People milled outside the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation waiting to drink merry and meet Howard Dean. And the year wasn't 2004.
My fellow Washington Free Beacon reporter Adam Kredo and I waited in line with the rest of the attendees for the kickoff party of the 2013 Netroots Nation conference.
Netroots Nation denied our requests for press passes, so we were attending as just your regular-Joe progressive activists. According to organizers, between 2,900 and 3,000 people were also participating in the eighth annual confab, the premier gathering of liberals in the country.
Finally, the doors opened, and we entered “Liquid Courage,” hosted by the Courage Campaign. Liberal organizations, Democratic campaign arms, and unions sponsored nearly every such event at the three-day conference.
An LCD screen on the wall displayed what people were tweeting about Netroots. Kredo wasted no time in trolling the board.
In what would become a recurring theme, I spent most of the time at “Liquid Courage” waiting for liquid. On stage, Howard Dean was yelling something, but the audio was distorted from the sheer force of Dean-mania. Man, he sounds excited, I thought. And then I heard it.
Dean recreated his infamous “Dean Scream.” After, he came down to take pictures and work the crowd. Dean is the elder statesman of Netroots. The crowd loves him.
Kredo, wearing a Step Brothers t-shirt, got a picture with the legend himself.
Dean also told reporters he hasn’t ruled out another run for president in 2016.
"If you had to put a gun to my head and make me decide right now, I wouldn't," Dean told CNN’s Peter Hamby. "But who knows?"
“When I think about the polar bears, I cry,” the young Netroots attendee sitting at the table next to us told his friend as he chowed down on a club sandwich.
Kredo and I were sitting in an Italian joint next to the convention hall, eating lunch. The rest of the day was consumed by events. There were “80 panels, 40 training sessions, inspiring keynotes, film screenings and other engaging sessions designed to educate, stimulate and inspire the nation’s next generation of progressive leaders,” according to the conference website.
I sat in on “State Battles 2013: Fighting to Block the Right-Wing Agenda.” The folks on the mic said things like, “because we have the facts on our side, we tend to spend money smarter,” and “on our side, we have people power.”
They groused about the one area where the opposition also had people power: social media.
“When it came to Twitter, we were just totally outgunned.” And, “The truth is, it’s pretty hard with Michelle Malkin tweeting every minute on the minute.”
I ran into Jon Carson, executive director of Organizing for Action.
“Oh, how about that?” Carson said when I introduced myself as a reporter for the Free Beacon. Then he artfully dodged my question about how he squares working for a 501(c)(4) organization closely aligned with the president.
“We're focused on issues and advocacy,” said Carson, whose email address ends in “@barackobama.com.”
“There’s been (c)(4)s around a long time focusing on issues across the spectrum, and there's nothing new about that at all.”
Sandra Fluke gave a brief speech on a “domestic worker bill of rights” that’s been introduced to the state legislature. Since being called a “slut” by Rush Limbaugh, Fluke has parlayed the incident into a career as a professional activist. (She’s represented these days by SKDKnickerbocker, a national communications firm closely aligned with the Democratic Party.)
I tried to catch Fluke for a quick interview after the caucus, but she was heading to some other event.
“Give me your card, and I’ll try and call you later,” she said.
Sandra, I'm still waiting.
Then I found myself at a panel titled: “Free your Ass: Defining and Creating a Progressive Sexual Culture.”
Panelist Favianna Rodriguez, a new media artist, talked about her explorations into polyamory and kink.
“I’ll close it out with this image I created of an awesome sex party I went to,” Rodriguez said, displaying one of her paintings.
It was full of psychedelic colors and an arrangement of Picasso-style figures entangled in various sex acts. Kind of like Guernica, but with erections.
Sensing everything else was going to be a letdown after Boner Guernica, I went next door to a panel titled, “Legitimate Tape: Using Republicans’ Own Words to Shut that Whole Thing Down.”
The panel included James Carter IV, the grandson of Jimmy Carter who discovered the infamous “47 percent” tape of Mitt Romney. Carter is now a professional opposition researcher who runs his own firm and consults for other left-leaning oppo outfits such as American Bridge 21st Century.
