The Democratic National Convention this year is unlike any other in its virtual format amid the coronavirus pandemic. The one constant: Colorado’s Polly Baca.
The 79-year-old delegate from Greeley is participating in her 15th national party convention. Her first came in 1964 when — at age 23 — she attended as a youth supporter for President Lyndon Johnson.
Baca’s seen plenty of Democratic politics. She participated in the March on Washington in 1963, worked on Kennedy brothers’ campaigns, turned out the vote with activist Cesar Chavez and became the first Latina to serve as co-chair of the Democratic National Convention. She also served in the Colorado Senate. In 2016, Baca made headlines as a “faithless elector,” after she and other electoral college delegates planned to cast their ballots in a way that intended to force the U.S. House of Representatives to decide the presidential election, perhaps denying Donald Trump the presidency.
From her home in Denver, where she is participating in a full day of online meetings and virtual events with other convention delegates, she spoke with The Colorado Sun about the past and present of the Democratic Party and her thoughts on the ticket for the White House.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This convention is quite a bit different from others, what’s your impression so far?
Well, it’s amazing. And I’ve attended every single National Democratic party convention since 1964. It is remarkable the difference and the changes. Part of it has to do with the type of people that attend. Back in the day — back in the 60s — there were very few women delegates and hardly no minorities, so that’s changed a lot, which is good. …
I do believe that this is a turning point in conventions that we will, in the future, talk about pre-COVID and post-COVID conventions — because a lot of interesting things are being tried that I think are possibilities for the future to involve more people.
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Does the virtual convention carry the same level of energy?
There is a lot of energy. It’s different because we can’t hug each other, and we’re not seeing face to face, but gosh, the chat rooms. When I was at the Hispanic Caucus, I couldn’t keep up with that. Everybody wanted their say on whatever was going on.
So it’s when you’ve got chat rooms, you can really see the energy because people are responding to the speakers and they’re responding to each other and there are hundreds of people involved, which is really rather interesting. More people are involved, I think, than would be involved if we were at a convention, primarily because folks that aren’t delegates can participate.
What are the most notable memories from your first convention in 1964?
I’ll never forget it. I was sitting in the balcony as a Young Citizen for Johnson with my credentials, and Bobby Kennedy got up to speak. The president (John Kennedy) had just been assassinated the prior November, it was still really fresh. But then Bobby got up there, the applause went for at least 20 minutes. It was just amazing. … We were all crying and sobbing as he spoke of his brother’s death and quoted a Robert Frost poem, I remember that. And that was the most emotional time in ‘64. …
1964 was the beginning of the modernization of the Democratic Party. It was the beginning of this process that literally divorced us from the Southern bigots, the Southern part of our party.
What do you most remember about the 1968 Chicago convention?
I have a lot of memories, but the most memorable was the night that I missed the bus to the convention.
I ended up in this march to the convention headquarters. … We were all having a great time, marching and singing songs, and watching these young anti-Vietnam folks climb the lampposts.
And I was having a great old time when I decided, “Well, I wonder what’s going on on the convention floor.” So I went into the hotel, went up the elevator to the second floor, and when I got off the elevator, everybody was rushing toward the windows. So I ran toward the windows, too, and I looked down on the street.
And there I saw policemen in military fashion start marching toward the crowd, and as they got closer to the crowd, they picked up speed and took out their batons and started swinging them into them, ran into that crowd swinging their batons. And I thought, “Oh my God, I was just there.” And I saw this policeman grab this woman by her hair and drag her across the street, and I burst down crying. I was just so upset.
And then I went downstairs and locked arms with some of the other delegates in front of the headquarters, saying, “We Shall Overcome” and we wouldn’t let the policemen in there. It was an incredible, incredible night. And then awful, just awful.
The 1968 convention and protests are invoked in talking about the current civil unrest. What do you think of that comparison?
It was much worse — in ‘68 I got tear gassed several times. Anything that was going on in ‘68, I was probably there.
This year it’s totally different. The marches that I’ve seen here, I’m in awe. They are multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, men and women and everybody to reflect our population. And it gives me great hope for the future of our country. I’m in awe of the young people and their determination to make a difference.
What do you think of the Biden-Harris ticket for the White House?
At the very beginning, about a year ago, when the campaigns were first starting, my dream ticket was Biden for president and Kamala as vice president. That was my dream ticket.
But because Biden didn’t do that well in the first debate, I started looking around. And for a while there, Kamala was my top choice. And then something turned me off and I went to Elizabeth Warren. So I was all over the map. And then, after South Carolina, I came back to Biden.
As a former national Democratic leader, what do you make of the current tension between its progressive and moderate party factions?
I’ve been a progressive all my life. Problem is that platforms don’t make the difference. The difference is whether or not we elect a Democratic president and a Democratic U.S. Senate and a Democratic U.S. House. It’s fun to get involved in the platform — I’ve done that all over the years — but that’s not where we can change what exists.
And I think with Bernie Sanders’ help, quite honestly, when we elect Joe Biden president and Kamala Harris, as vice president, we will be able to have more progressive legislation than ever in the history of our country. …
You know, it’s funny that our elected officials do listen to us, but we’ve got to do the work. You know, it’s bottom up, it’s not top down. And that’s why now, Biden might not have the most progressive history, but it doesn’t mean that he won’t be the most progressive president ever. And I think he will be.