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Boston, Ma. — On March 2, more than 50,000 DFLers gathered in school cafeterias, community centers, and neighborhood gathering points to begin the state's presidential nominating process. Fifty-thousand is more than five times the previous caucus attendance and took many -- even dedicated Democrats -- by surprise.
Among the newcomers that night was University of Minnesota-Morris student Sara Kloek, who worked her way from the precincts to the state convention in Duluth to the national stage in Boston. She and 39 other college Democrats boarded an East Coast-bound bus with scheduled stops in battleground states along the route. Kloek says while other young Minnesotans may be enjoying an easy-going summer vacation, she found a different calling.
"I campaign on the weekends; I campaign when I'm done with work; and I get out there at the grassroots levels talking to people, talking to my friends, talking to my neighbors. It's just exciting. And I have that sort of drive to get involved," Kloek said.
At 20 years old, Kloek is young, but she's not alone. One-quarter of the Minnesota delegation is under 35. The fresh faces aren't limited to the younger generation. Delegate and Inver Grove Heights resident Linda Wilkinson, for example, is 46 years old. She says her political awareness began several years ago when her husband -- a Vietnam veteran -- died from an illness related to Agent Orange exposure.
Wilkinson attended the 2002 caucuses as an observer for a political science class she was taking. But this year, she's taken her activism to another level. Wilkinson says the Democratic groundswell is a reflection of economic frustration.
"I used to work at a job that paid $15 an hour, now I'm lucky to get $10 an hour. How did that happen? There are jobs in the paper that want a bachelor's degree and they pay $10 an hour. How did that happen? I think people are feeling that... pinch; that costs are going up and wages aren't," Wilkinson said.
For the uninitiated, the most familiar images of previous conventions may be the balloons, the confetti, the red-white-and-blue bunting. No doubt Boston will follow that recipe. But delegate Jim Bootz, 47, of Chaska says he's beginning to see another side. Bootz is another first-time caucus-goer-turned-national-delegate. He says in addition to the pep rally, the convention offers a forum for networking, for collaborating, and for trading tips.
"Well, I'm a volunteer coordinator, and one of the things that they'll be teaching is recruitment and retention of volunteers. And I'm kind of excited about learning it from the experts and not having to just kind of stumble around learning it on my own," Bootz said.
Mixed with the newcomers, however, are long-serving stalwarts, including the delegation chair Walter Mondale. Benjamin Gross of Eagan is another experienced activist. He says he got his start at age three, helping his parents register voters. His first convention was the historic 1964 showdown in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during which competing delegations from Mississippi were split over civil rights for blacks. Now 54, Gross says he's somewhat disappointed to see political conventions evolve from forums for party business to elaborate coronation ceremonies with predetermined outcomes. But he says there's still good reason for the armchair delegate -- watching on his or her living room TV -- to tune in.
"It's an easy way to understand what the Democratic platform is, what we stand for. And visually, when the cameras scan the crowd, look at the cross-section of what America is," according to Gross.
The convention starts runs through Thursday with the nomination of John Kerry for president. Republicans, meanwhile, are preparing for their celebration in New York City at the end of August.