Riding the Storm Out 

Democrats huddle with only hope to get them through the night

Thursday, Nov 4 2004

“Damn!” shouts a 20-something guy crouched on the hotel-room carpet, veggies and dip in front of him, as he stares at the TV. “Uh, oh!” gasps a young woman next to him. “Oh, shit!” comes a wail from behind the couch, and it’s not because a bottle of Heineken has just spilled on the rug. They are watching CNN, as the man on the screen divvies up states in various “what if” scenarios. He’s handing most of them to President Bush.

“Let’s make Ohio red,” the CNN man says, as the hotel-room crowd yells “No!” at the TV. Nevada goes red too. “But Nevada is ours!” complains an angry woman leaning against a wall.

No such luck. Not tonight, anyway.

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Volunteers from the California Young Democrats and the Los Angeles County Democrats rented this room on the fourth floor of the Manhattan Beach Marriott so they could have a party away from the official party in the ballroom, where the honchos are making their speeches. But John Kerry is behind, and no one really seems to feel much like partying right now.

“You guys, can we all just pray for Ohio?” suggests a woman staring at the tube.

Downstairs, two big screens blare CNN, and at first they draw little attention. Until Ralph Nader comes on live. Then the crowd erupts in a lusty round of boos. Outside, at the lobby bar, where hotel guests mingle with name-tagged young Democrats, the sets are tuned to Fox News.

What are all these Democrats doing in the South Bay, anyway? Aren’t they supposed to be at the Biltmore, with a half-century’s worth of history and heritage as L.A.’s party spot for Democratic Party campaigners? But the hotel-workers union is involved in a contract battle with the Biltmore and most other downtown hotels.

“What Democrats do, is they respect picket lines,” offers Miguel Contreras of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “And we’re out here because this is a good union hotel, and not embroiled in a controversy with the hotel-workers union.”

He explains that he and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez cooked up the South Bay idea just a week ago, over dinner, to give Democrats a place to celebrate. And so hundreds of Democrats streamed over to Manhattan Beach, the land of the endless mall, where the ocean breeze meets the office park.

Barbara Boxer was celebrating up in the Bay Area, but the Manhattan Beach Marriott drew a slew of party luminaries who took the presidential situation philosophically while exulting that the Assembly Democrats had held their own against a series of challenges put up by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I think it looks very good, because the Democrats are going to maintain a solid majority,” says Karen Bass, whose election to the Assembly was assured with her March primary victory. “I’m very excited about going up and being a part of the team.”

Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn acknowledges a grim outlook for Measure A, a sales-tax initiative that would have paid for hundreds of new police officers he has been trying to add. But the city will just have to come up with another way, he says. What about the numbers coming in from battleground states?

“It’s hard for California to figure out what’s going on in the rest of the country,” Hahn says. “In California we’re strongly for Kerry and want it to change. I don’t understand what’s going on in the middle of the country.”

The mayor, by the way, has his entire media staff at the event, and a few other aides besides. It’s a reminder that presidential election or no, he’s got his own re-election coming up in four months.

There are plenty of staffers here, too, for mayoral challenger Antonio Villaraigosa, although the candidate himself chose to be with the Kerry campaign in Massachusetts. He could be seen in L.A. on Spanish-language TV, Boston scenes in the background, telling audiences here that voters were ready for change in the White House.

State Senator Richard Alarcon, also a mayoral candidate, works the room as well, and reminds despondent Democrats staring at the numbers on the giant TV screen that he once won an election by 29 votes. From the podium, Congresswoman Jane Harman has a similar message.

“We’re going to do it!” Harman shouts. “Ten years ago, I was down 92 votes at 5 a.m. Two weeks later I won, and I’ve been winning ever since!” That seems to give the Dems a bit of cheer. Until they go out to the lobby bar, where the TVs tuned to Fox News have given Ohio to Bush and give the president 269 electoral votes. Just one more needed. The ballroom slowly empties, and people drift over toward the bar and the Fox numbers.

Then, from the ballroom — a shriek. And a cheer! And dozens, now hundreds, of people run back in. There is applause, cheering, chants of “Sí, se puede!” What happened? Has Florida turned again? Is it all over? Did Kerry pull it out?

Not quite. But he has taken Minnesota. And maybe Michigan. That’s something, anyway. In here, on CNN, Bush’s lead is a modest 249-242 — way better for Kerry than the 269 Bush has on Fox, out at the bar.

Past midnight, weary Democrats continued to shuttle back and forth between the CNN screens in the ballroom and the Fox screens at the bar, but in either case, there was little to hear, except reminders that it takes 11 days before provisional ballots will be counted, and little to see, except various maps of the state of Ohio.

Once again, Democrats would have to rest on hope — as blind and irrational as it might look to the rest of the world.

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