Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin might be Howard Dean’s most experienced choice among his three nominated co-chairs of the Democratic National Convention. She’s not a career politician—her first term as Atlanta’s mayor was her first ever elected office—but as the city’s former Chief Administrative Officer, she oversaw Atlanta’s hosting of the 1988 Democratic convention and volunteered for the most difficult beat on the job: supervising the safety and security of the public-protest areas.
In this interview, Franklin tells Demver about the importance of having the convention in Denver and offers advice to Mayor Hickenlooper on how to deal with the pressures and problems of hosting a national convention.
Westword (Joe Horton): What's the importance of having the convention in Denver?
Shirley Franklin: Denver is a great city. It’s a community that pulls itself together around a lot of issues. I was in Denver at the invitation of the mayor along with other mayors in January to talk about the issue of homelessness and how we as mayors address issues of poverty and homelessness in our community. That caused me to really understand how a mayor who is from the business community and who’s an entrepreneur himself has been able to galvanize support. And in order to host the convention, Denver has reached out to civic leaders as well as to business leaders all over the country.
So it’s a Denver convention that seeks to coalesce and build a coalition of people who are interested in the party and interested in how the party might win the election and advance our platform. I’ve been to conventions in other cities on the West Coast and the Northeast and obviously in Atlanta. I think this is the right time to have the convention almost dead smack in the middle of the country.
WW: Is Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy working?
SF: I think Howard Dean put his finger on it four years ago. And I supported him; I was on the DNC when he was running for chairman, and I supported him because I think this country needs a 50-state strategy. I think there’s no question that the primaries, both from the Clinton camp and largely from the Obama camp, showed that people all over the country want to be engaged again in the political process and don’t want to be overlooked. I mean, the electoral college and the electoral map is important; you have to be able to count, and you have to be able to amass enough votes to win. But America doesn’t really win when people are ignored. Because all of us in one way or another contribute to the economy, contribute to the problems and the successes. So this convention is likely to be a people’s convention in many ways, because it is in the West. We’re going to a city that prides itself on the traditions of entrepreneurism and individualism and barn-raisings and all of the traditions that we know about and think about when we think about the history of the West.
To win the election without campaigning in 50 states, I think America loses. I think Americans lose and they become disenchanted. And they become disenchanted and disconnected from political leaders. And that’s a mistake.
I think the bottom-up, as well as expert-down, approach is a better approach for America—I also think it can win the election. But there’s high [sense] of alienation from politics, that it’s really kind of settled in. And even in my home state of Georgia, there’s a sense that well, a Democrat can’t win here competitively, can’t be competitive on the national level. Well, we’ve seen in our lives, we had a president from this state in our lifetime, in the 70s. The state supported Clinton in his first election and was very close in the second election. So there’s no question, just a few years ago, it was competitive. So I think it’s a mistake [to write off Georgia].
WW: What will be your responsibilities, and what was your reaction to being nominated as a permanent co-chair for this convention?
SF: I was surprised to be asked. I’m honored to serve. I’d never considered that I would play such a high profile role. Howard Dean called and told me of his plan, and I was honored to be considered.
In terms of my role, it’s more or less a supportive role. The leadership is with the Obama campaign and the leadership is with the DNC and the chairman and then the convention chair, who is the Speaker [of the House, Nancy Pelosi]. So I expect to play a supportive role. I do believe that what I’m asked to do will change from day to day. Even if I had a specific role for today, in all likelihood, it’s going to change even once the convention starts. So I have offered to play whatever role that the others don’t want to do [laughs].
WW: Looking at the people that Gov. Dean has nominated to be convention chairs—four women from widely disparate parts of the country—what does that speak to?
SF: I think it speaks to a 50-state strategy. I think it speaks to a multi-level government engagement: government leaders, women, from state leaderships—from legislative side and from the executive side—both in state and local government. We’re public servants in different capacities in government at different levels in government: at the federal level, at the state level and at the local level. I wish I could say I thought of this, I didn’t. But I do think that it was a very thoughtful strategy. It would have been a thoughtful strategy even if they were all men, but you add the dimension of every one of us being actively engaged in women’s issues and family issues and breaking through new ground throughout our careers. The best example of that of course is the Speaker, but each of us in the course of the last 15 or 20 years has pioneered in areas that were unchartered.
WW: After a divisive and historic run by Senators Clinton and Obama, what does the convention need to do to heal rifts or bridge the divide?
SF: Some of that healing and unification has started with Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama and their respective camps. There seems to be open dialogue—lots of other people have played a key role in that. The convention, however, has to advance that. We need to go into the convention unified and we need to come out of the convention organized, motivated and task-driven, goal-driven, because there is a hard campaign in the fall [and] in about 60 days or so, we will have to show what we’re made of and be sure that we get our message out in those 60 days in a way that the American public will entrust us with the presidency. The convention, it can be frayed slightly on the edges, but the core work of the convention, the platform committee, the credentials committee, the rules committee, all aspects of the convention have to have a theme of unity, a theme of motivation and a theme that is clearly focused on winning the White House. And frankly, of picking up House and Senate seats.
WW: How does the Democratic Party need to—or does it need to in your mind—work at all levels of government, not just the very top of the ticket?
SF: Those of us who are mayors will tell you that we believe that we can be effective partners with the Democratic Party—with our state parties and with the national party and Senator Obama’s campaign. We think that we have experience that we can lend to the political process, to a successful campaign. But we also think that we have our ear to the ground, we hear directly from people [about] what they want, what they want America to be. And we want to be a part of not just campaigning but also shaping the national agenda.
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This is a very crucial election for cities. Large cities and small cities. We need a new level of partnership. We need a level of partnership not just to hear us but to really help us form solutions on the economic level, on education, on healthcare. American cities will be hurting if we don’t get a new level of partnership. Obviously, we all need more financial resources, but we also need more flexibility in federal programs, and I am anxious in this campaign that Sen. Obama will actually talk about the role that cities play in the economic health of the American economy.
WW: As a big city mayor, how would you advise Mayor John Hickenlooper to handle the inevitable stresses and strains that will come with a convention of this size?
WW: As Atlanta's Chief Administration Officer, you oversaw the the public-protest area during the convention there. What balance must Denver strike between the right to protest and the right for the city to run smoothly?
SF: Well, that’s a delicate balance and the circumstances will define how you strike that balance depending on the size, the intensity of the activity. The intensity of the activity could be a traffic jam or just rush-hour traffic. We educated the public in advance of the convention and we promoted public transportation and alternative forms of transportation, and frankly we engaged a lot of the public as volunteers around convention activity, which allowed us to have a lot less tension. And I am sure the mayor is doing and the convention planning committee is using some of the same tactics. But the courts will determine where and how the protests are managed. There’s a fair amount of negotiation between the city attorney, in our case the city attorney and the city manager, with the courts as to how we can manage that. But the courts really do set out a fairly clear standard for protests. One that we all know about is a protest area can’t be five miles from the entrances of the convention. You have to integrate these activities and manage them simultaneously, which is one of the reasons I think having high-level members of the cabinet, who understand how government operates and the logistics associated with moving large numbers of people safely and smoothly, working with the convention staff is going to be the best way to go. -- Joe Horton