The role and scope of women participating in the Democratic National Convention changed considerably from the time state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-17) first attended in 1980.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) capped that change as the dean of the Senate women formally nominated Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee, the first woman to lead a major party presidential ticket.
“Every convention is different and every convention is exciting and truly a privilege to experience and be a part of history,” said Kagan last week during a phone call from Philadelphia.
Kagan, who said she attended her ninth DNC last week, also saw how disunity affected the party up close when she volunteered for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) campaign during his unsuccessful run for president against incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980.
“I had started off at headquarters photocopying checks,” she said.
It wasn’t the first time she supported a candidate who lost, backing Clinton’s first run for the presidency in 2008.
During that campaign, Kagan knocked on doors during the winter cold in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and eventually traveled to Denver as delegate for Clinton.
However, by the time then-Sen. Barack Obama offered his acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium, she backed the man who would eventually become the country’s first African American president.
“We live in a democracy. After the election results come in, there are winners and losers. And at some point, we have to unify in order to achieve our policy goals.”
According to Leggett, people who protested in favor of former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.), who called for all delegates to back Clinton last week from the floor of the convention, are a small but vocal minority within the party.
“I think the Sanders people are coming around. I think you have a core, which is a very small minority that will never come around,” said Leggett. “What you see is a very intense core of people, who are very small by numbers, who are continuing their fight. And that’s their right and we just deal with it.”
Kagan took her policy advocacy to the San Francisco convention in 1984 as a staffer for the abortion rights advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America.
She also supported the Rep. Geraldine Ferraro’s (D-N.Y.) vice presidential nomination, making her the first woman nominated by a major party for that position.
Past turned out to be prologue for Kagan as she compared 1984 to 2016.
“And once again, we are facing threats to our health choices,” she said. “And that’s not the only issue to be clear.”
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, attending his fifth DNC, said civil rights have been a big part of Democratic politics since the 1960s, particularly regarding racial equity.
“The only difference now is some of these issues are not concluded or resolved and we’ve had to go back to revisit them more intensely than we anticipated,” said Leggett. “It’s not a new issue, it just resurfaced.”
He specifically mentioned recently passed voting laws in states like North Carolina.
Last week, the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a state law banning same-day voter registration and extended early voting.
“(It’s) just a blatant attempt to reduce minority votes and those who would normally vote Democratic,” said Leggett.
Kagan said other issues Democrats should focus on included campaign finance reform, civil rights and protecting marriage equality for LGBTQ people.
She said if any issue should unify the Democratic Party this year, it is the Supreme Court.
“The impact of the Supreme Court on the election cannot be overstated,” she said.
Meanwhile, she said the Democratic Party “has evolved as our society has evolved,” said Kagan, noting there is “a much more visible presence of the gay and lesbian community” at the convention.
On Thursday, Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Sarah McBride became the first transgender person to address a major party’s national convention.
“As more people have come out, there’s a greater focus on civil rights for the gay and lesbian community,” said Kagan. “So we’re seeing more speakers. The speakers are talking more about these issues.”
On the first night of the convention, Kagan watched some of the biggest names among women in the Democratic Party address the audience, including First Lady Michelle Obama, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Featured speakers also included women such as Anastasia Somoza, who advocated for people with disabilities, and military widow Cheryl Lankford, who said she lost tens of thousands of dollars to Trump University.
“A lot of people who were the most effective presenters on the stage last night were women,” said Kagan, later adding, “I think it inspires women to get involved in politics.”
That’s because those speakers offer women “someone who looks like them and speak like them and has life experiences like theirs.”
Kagan said the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D) inspired her the most and she talked to Richards’ daughter Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, at the convention.
“She was plain spoken, direct, opinionated, passionate, insightful, affective and funny,” said Kagan about the former Texas governor. “And using humor to make a point while never deviating from her fundamental values was powerful.”