“I just want to make sure that the opponent, whoever it is, is going to be having a bad day,” said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century.
Nearly everyone at Netroots appeared to be a professional activist of some sort, attached to sundry Super PACs, non-profits, and advocacy groups. Where were the grassroots, and where were the bloggers—the “net” part of Netroots, I wondered.
Later Thursday afternoon, at a “tech/labor meetup” happy hour (sponsored by congressional candidate Mike Honda), I fell into a conversation with a staffer for the California Democratic Party.
“This is really a networking event for people in our world or people trying to break into it,” he said.
In other words, the conference was great if you wanted to schmooze with Matt Ortega, the creator of EtchASketchMittRomney.com, or have your picture taken with the dude who runs the @LOLGOP twitter account.
Still, there was a noticeable lack of star-power. The Netroots website notes that “past conferences have featured a Presidential Leadership Forum that drew seven Democratic candidates including then-Senator Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; a surprise visit from Al Gore; interactive Q&A sessions with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid; an appearance by President Bill Clinton; and a chance to hear from three Nobel laureates.”
The opening keynote Thursday night featured Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), who is a bonafide progressive senator, but far from a rock star.
And because there were no big names, there was almost no media presence.
Slate reporter David Weigel summed up the state of affairs:
[T]he lead-up chatter among some activists and reporters (i.e., the ones I know) has been: What's the story this year? Nobody wants another ‘liberals give up on Obama’ groupthink fest. (Those stories from 2011 hold up poorly). Immigration's prominent on the agenda, and the focus of some of the reporting I have planned, but the next progressive priority is …?
The progressive priority Thursday night was karaoke. At a German beer bar near the convention hall, scores of sodden attendees crowded onto the patio and slurred their way through “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys.
I was turning to leave when I heard an odd, non-poppy melody coming from the speakers. A group was on stage, singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” For the last verse, they transitioned into the old union ditty, “Solidarity Forever.”
“Solidarity forever / Solidarity forever / Solidarity forever / For the union makes us strong!”
The AFL-CIO sponsored the karaoke party.
I wandered the main “town hall” exhibition floor where sponsors had set up booths. Upworthy, a lefty website featuring viral content, offered free massages to convention-goers.
A booth of artwork featured such revolutionary sloganeering as “Bradley Manning: Hero” and “Politicians off my poontang!”
The cavernous convention hall and the shotgun-spread of events made the conference feel small. Most of the panels I attended over the course of the conference were no more than half-full. Some other reporters and I mused that the organizers had inflated attendance numbers.
Things didn’t really heat up until the pub quiz that night.
The annual pub quiz (sponsored this year by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee) has become something of a sacred tradition for the Netroots faithful. Teams come back every year. Rivalries are deep. One team entered the room accompanied by a bagpipe player and snare drummer.
“I’d like to announce we’ve reached the cap on team names about masturbating fetuses,” the quiz host announced. “We’ve already got two, and we don’t need a third.”
I joined team “America, Frack Yeah,” along with Weigel. Other notable team names: “The Brains of Castamere” and “Stark Family Reunion.” No team got as much applause, though, as “The Drinks Are Overpriced.”
Karl Rove submitted a bonus question—a horrible stumper about William McKinley’s 1896 presidential campaign. Out of a room of hundreds, only Weigel got it. A friendly tip: If you’re going to play political pub quiz, get Weigel on your team.
Midway through round two, a team was accused of cheating and was disqualified. They exited the ballroom to chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
“America, Frack Yeah” came in second in the pub quiz.
Later on that evening I finally found two real grassroots activists at Netroots Nation.
Bellied up to the bar at the Marriot lounge sometime around 2 a.m., I met Fred and Victoria Koegel. Fred is a union bricklayer from Chicago, tall with short-cropped hair and a diamond stud in his ear. His wife Victoria has a blonde bob and an aggressive Midwestern accent.
“Basically, of the 535 members of Congress, I like five of them,” Fred said, listing Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison, among others. “We need liberal Democrats to take over the Democratic Party like the Tea Party took over the Republicans.”
Fred said he would vote Green Party if it were a viable option.
“I’m not an Obama fan, but he’s better than the alternative,” Victoria said.
