The flash commanded immediate attention, filling the bay window for a dazzling instant. And then came the signature.


If you were in Longmont on Friday evening, you know exactly what I’m talking about – a window-rattling, house-shaking thunder burst fit for a Beethoven video. The sort of close strike that makes you wonder what just blew up, or when the invasion began.

I gave a nervous glance to my front yard maple tree – untouched, thank goodness – and to social media, which was lighting up even faster than the sky had. But the skies themselves had other business; with their Big Boom out of the way, the agenda had moved on to a gentle rain rather than an extended battle.

Which in turn meant peace in Chez Rochat. Our mighty dog Big Blake, known to cower under desks on the Fourth of July, was on to his usual food-swiping and eye-begging ways within moments. Our disabled ward Missy, who jumps and yells at the sound of a backfiring motorcycle, kept rocking out to the tunes on her stereo.

There had been plenty of buzz. Lots of chatter. But no lasting effect.

This time of year, that seems especially appropriate.

Right at the close of convention season.

I spent 16 years as a newspaper reporter, most of it covering governments of one kind or another. I used to joke that it was a lot like following a soap opera: when you first sit down, the actions seems utterly incomprehensible, but over time it becomes addictive as you start to understand the characters and the plots.

Even so, I never saw the point of a national convention. To torture the metaphor a little further, it always felt like a “sweeps week” – a chance to juice the ratings and draw in some casual fans with a gimmicky plot that had little relation to the rest of the season.

Granted, that’s a recent thing. Once upon a time, the national party conventions were the ultimate bargaining table. History could be made with a quick deal that swung enough delegates behind your candidate. A potential president might emerge to find half his cabinet already filled from backroom promises or standing on a party platform with a few curious planks to bring in the stragglers.

These days, thanks to the greater weight of primary elections, everyone knows who the major-party nominees will be long before Day 1 of either convention. The event is no longer a bargaining session – it’s a week-long ad meant to generate a “bump” in the polls. And with one convention following hard on the heels of the other, the bumps have been getting smaller and shorter-lived.

It’s a thunder burst. Flashy. Noisy. But not really good for anything except a moment’s brief attention.

The lasting work in any storm comes from the rain. The sustained effort that actually grows something.

That’s where we come in.

Elections don’t need conventions. But they do need informed voters. Individuals who pay attention for longer than a few speeches and sound bites. Citizens who care not just about who wins, but about where we’re going  and why.

Grass needs rain. Democracy needs us.

I know, it sounds idealistic. It always has. But if enough of us dedicate ourselves to repairing what’s broken and even building something better, a difference can be made. Not easily. Not without a struggle. But not without hope, either.

The rumbles have died down. The flash has left the sky. But the real work is still ahead. Our work.

It’s time for us to take our part in the storm.

Long may we rain.

“Conventional” Wisdom

OK, who else is ready for the pep rallies to be over with?

If you’re an unabashed fan of the Republican or Democratic national conventions, my apologies to the three of you. (Anything will have someone who cheers for it – I give you the Oakland Raiders as Exhibit A.) But I suspect I’m not alone on this one. Like most former reporters, I’m something of a political junkie, but when it comes to getting to the end of convention season, my inner 6-year-old starts to wake up, kick the back of the driver’s seat and ask repeatedly “Are we there yet?”

If the conventions served an actual purpose, I could probably forgive some tedium. Life isn’t french fries and ice cream, after all; not everything that’s necessary is going to be fun as well. But I’m having a hard time seeing what the reason could be, other than to demonstrate how a political party can blow through $64 million in a week.

“To choose a presidential candidate?” That ship sailed a long time ago. Thanks to the modern system of primaries and caucuses, the conventions are little more than an expensive rubber stamp for a choice that voters made long ago.

“To introduce the candidate to the nation?” Once upon a time, yes. But we’ve had folks campaigning for over 15 months. If someone has been avoiding the major players for that long, are they really going to tune into two weeks of infomercials now? (The RNC’s mediocre television ratings suggest otherwise.)

“To get a ‘bounce’ for our candidate?” Traditionally, the saturation coverage of a political convention has caused a candidate to gain in the polls as they get promoted and their opponent vilified. But as the political website FiveThirtyEight.com has noted, that effect has gotten smaller over the years and tends to be canceled out quickly now that the parties hold their events right after each other. These days, a bowling ball has more bounce than most national conventions.

“Because we’ve always done it this way?” Pretty much. Never underestimate the power of inertia, especially when it puts on its best clothes and calls itself “tradition” instead.

