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DENVER — To quote Helen Reddy, “I am woman, hear me roar.”
That could very well sum up the first day of the Democratic National Convention here Monday — not to mention the entire campaign. As the DNC gathers under the banners of unity, openness and change to nominate the first African-American for president, Sen. Barack Obama, it was members of the opposite sex and their issues that dominated the first day and are expected to remain at the forefront of the campaign over the next two months.
“Women have a great deal at stake this election,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, chairwoman of the convention and one of four female convention co-chairs, said at a press briefing Sunday. “They have the most to gain with the election of Barack Obama and the most to lose with the election of [Sen.] John McCain. Issues like pay equity, health care, national security and the economy…are traditionally identified as women’s issues.”
Given that focus — and the shadow Sen. Hillary Clinton and her ill-fated campaign continue to cast over the convention hall — there was nothing more fitting than to have Michelle Obama, wife of the candidate, headline the first night with a prime-time speech. Clinton is to speak in prime time tonight.
Obama at press time was planning to tell the life story of her husband, the first-term senator from Illinois who aims to defeat presumptive Republican nominee McCain. She was expected to take the stage wearing an outfit from Chicago designer Maria Pinto, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Michelle Obama’s communications director, told WWD.
Pinto said the dress Obama was planning to wear is a turquoise blue, three-quarter-sleeve sheathlike, fitted, Fifties-inspired style in double-faced wool. (But Obama could change her mind.)
More than 4,400 party delegates and thousands of party activists, lawmakers, protesters and journalists have convened in the Mile High City to anoint Obama as the party’s candidate to win back the White House for the first time in eight years. The Pepsi Center in Denver, which has not hosted a political convention since 1908 when the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan to run for president, will showcase the Democrats’ extravaganza over the next three days.
At the top of the agenda and the party platform are grassroots issues such as women’s rights, health care, jobs and taxes, as the Democrats highlight challenges confronting American workers and the middle class, according to party leaders.
The proposed platform of the convention, to be voted on tonight, includes a section titled “Opportunity for Women,” calling for passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that is intended to make it easier to combat pay discrimination. This section of the platform also calls on investing in women-owned small businesses and removing the capital gains tax on start-up small businesses.
“We recognize that women are the majority of adults who make the minimum wage, and are particularly hard-hit by recession and poverty,” states the platform draft. “We will protect Social Security, increase the minimum wage, and expand programs to combat poverty and improve education so that parents and children can lift themselves out of poverty.”
Lilly Ledbetter, a former Goodyear Tire & Co. employee whose Supreme Court case involving pay discrimination sparked Congress to craft the legislation bearing her name, is set to speak to the convention tonight. The House passed the bill, but it stalled in the Senate under GOP pressure.
Beyond the platform and the speeches, expectations at the Pepsi Center were already running high on Sunday.
“This convention is very different,” said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, also a convention co-chair. “None of us has ever seen anything quite like this. Fasten your seat belts and stay tuned.”
Certainly the convention is drawing the usual media hordes — as well as protest groups. Hundreds of Iraq war protesters filled the streets of Denver on Sunday near the Colorado State Capitol, targeting their message at President Bush rather than Obama. The rally was peaceful and without incident. More protests, including some from still-simmering supporters of Clinton, are expected throughout the week.
Amid the fanfare, however, party leaders and campaign officials had to work overtime to generate a message of unity following a primary election season that left the party divided between Obama and Clinton.
Speaking at a pre-convention briefing intended to emphasize the excitement of the four-day meeting, Sebelius’ remarks on Sunday came amid some uncertainty surrounding the festivities.
Obama campaign officials were busy early Monday morning going on the defensive about possible mischief and denying a press report that said Clinton supporters could disrupt the convention. Despite the uncertainty, they said they fully expect Clinton to actively help Obama capture the presidency, noting that she has shown her support on the campaign trail for Obama over the past several weeks.
“Clearly, Sen. Clinton is going to lay out the case for Sen. Obama and a Democratic victory because we need change,” Obama deputy press secretary Anita Dunn said Monday. “At the level between Sen. Clinton and her campaign and Sen. Obama and his campaign there has been a high degree of cooperation. There may be some people who, for whatever reason, believe that [upheaval and feuding] is the story line and want to promote it, but this is not the case to the people who actually matter.”