On and on we kvetched—about Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, lack of single-payer healthcare, moderate Democrats—until the bar staff kicked us out.
“You suck!” a man in the audience shouted at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.).
Pelosi was trying to defend the National Security Agency’s surveillance of American citizens at a Q&A session. The crowd was having none of it.
“People on the far right are saying oh, this is the fourth term of President Bush,” Pelosi said. “Absolutely, positively not so.”
They jeered Pelosi when she said Edward Snowden had broken the law.
Marc Perkel, a 57-year-old activist, was escorted from the room after shouting, “It’s not a balance. It’s not constitutional! … No secret laws!"
The exchange generated the most media coverage of the conference.
Kredo and I were after more entertaining fare, though. We found it at a panel entitled “Ask a Sista: Black Women Muse on Politics, Policy, Pop Culture and Scholarship.” (Kredo reported on the panel here.)
We know it was going to be good when the PowerPoint presentation began with a huge picture of butter enthusiast and race monger Paula Deen.
“Why is this so important?” said Cheryl Contee, a Netroots board member who founded Jack and Jill Politics, a political hub for black activists. “We all know now that Paula Deen has been outed as a big ol’ Dixie Time racist.”
The panel also addressed the overwhelming pastiness of the confab.
“I want to touch on the lack of diversity at Netroots Nation,” one black audience member said to applause and nods of approval.
“It used to be worse,” Contee said. “That’s no defense, but I’m just saying it used to be much, much worse.”
Netroots organizers go to great pains to overcome the pasty patriarchy. They don’t allow panels with only white males, according to one blog. Netroots also included several gender-neutral bathrooms and gave attendees tips on transgender etiquette.
“Please do not assume anyone’s gender, even people you may have met in the past,” advises the Netroots official program. “A person’s external appearance may not match their internal gender identity. Pay attention to a person’s purposeful gender expression.”
After enough time in a crowded, artificial environment, such as a conference full of liberals, one starts to get a little stir-crazy. By Saturday afternoon, Kredo and I lost all interest in panels and walked the floor of the convention hall.
It was not a pretty sight.
— CJ Ciaramella (@cjciaramella) June 22, 2013
SPOTTED: Woman cleaning her dog's pee pee from up off the ground at #nn13 closing session
— Adam Kredo (@Kredo0) June 23, 2013
We made our way into the closing keynote, half an hour late. Speakers paraded on and off stage, telling inspirational stories about how they overcame adversity or sharing advice on how to message more successfully.
More exciting action was taking place offstage.
I pointed to a nearby table where two old, bearded men were getting in a fight. They were exchanging words and poking their fingers at each others’ paunches. And then they started tussling.
“You better get out of here, you goddamn son of a bitch,” one Rob Reiner look-alike said as he shoved the other toward the door.
As the duo careened past me, I tried to catch a glimpse of their badges, but all I could make out was the word “progressive.”
Bearded old dude #1 shoved #2 against a wall and started throttling his neck. Volunteers and convention center employees in red blazers rushed over to break up the kerfuffle.
Kredo and I had to leave the ballroom because we were laughing so hard we were crying, drawing the stink-eye from other attendees. As cosmic punishment for our immaturity, we missed what would have been the highlight of our conference.
— Francesca Chambers (@fran_chambers) June 23, 2013
The Netroots after-party took place at the ballpark of the San Jose Giants, the minor league farm-team for the San Francisco Giants. After signing a liability waiver and standing in line, you could stand in the batter’s box and take pitches from a pitching machine.
It’s safe to say none of Netroots Nation is getting called up to the big leagues. (In fairness, neither am I. I went one for five—a dribbler straight to the pitcher’s mound.)
As the sun set and park lights came, batting practice transitioned into a dance party. Given the aforementioned paleness of the conference, this was not pretty.
The final after-after party took place on the 24th floor of the Marriott. A handwritten sign on the door of the hotel suite declared it “The Hippie’s Lair,” and it lived up to the name. As soon as I stepped in I hit a wall of swampy, tropical funk produced by the party-goers, who were jammed in the room like clowns in a telephone booth. I had seen enough of the Netroots.