I’ll grant you, this is $64 million apiece that isn’t being spent on more annoying political ads – or rather, is being spent on one big multi-day commercial that’s announced in advance and easier to avoid. And asking a campaign to not spend money is like asking my dogs to not eat crayons; it’s a good idea, but it’s just not going to happen.  So unless we come up with an alternative, canceling the conventions simply means stuffing our mailboxes with more fuel for the fireplace and our phones with more requests for “Just a moment of your time.”’

It’s time for something … well, unconventional. And I have an idea.

A few years back, when Colorado seemed ready to burn itself to the ground, I suggested that both campaigns cancel their conventions and put the money they saved into disaster relief instead. That got a flood of support from readers and about as much attention as you’d expect from the campaigns. But if we revise the plan and give ourselves enough lead time, maybe we can save our sanity in 2020.

Let’s have the campaigns put their money where their mouths are.

You want to see America’s space program revive? Take the time and cash you would have normally spent on a convention and put it into a few school STEM programs instead.

Do you want more attention for Americas’s working poor? Pour your convention budget and volunteers into an area’s local utility relief efforts, or their housing assistance program.

Take that platform and make it more than just words. SHOW us what’s important to you for a week by your actions.

Will it be for the cameras? Of course. Will it be self-serving? Probably. But it’ll get something done and leave a mark in a way that no overhyped balloon drop ever could.

Pep rallies are fun for a little while. But every sports fan knows it’s all about the game.

Let’s get the players on the field and see what they can do.

Un-Conventional Thinking

What could you get for $114 million?

Granted, a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to. But it still makes for an impressive shopping list.

You could pay for every home and building  lost to wildfires in Larimer County twice over. Or every home lost in the Waldo Canyon fire once.

You could buy three new Frederick High Schools with all the fixings.

With that kind of money, you might even be able to roll out fiber-optic service across Longmont AND redevelop the Twin Peaks Mall.

Or – wait for it – you could pay for two national political conventions.


Granted, I still don’t have the price sheets for this year. But in 2008, that’s what it cost to put on the Democratic and Republican national conventions, in Denver and Minneapolis respectively. A $114 million bill for, basically, two week-long political commercials.

Anyone feel that was money well spent?

OK, OK, maybe the chambers of commerce in those two cities would. Big conventions always make a splash in hotel spending and restaurant spending and local promotion. I get that. But leaving out the ripple effects – which often get debated for any big event – what did we actually get for that money?

We got to hear them announce the nomination of Barack Obama and John McCain. Which we already knew about anyway, even if Hillary Clinton did put up a fight until almost the end.

We got to hear a lot of speeches, most of which we probably couldn’t quote right now without a quick check on Google and YouTube.

We got the official platforms for each party, which typically get less attention than a five-day weather forecast and probably have less predictive power.

Oh, and we got to see a brief “bounce” in the polls for each presidential candidate. That’s nice, I guess.

The fact is, modern politics have made the national convention a ceremony without a function,a party-wide pep rally that even the networks feel less and less responsibility to cover anymore.

That’s a little sad.

It wasn’t always this way. Nominating conventions used to be the proverbial back room, the place where delegates would shout and bargain and deal to decide the man at the top of the ticket. In 1924, it took 103 ballots for the Democrats to nominate John W. Davis (who got thumped by Calvin Coolidge). As late as 1968, it was still possible for someone to win the nomination who hadn’t carried a single presidential primary.

They could be tense. Exciting. Not necessarily representative, mind you. But full of drama.

Now they’re about as predictable as a Gilligan’s Island rerun.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. It means the caucuses and primaries can actually mean something, that your voice and your vote really can be part of the process of picking a political champion instead of just being a commodity to be traded away for who-knows-what from who-knows-where.

But it does leave the convention without a real purpose. Other than being a chance to party and see the latest in Darth Vader gear on the local police.

We can do better. And we should.

Here’s a thought. Make it a one-day rally, centered on the candidate’s acknowledgment speech. Loose the balloons, shout the slogans, give your man or woman their time in the spotlight.

And then take the dollars that would have been spent on the larger political orgy and donate them somewhere. Anywhere. Cancer research, wildfire victims, space travel. Buy Girl Scout cookies with them if you must.

Deeds speak louder than words. And seeing where a party chose to give its “convention grant” just might say more than any political platform ever written.

Think about it. Please.

One hundred and fourteen million dollars. Not bad. There’s a lot that could do.

All it needs is someone willing to break with convention.