Aspen delegates heading to Denver for DNC
August 23, 2008
DENVER ” When the 2008 Democratic National Convention opens in Denver this week, the Roaring Fork Valley will be represented by two local delegates, something that has not happened in recent memory, if ever.
Blanca O’Leary, co-chair of the Pitkin County Democratic Party and a lifelong political activist who moved to Aspen from Texas in 2001, and Bryan Gonzales, a 20-year valley resident working for Joseph Freed Associates at the Willits Town Center project in Basalt, will be among those choosing the Democratic party nominee for president of the United States.
The convention, the first to be held in Denver since 1908, is scheduled to run from Aug. 25 through Aug. 28, and is expected to formally nominate U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to challenge his colleague, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for the presidency. Obama has collected a total of 2,229.5 delegates, enough in theory to give him the nomination, while his rival, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has amassed 1,896.5 delegates.
Interestingly, O’Leary is an Obama delegate, while Gonzales was elected to cast his vote for Clinton. And, as was announced recently by the Democratic Party, the names of both candidates will formally be entered for the nomination in Denver next week.
“I bet it’s been never,” said Camilla Auger, the long-time head of the Pitkin County Democratic Party, when asked if the Roaring Fork Valley had ever sent two delegates to a national convention before.
Auger is not a delegate herself, although she will be at the convention in Denver. Instead, she is one of Colorado’s nine electors in the U.S. Electoral College, the 538-person body that formally elects the president weeks after the popular election has concluded.
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Blanca O’Leary, 50, says she has been politically active for most of her life, starting when she was growing up in El Paso, Texas.
“When I was 12 was when I first did my block walking,” she said in a recent interview, referring to the practice of walking from house to house canvassing for votes. “In my family, we were born Democrats.”
She has been involved in the grassroots aspect of party organizing ever since, she said, including such things as working for judicial candidates in her home state and attending Texas state conventions.
But, she explained, “I never wanted to be part of the party organization” until she was talked into becoming co-chair of the Pitkin County Democrats by Auger shortly after O’Leary moved here.
“To get a delegate’s slot in Colorado is really hard, especially if you’re from a mountain county,” she said, explaining that she and Auger put together a campaign for one of three slots from the U.S. Third Congressional District.
There were 90 people running for the three spots, she said, and with such a crowded field the candidates were not even given a chance to stand up and give the traditional speech explaining why they should be chosen.
Instead, the Pitkin County party organization put together a packet of 400 postcards with her photo attached and circulated them among the party members at the state convention in May.
On the strength of that effort, and a lot of conversations with other convention attendees, she was picked as a delegate for Obama.
“There is the highest percentage of first-time delegates ever” scheduled to take part in this convention, she said, although she was not sure of the exact ratio.
Gonzales, 43, was elected at-large as a Clinton delegate, after waging a campaign for a spot that he did not expect to win.
“I’m a political virgin,” he remarked.
Like O’Leary, Gonzales attended the party caucuses, assemblies and state convention, and was elected at each level to advance to the next step.
“I just kept raising my hand … until one day I was at the state convention,” he recalled with some amazement.
He said he did not really expect to get a delegate’s slot for the Denver convention, but when a friend from the valley, Kim Wille, urged him to get involved with a group called the “Coalition for Mountain Counties,” he went for it and was drafted to start handing out literature lobbying for representation from the remote rural areas at the national convention.
“All the delegates’ seats were being taken by Front Rangers,” he said, referring to the more populous counties located east of the Continental Divide. “I just got swept up in the fervor,” based on his declaration as a Clinton delegate at the county caucus level.
He said he was somewhat intimidated by the 10,000 people thronging the state convention, and when Wille urged him to get out on the floor and start talking up his candidacy, “I did.”
Hours later, his voice hoarse from overuse as the convention ended with ballots cast by all those participating, he said he returned to the valley and “went about my life,” unsure of the final outcome.
It was several days later when the state party chair, Pat Waak, called him up and congratulated him on being elected as a delegate for Clinton, a call that he first thought was a joke being played on him by friends.
“Apparently I made enough of an impression on those Hillary voters, I was one of two males selected as Hillary delegates,” he said.
And now, it’s on to the convention in Denver, where he will be housed at the Grand Hyatt Hotel along with all the other delegates, attending a whirl of functions, parties, seminars and other events along with the speeches by the party luminaries and the casting of votes in the ballot or ballots.
“I’m very happy about being able to cast a vote for Hillary,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who are expecting me to do that. But when that’s over, and she has released her delegates, I will enthusiastically support Barack Obama for president. I’ve never been against him at all … I just happen to have been for her. I think she would have made a better president.”
He, along with O’Leary, expects that there will be one ballot in which both Clinton and Obama will be nominated, after which Clinton will concede and Obama will be named the party’s candidate.
“It will relieve some of the tension that’s built up” in the race, he predicted, noting that while Obama won the requisite number of delegates to take the nomination, the primary race revealed a closely divided electorate.
“I hope it will bring them back,” he said of Clinton’s supporters, many of whom have said they will either stay away from the polls in November or, perhaps, vote for McCain or someone else rather than give their support to Obama.
As for the convention itself, which by the end of the week had turned Denver into a political circus, “It’s going to be fun,” Gonzales said.