quarter. To be there was to sense it. To realize you’d just seen a bit of history: Clinton, never the orator, had just given the best speech by a former president. People needed a cigarette after that.

On the way out I ran into some old friends and we took a pedicab to Midnight Diner, passing by all kinds of very important people who were waiting for rides.

Because of the weather, President Obama’s speech on Thursday was moved from Bank of America Stadium back to Time Warner. That location turned out to be fitting. By then we were used to the Obama we met at the DNC in 2004 (“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America”). But we weren’t going to get that Obama in Charlotte.

A crowd gathers around a big screen depicting Barack Obama during the 2012 Democratic National Convention
A crowd at the Epicentre watches Barack Obama’s speech from down the street during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

As Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” That’s the Obama we got, not the social healer, but the professional politician from Chicago.

Plus, there wasn’t much left to say. All throughout the week, governors and senators had taken their turns getting their digs in at the Romney-Ryan ticket and trying out soundbites. “In your car and on your ballot, the ‘D’ is for drive forward, and the ‘R’ is for reverse,” said Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Thursday. Vice President Joe Biden added that, thanks to Obama, “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.”

So the 44th president was shorter and subdued: “The first time I addressed this convention … I was a younger man, a Senate candidate from Illinois who spoke about hope … that hope has been tested by the cost of war, by one of the worst economic crises in history, and by political gridlock that’s left us wondering whether it’s still even possible to tackle the challenges of our time.”

He made his best case that America still could and asked the voters to rally around his priorities for the country in education, energy and the economy.

He did what he needed to do: paint a contrast, look competent and look ahead to November. When it was over, “We Take Care of Our Own” by Bruce Springsteen came on. Michelle and the girls came out. The delegates waved thousands of American flags. The confetti dropped.

“Only in America” by Brooks & Dunn played next. It was such a fitting song for the occasion. Where else in the world could you see something quite like that? The diversity of the crowd (delegates representing places as different as American Samoa, Puerto Rico and Montana), the show business aspect (the Foo Fighters, Scarlett Johansson and Mary J. Blige), the scale of it all, and the symbolism of a Black president being re-nominated in a majority white country. We got to see that in Charlotte.

The next day I went back to class.

A couple months later the election happened. Obama was reelected. Republicans won the Governor’s mansion. I moved away, life moved on, so did the politics, and the news cycle. Obama had a rougher go of it in his second term (they always do). There were arguments over spending and the debt ceiling and a government shutdown in 2014. Immigration, climate change and gun violence never did get addressed.

As a result, millions of Americans became cynical at politics as usual, they stopped paying attention, and the DNC in Charlotte receded from memory. But I think that summer is worth looking back on now. It’ll go down as more important in our story than we thought or realized at the time.

Did the DNC mean anything?

In the years since the Democratic National Convention came to Charlotte there’s been House Bill 2 and a boycott of North Carolina, the election of Donald Trump, the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Sandy Hook, the Orlando shooting, the Las Vegas shooting, COVID-19, Lafayette Square, the Dobbs decision, and the events of January 6th, among other tragic and/or foreboding moments.

A decade later, we feel worse off as a country. We are divided politically. We have lost trust in our institutions (from the courts to the media to Congress). At times, it feels like our democracy is at stake (to see white supremacists marching through Charlottesville is a reminder that, yes, it can still happen here).

My own idealism has been tested. After leaving Charlotte, I came home to a small western North Carolina town to practice law on the front lines of the opioid crisis. My journalism has too often consisted of reporting on bad things (for instance, the closing of the Julius Chambers Civil Rights Center at UNC). But to witness all of that has somehow left me feeling a bit hopeful again, too, as I’ve been reflecting on what’s happening here and across the country.

A person holds a sticker that reads "Keep Abortion legal"
An activist outside of the 2012 Democratic National Convention makes a plea that would go unfulfilled. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

In the end, Barack Obama did have a consequential presidency — not because of the Affordable Care Act, although that was big, but for what was happening outside of Washington in society and in our culture.

The demographics of the country felt like they shifted overnight. America became more diverse and more inclusive. Issues like marijuana legalization and marriage equality moved rapidly through the states, culminating with the Obergefell case.

We’ve gone through enormous changes since 2009. Did Obama usher in those changes or was he a product of them? That’s like asking if the ’60s would have happened without John F. Kennedy. It’s a bit of both; they fed off each other.

Obama came to office because of what was happening in the electorate, in the media, in social movements, and in the field of technology (he wouldn’t have been elected yet without online fundraising, Facebook and YouTube).
But he was also a visual reassurance that progressive change was possible. He inspired millions just like Harvey Gantt inspired him. There were ripples.

There was also a response to all of that. The Tea Party and birtherism were precursors to Donald Trump. There was the return of ideologies we thought were locked away in our past — or we hoped, anyway, but they were always there waiting to be brought back to the forefront.

That’s what we’re living through now. That’s the story of our time: the progress, the backlash, and hopefully more progress. After the Charleston massacre, the confederate flag came down from South Carolina’s State Capitol. After George Floyd, the confederate monument came down from North Carolina’s State Capitol. Old ways are dying. A new America is struggling to be born. That’s not easy and it’s not supposed to be, but think of how far we’ve come.

Zoom in and this moment looks terrible (strangers arguing on social media, Proud Boys in the streets). Zoom out and the arc of the moral universe does have a bend. However, its direction is not guaranteed. Victories are hard-fought. The good guys don’t always win.

For every Lincoln there’s Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson. Here in North Carolina, there were the “Red Shirts” and the Wilmington Massacre. Frank Porter Graham didn’t beat Willis Smith. Harvey Gantt never did beat Jesse Helms. Nobody did. But the more we work at politics, the better life can get. Politics is how we got the Bill of Rights, the 19th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. We’re closer now than ever to being a true multiracial, multiethnic democracy, and actually making that work.

The last Democratic convention held in the Carolinas was in Charleston in 1860. The party split over slavery and many of the Southern delegates walked out. What came next was the outbreak of the Civil War. The last Civil War pensioner died two years ago (she lived in a town not far from Charlotte). Her father fought in that war. That’s not the distant past.

Within two lifetimes, a Black man stood on a stage in the South and accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States. That’s what the DNC in Charlotte meant. Everything we’ve been through teaches us how precious that moment was, and how vital. The farther away we get from that day the more it seems to matter.

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