I have a friend who is a well-known Democratic political consultant/operative who attended the CNN Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville, Florida. It's important to note that he has worked-- successfully-- with both GOP and Democratic clients.
He agreed to give me a blow-by-blow description of his experience, and some of what he told me is eye-popping, yet at the same time, sadly unsurprising.
Here is his account, nearly verbatim, on what it was like to be an African American Democrat at a GOP presidential debate. My first question was simply, "How did you feel?" He takes it from there:
I felt totally out of place.
Then he took me through the evening from beginning to end, starting at the entrance to the university:
Coming in, at the entrance to the University of North Florida, I saw 400-500 Ron Paul supporters with banners, flags, waving. It was interesting because every car ignored them, they wanted to get away from them. I met them, spoke to them, most were about 18-30 years old. I shook their hands, took pictures. It was pretty cool.
Then I went to the parking lot, there was really tight security, and I had to show them my letter from CNN in order to get in. As I went to the auditorium, I heard chants, I saw steel barricades, then I saw the Occupy protesters. Nobody stopped to talk to them, I was the only one. I was the only on who spoke to either group, the Occupy people and the Paul supporters.
North East Florida is for Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, there were not many Rick Santorum supporters, except after the debate, there were more because he did pretty well. Romney was on his game, I think it was his best performance.
We had to submit our questions ahead of time. Mine was, "What would you do to get the Latino vote, and would you support DREAM Act?" But instead, they gave me topics to choose from. They wouldn't let me change my question unless I stuck to one of two topics given to me: Jobs, or the space program. I wanted to change my question to, "Why do you disrespect to office of president? You never say "President Obama, only "Obama" or "Barack Obama." They wouldn't let me, so I didn't submit anything else.
[Laffy Note: We discussed this at length, and it clearly bothered my friend and became a theme throughout our conversation. I didn't include every detail here, but it is a major issue for both of us. In fact, it bothered him so much, this happened:]
I tweeted to the candidates during the debate, "It's PRESIDENT Obama."
I chatted with Former State Attorney General Bill McCollum, J.C. Watts, others, including all of the former mayoral candidates in Jacksonville. I knew a lot of people, I'd worked with many of them.
I asked what it was like to be an African American in this particular venue:
There were not even a dozen minorities, maybe half of the minorities that were there were Hispanics, six maybe.
I'm in a suit, I was getting looks, like, "Hey who is this guy? Why is he here?" I heard some people ask ushers if they knew who I was.
Describe the looks you got:
They snubbed their nose up at me. I wasn't offended, I've dealt with it my entire life. I'm always the one black guy surrounded by white folks in the arena of politics. More like, "Yeah, you guys are curious now, aren't you?"
I was interviewed by the University paper, and they asked if I was a Democrat or a Republican. I said, "Democrat." They said, "What are you doing HERE?"
Then he switched gears, his emotions went from, "I'm used to that" to "I'm pissed":
I blew a gasket, I lost it, I had to move from downstairs [preferred seating] to upstairs, I couldn't stomach it!
Everyone was sitting down, and the mayor of Jacksonville, a friend of mine, Alvin Brown, and I were talking... he was sitting a couple of rows ahead of me.
A CNN producer comes over, he was telling us when to applaud, gave us the two minute warning just before the debate started, he introduced the president of University of North Florida, the former Jacksonville mayor, a Republican, John Delaney, who was a Democrat, but switched to GOP before he got elected.
He thanks sponsors, everyone, talks about how Jacksonville was in the spotlight, and says, "I'm going to introduce Jacksonville's own chairman of the Republican party in Florida, Lenny Curry." Curry comes on, to applause, and he says, "We're here for the debate, we're gonna take Obama out, and make him a one term president."
That's not the part that got me so mad.
Then he goes on to say, "I'd like to introduce local dignitaries... Congressmen, a senator, a few other state Senators, but NOT Mayor of Jacksonville! He ignores the Mayor of that city, his city!! The mayor, Alvin Brown, my friend, had to sign off on this debate. He's an African American Democratic mayor, the first in the history of Jacksonville... !!! And he doesn't introduce him, he doesn't acknowledge him, that he's even present!
So I got up, that's it, are you kidding me?! The MAYOR of this city. What is it that you don't like? The fact that he's a Democrat, or black, or both? That's what made me mad. I got out of my seat and went upstairs.
On the way up, the debate had started, had to wait eight minutes for a break to sit down.
I saw one seat at the top, and I started to sit by a lady who looks up and says the seat is taken. There were no other seats I could take without climbing over people, so I stood and watched for about 30 minutes, including commercial breaks, and still nobody sat in that seat. So I finally sat there, no problem. The lady said, "I guess he's not coming."
His take on the debate itself:
Romney never answered any real questions unless he went after Newt. Newt missed the boat on many questions, he was all over the map. Nothing of substance was discussed. Santorum did well, had some substance, and he went after Romney. Ron Paul didn't get much attention.
I asked him what he overheard after the debate was over, what snatches of conversation he might have caught, what he noticed going on around him:
There were comments in hallways about President Obama. Gingrich and Romney supporters talked about Bain, argued a little. The Romney supporter said, "That movie is full of lies." Then one of them said, "We shouldn't be fighting like this, we just gotta get that black guy out of office." I was surprised the N word didn't fly.
Some people looked at Donna Brazile like she didn't belong. At the end, most women went googoo over Anderson Cooper. He's openly gay, ladies. They said things like, "I'd love me some silver fox. He's so fine."
I saw one Hispanic running for Congress, who was wearing a Ron Paul button. He's running against Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
You could tell the Romney crowd by way they dressed... You know those sweater vests that Santorum wears? The Romney supporters wore them. Sweater vests for Romney. Right out of a catalog.
Newt's crowd was nicely dressed, but not like the high income Romney crowd who all wore Rolex and Movado watches.
I was in the garage afterwards for about a half hour, and I noticed all the cars with Romney stickers were luxury SUVs, $80,000 Mercedes and BMWs. The Jeep Cherokees had Newt Gingrich stickers. The Paul stickers were on Suburus, Suzukis, everything else.
The whole night was weird, kind of uncomfortable. These people do not see the world the way we do, their values are so different from ours. It's like an alternate universe.
I said I feel like that just watching it on TV.
Being there is way worse.
It wasn't like a John Kerry v Bush debate, not like Democratic debates either. I've been to those. I worked with Chris Shays, Lowell Weicker, the moderate GOP, but they're all gone. They all like to quote Ronald Reagan now, but when he was president, Republicans still had respect for others. I used to call them the Alex P. Keatons of the world. They could sit down, have good old fashioned discussion of policy with you. Now? There's no attempt to do that. You can't.
It aggravates me that they won't call Obama "President." I couldn't stand W, he was the biggest idiot buffoon on the planet, but at a public function, I'd always refer to "President Bush." We must respect the office. That bothers me.
Class warfare is all they want, they created it, and income inequality. It was a different world before.
Anybody who's Hispanic, gay, African American, Latino, any minority, has absolutely no business being a Republican supporter. And they wonder why Jeb hasn't endorsed...? It's because of their stance on Latinos. He's married to a Latina.
We wrapped up the conversation after that, but what an experience, what a story, more informative than anything we see and hear from the usual sources. Thank you, my Democratic operative friend. Hopefully your insights will open a few eyes.