Issues emerge from Shadow Convention

The Republican shindig at the First Union Center wasn’t the only game in town this summer.

While the herd of elephants staged their extravaganza in South Philly, a smaller but more interesting convention took place on the Penn campus — the Shadow Convention, a gathering called by an assemblage of activists and a syndicated columnist to raise issues the organizers claim the major parties are ignoring.

Over its four-day run, the Shadow Conventioneers talked about campaign finance, the War on Drugs, the wealth gap, and strategies for change in an atmosphere that was part pep rally, part teach-in.

The event also featured an unusual mixture of left and right, mainstream and fringe. This mix began with Sunday’s kickoff, which featured U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the poster boy of the campaign-finance-reform movement. When his defense of the Republican Party as the best vehicle for reform elicited heckling from the audience, convention co-convener and syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington interrupted to lecture the audience about respect for diverse views.

There were no similar lectures delivered during the rest of the convention, but there were plenty of interesting moments.

Perhaps most interesting of all was the second day’s program, which focused on what the organizers called “the failed War on Drugs.” Here, the mix of mainstream and fringe was distilled into a single person: New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican businessman who has made legalizing marijuana one of his signature issues.

“We need to stop getting tough when it comes to doing drugs and stay tough when it comes to doing drugs and doing harm,” he said, arguing that most of the people now jailed for drug-related offenses pose no harm to anyone other than themselves.

The audience also heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson deliver one of his trademark speeches criticizing the “prison-industrial complex.” He was followed by comedian Al Franken, who — in the character of the ever-recovering Stuart Smalley — argued that “for every dollar we spend on treatment, we save seven, which can be used on other things — I don’t know what they are.”

Other moments of high enthusiasm during the convention included the first day’s session on campaign finance reform. The conventioneers responded enthusiastically to two speakers in particular: “Granny D” — Doris Haddock, the 89-year-old woman who walked from coast to coast last year to champion campaign finance reform, and U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., whose preacher-like cadences worked the audience into a convention-worthy fervor when he proclaimed, “We’re here to save our system. We’re here to win democracy back for the people.” On the final day, a smaller crowd heard journalists and community activists discuss ways to translate the talk into action. Robert Putnam, Harvard sociologist and author of “Bowling Alone,” summed it up in his keynote address: “Some public policy changes will be required, but in the end, the problem [of civic renewal] will be solved not by government, but by thousands of individuals like you and me.”


Originally published on August 31, 2000