Curtis Jones Rode a Pedicab, Dodged Protestors at the DNC

The city councilman reveals what Philly pols got up to in Charlotte last week.

Last week, several notable Philadelphians were in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention. Among them was second-term City Councilman and Council majority leader Curtis Jones, who also made the trip to Denver in 2008. I caught up with him over the weekend to get a first-hand account.

Was Charlotte as different from the 2008 Denver convention as it seemed on TV?
The Denver experience was very different. There was an atmosphere there of the Hillary influence versus the Obama delegates. But in Charlotte, it was a love fest, a pep rally as opposed to Denver, which was a strategic negotiation about consolidation, where you could tell the Hillaryites from the Obamaites.

More than a few people were wondering last week why Obama didn’t change his running mate. Was there similar anti-Biden buzz at the convention itself?
Oh sure. You ever been to a family reunion? There’s always the eccentric uncle. Biden is the eccentric uncle. One minute, he’s going to open his mouth and say something brilliant. Another occasion, he’s going to embarrass the heck out of you, but you’re not going to kick him out of the family.

How exactly does one get to go to the DNC?
There are several ways. You can run on the ballot in the primary. Otherwise, it is based on your involvement in the party through voter contact turnout. Or with money, they’ll appoint you. People who donate, raise money for the Obama party cause get considered.

So why were you invited?
For sure, it wasn’t the money. We have developed a reputation for voter turnout. We do things like motorcades and sound cars and posters on front lawns. We’ve developed a field presence.

Did you get a chance to check out Charlotte?
The experience was constricted by security a bit. A lot of the vehicle access was shut down. You had to get around by shuttle buses or light rail. It was lightened up at times but then it would be tightened again, so it was a challenge navigating. They tell you at 6 o’clock that at 11 you should report to the shuttle dispatch location. Then when you come out to the shuttle dispatch location at 11, they say, “We shut that down, so walk four blocks this way and that way and get on light rail.” You kind of had to wing it on a daily basis.

Sounds a little like trying to navigate SEPTA during bad weather.
You could draw that analysis, but SEPTA would be more predictable. Security can change anything. And put on top of that spontaneous protest. You had the Occupy movement, the conservative Christian movement, all in the same place, which added to the almost market town square, medieval courtyard experience. Everyone had a cause. At one point, a spontaneous anti-abortion protest starts with crowds and billboards and everything, and they started gaining on us as we were walking. We didn’t want to get all up in it, so we had to start light jogging. And once I had to go three or floor blocks and jumped into a pedicab. [Councilman] Bob Henon has a photo of that, and I hope he never gives it up. This guy pedaling his heart out, and me looking like the King of Siam. I guess it was kind of ostentatious.

Can you explain all the silly hats?
You’re riding a bus with a lady with a hat on, and she’s been at seven or eight conventions starting with Carter and she’s showing them off on her hat. She’s creating a work of political art, and she tells war stories based on her memorabilia.

What do we miss at home from the convention floor?
The vignettes and such, the intermissions when they go to commercial break. The highlight during the intermissions for me was the video of Ted Kennedy debating Romney, and then he’s talking about him being a flip-flopper. I laughed so hard my cheeks got stuck.

How did you get to Charlotte? Plane?
No. Other people flew, but we decided to do it the old-fashioned way and rented a hybrid thing, with three rows of seats. We drove the eight hours. It was fun. There’s a mid-point called Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House in Richmond. It’s a lot Southern. They sell fried catfish, grits, the real stuff, the good stuff. That’s a whole lot better than “Lift your trays into the upright position” for me.

You mentioned security before. How else did it affect the experience?
There were no umbrellas allowed. One day there was a downpour, and people had to relinquish their umbrellas at a security check 100 feet from the door. There was a pile of umbrellas up to your hip. And you’re soaked. And then it was the funniest thing watching delegates pillage through a pile of umbrellas trying to find theirs.

How was the food at the convention itself?
Everything was good, and, because it’s Southern, they know what grits are, unlike in Denver. For a poor boy from West Philly, there was a table with shrimp and grits. And I thought, Grits have arrived now. They’re a delicacy, with waiters serving it on little trays. Things have really changed.

What’s the likelihood of DNC 2016 in Philadelphia?
I hope we bid on having the next Democratic convention here. I was looking at physical venues in Charlotte and Denver, and we already have the infrastructure in place here in Philadelphia. Look at XFinity Live and the three major stadiums—one of them covered —down there, and you can go to the subway and be at the main Convention Center in five minutes. Plus, we already hosted the Republican convention here, and that was before we expanded the Convention Center.

But how many union workers will it take to hang one DNC 2016 banner?
Very funny. No comment.

Michael Nutter came under fire for the size of his DNC entourage and the fact that the city was covering the cost. Was your trip covered by the city as well?
No. We raised money in our campaign to pay for it, in its entirety. The interns we brought worked for the experience. None of the funds came from public dollars. And in the hotels, we all doubled up. Everybody had a roommate. Mine was my wife.

A lot has been made of the lack of a balloon drop at the end. Did you miss the balloons?
No. I was soaking up the history. There was enough around me. When Rendell rose to his feet and started clapping and the delegation joined him, and the Mayor was two rows away, and him and his wife were caught up in the moment. I looked around to absorb, and the balloons were furthest from that experience.

Be honest. Who gave the better speech, the First Lady or the President?
First Lady. Hands down. It wasn’t even close. Both of them were on message, but hers was so heartfelt. That day, you could tell he was gonna do the dishes. But there were a couple of good ones. The former Governor of Michigan. I loved the Castro brothers. Clinton was long but informative, like a professor in college. He was …  arithmetic, you know?

If you are invited to give a speech at DNC 2016, what will your theme song be?
I would go with “It’s a New Day” by Will.i.am. I like that.

What, no Sound of Philadelphia?
You have to be relevant and contemporary and keep up with technology. I was watching Rendell, and he’s there on Facebook, twittering, texting, he’s multi-modal. That was amazing to me. But I just wish he would remember to bring his glasses. If he squints one more time, I am going to hand him my readers.

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