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Political spirit from ’76

Fredonia man recalls journey to convention

A delegate badge.

I have always been a history buff. Here’s my story of how I stumbled into a bit of history 44 years ago. Here goes …

Both political parties were hosting their presidential nominating conventions this month. They will be very different from previous years. They will be virtual conventions — a far cry from the raucous events we have known every four years.

But flashback to 1976. Heres my story of how a 25-year-old kid became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden.

In January 1976, I was driving on the New York State Thruway. I stopped at a rest area near Syracuse and saw a newspaper headline that caught my eye. It said something like, and I’ll paraphrase here: “New rules allow anybody to be a delegate — here’s how.” The article described how presidential candidates used to be picked by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms, but now party reforms had made it easier to become a delegate and be part of the process. Well, I had always loved to watch the conventions on TV so I thought I’d give it a try.

I should say right here that I never thought it would be anything more than a fun and educational project. I had zero political experience — my political resume consisted of running for class president in college.

Campaign buttons for Jimmy Carter.

So my first step was to call the local Chautauqua County Board of Elections. I was an enrolled Democrat so I asked to speak to the Democratic election commissioner and I told him I wanted to be a delegate. He was a bit condescending as he explained that I was rather late to the party and that most of the current announced candidates already had full slates of delegates. I asked who was available and I could almost hear him roll his eyes as he said there were just two candidates without delegate slates — Gov. George Wallace of Alabama (gasp!) and Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia.

Well, Gov. Wallace was out of the question (look him up if you don’t know why) so I asked for the name and number of the guy who was in charge of the Jimmy Carter campaign. He gave me the requested information and hung up. I can still picture him chuckling to himself after he hung up and telling others in the office about the totally naive guy who had just called him.

Of course I didn’t know much about Carter. Nobody did really at that stage, but after reading up a bit on him and seeing him described as a “new style southerner” I decided I’d give him a try. After all, this was just going to a fun and educational experiment … there was no way that Carter (who was polling at less than 4% at the time) was ever going to be president, right? And he sure looked a lot better than George Wallace!

I called the Carter campaign and sure enough they were desperate for delegates. And just like that I became a Carter delegate.

The first step was to pick up petitions in Rochester and get signatures. I walked door to door and also went to a local shopping mall. I sent in my petitions and just like that I was on the ballot for the state presidential primary, which was scheduled for April 6. This was going to be fun.

More buttons from that year.

I wasn’t kidding myself. The other front running candidates had very prominent politicians running as delegates. I remember that our very popular state Assemblyman Rolland Kidder was a delegate for Birch Bayh of Indiana. The other front running candidates (Mo Udall, Scoop Jackson) had equally big name delegates.

Jimmy Carter had me — a 25-year-old pharmacist.

But nationally some strange things were happening. Carter began to win. He placed a surprising second place in Iowa and he won the New Hampshire primary. He beat Wallace in North Carolina and he beat Scoop Jackson in Pennsylvania. He defeated Mo Udall in Wisconsin. Candidates began to drop out of the race and Carter was surging. Uh oh! What had I gotten myself into?

So on April 6, 1976, New York state held its primary.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Between January and April I had decided to move to Albany, get married, and work for a pharmacy in Latham. So on primary day, I voted in Fredonia and promptly got into my already packed car and drove to Albany. I saw on the TV news that night in Albany that Jackson was the overall winner of the state primary but I had to wait a few more days to learn the results for Chautauqua County.

And wow! Although Scoop Jackson won the most delegates in the state, Jimmy Carter and our slate of delegates won the most votes in Chautauqua County. I was officially a delegate to the Democratic National Convention pledged to vote for Jimmy Carter on the first ballot. I couldn’t believe it. What had began as a fun little educational experiment had actually been successful.

Oh my!

I received my packet of information in the mail about the convention. The state delegation was going to stay at the very expensive Sheraton Hotel in New York City. I opted for the lower cost option — the Empire Hotel which was a very old and historic hotel 10 blocks away.

I had to ask my new boss for time off to go to the convention from July 12 to 15. I told him I was a delegate to the convention. He listened, hesitated and said, “Where are you really going?” He didn’t believe me but he gave me the days off anyway.

I took the train to New York and found my hotel. I had only been to the city once or twice before and never by myself. The first day as I began my 10-block walk to the Sheraton Hotel I asked a cop if it was safe to walk. He said it was so I was on my way. I came to love those walks with all the sights and smells of the city.

The first meeting was a caucus of the state delegation. Our chairman was Mayor Ed Koch but I was more excited to see that singer Harry Chapin was also a fellow delegate. I was dying to ask for his autograph and tell him I had seen him twice in concert — but he saw me staring at him and his eyes told me to not even think about it. Sigh …

I also recognized many prominent politicians in our delegation including Assemblyman Arthur Eve of Buffalo. And there was even a fellow pharmacist, Shirley Stolarski who was active in Buffalo politics.

I attended a Democratic Women’s Caucus rally which featured speeches by Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Candace Bergen, and Bella Abzug (and yes, Bella wore her signature hat).

I, of course, was like a kid in a candy shop. And later it was much the same on the floor of the convention where it seemed that every time I turned around I would bump into the likes of Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Hubert Humphrey, Jerry Brown, and lots more.

I should mention I was on a pretty frugal budget and I pretty much survived by eating the free yogurt, bagels, and apples that were always available at these meetings. I also ate the food from street vendors (both cheap and delicious) and had my first gyro at a little Greek food stand.

Day one of the convention featured the keynote speeches by John Glenn of Ohio and Barbara Jordan of Texas. As I recall, Glenn’s speech was OK but Barbara Jordan’s speech was riveting.

By this time Jimmy Carter had secured enough delegates to ensure his nomination. Last minute candidacies by Jerry Brown and Frank Church had been too little too late.

The major suspense was who would be his running mate. The Carter campaign had narrowed it down to 6 possible candidates and had even run off campaign buttons for all 6 so that they would be all set to go when the decision was made. I obtained a set of all 6 buttons for my collection. (See attached photo of 5 of them – somehow I lost one over the years).

The final choice for his running mate was Walter Mondale of Minnesota.

The nominating speeches were on the second day and the most exciting event of all — the roll call of states — was on day three. We were given tally sheets to keep track as each state took to the microphone and said “Mr Chairman, the great state of XYZ proudly casts its votes for so-and-so.” I still love that part of a convention.

Jimmy Carter won the nomination as expected on the first ballot. I must admit, as a history buff, I was secretly hoping for more than one ballot so I could witness an exciting brokered convention like I have read about in the history books. (The last time the Democrats had gathered in New York City for their convention in 1924 it had taken 103 ballots to pick the winner!). But no such luck.

Next came the acceptance speeches by Carter and Mondale. I sat on the floor right in front of the podium for Carter’s acceptance speech. It was very cool.

And then it was over. My little fun experiment in history and civics had turned out way better than I ever imagined. I was due back at the pharmacy in Latham at 10 a.m. the next day so I caught a greyhound bus at the New York City Port Authority at 3 a.m. (and that’s another story for another time — let’s just say that it’s not somewhere you want to be at 3 a.m.) I slept a bit on the bus and got back in time to shower and open the pharmacy at 10 a.m.

I still don’t think my boss believed my story about the convention. I asked if he had seen me on TV — he said no, shook his head, and walked away. He was not impressed.

I might add that I don’t think anyone else saw me on TV either. But that’s OK. My mom says she was looking for me all week and didn’t see me.

Of course Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale went on to to defeat President Gerald Ford and his running mate Bob Dole in November. And I guess I played a very tiny part in that story.

And it all started with a newspaper headline at a Thruway rest stop in Syracuse that read, “Want to be a delegate to a national convention?”

Michael McEntarfer is a Fredonia resident.

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