Three years ago this summer, when the Republican National Convention came to town to nominate Bob Dole and try to breathe life into the GOP's blue-lipped effort to reclaim the White House, San Diegans witnessed wishful thinking from one end of the political spectrum. This fall, they'll see it from the other end.
For four days in mid-November, the banquet halls and breakout rooms of the Handlery Hotel & Resort in Mission Valley will reverberate with denunciations of everything from private profit to global trade when the Democratic Socialists of America, the country's largest organization for unreconstructed, unapologetic Marxists, gathers here for its biennial national conference.
Socialists? In San Diego? The military town Dick Nixon called his lucky city? What are they thinking?
"Basically, it was our turn," says Herbert Shore, an SDSU physics professor and democratic socialist member helping to organize the event along with fellow members Jeanne Ertle and Virginia Franco.
"The convention is held every other year, once on the East Coast, once in the Midwest, and once on the West Coast. That's the cycle. It was the West Coast's turn. The various local chapters out here were asked if they could do it, and we thought about it for a month and we said, 'Yes.' Even though San Diego doesn't have a large progressive movement, the DSA chapter is a factor in the progressive movement here. We're bigger fish in a little pond."
Shore, Ertle, and Franco, members of a local chapter with about 120 members, insist the confab won't be anything like the carefully orchestrated, media-driven Republican event of three summers ago. For starters, the general public is invited to attend the event, where spontaneity and silly protest promise to be as prevalent as brown suits and bad comb-overs at the GOP gathering.
"No, no we don't have carefully scripted conventions," says Franco, a third-grade teacher in East San Diego and a member of the group's national political committee. "There will be a lot of debate. When chapters feel like they're underserved, or money is tight, those issues come up on the floor. It's no-holds barred."
For anyone who remembers the GOP gathering, the socialist get-together promises to be a study in contrasts. In 1996, when the Republicans rolled into the convention center, it was magnetometers, Palm Beach crash-helmet hairdos, and National Review. In 1999, when the reds roll into town, it will be bone bracelets, dreadlocks, and Dissent.
And what will the help at the Handlery (chosen, Ertle says, because it's a union hotel) make of all the "Free Mumia" T-shirts?
Founded in 1983, in the middle of the Reagan administration and just six years before Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall, the party is the American affiliate of the Socialist International, a worldwide association of left-wing organizations that includes some ruling parties, like Britain's Labour Party, as well as some former ruling parties, like Nicaragua's Sandinista National Liberation Front.
But unlike many of its counterparts, DSA remains firmly on the fringe. It claims fewer than 10,000 members nationwide and doesn't even run candidates in elections, although some pols, including former Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif) and Rep. Major Owens (D-NY), are members of the organization.
Instead, the group tries to implement its socialist vision by lobbying the Democratic Party and by working with community groups and labor unions. The organization's goal, according to its manifesto Where We Stand, is "to achieve equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and nonoppressive relationships."
About 200 delegates from around the country are expected to attend the San Diego conference, where they'll elect a new 24-member national political committee and set the party's agenda for the next two years. Cornel West, the Harvard professor, and Barbara Ehrenreich, the author and former Time magazine contributor, are among the leftist luminaries expected to address the faithful during the weekend. Gloria Steinem, an honorary chair of DSA, is not expected to attend.
The central topics of this year's conference, Shore says, will be the evils of economic globalization, as well as the perils of social security privatization.
"The convention will produce resolutions around questions like that," says Shore, "and individual chapters can take them under guidance and if they like them, they'll pay some attention to them. But if there's a particular chapter that happens to have a rather radical bent or a more mainstream bent, they can do what they want."
Next to the Republican convention, a mammoth event that attracted 1990 delegates, 6000 delegate alternates and guests, as well as 12,000 members of the media, and required 2000 cops and 10,000 volunteers, the democratic socialists' get-together will be easy to overlook -- or ignore.
But life as an American socialist has always been lonely. Ten years after the fall of communism, it can be downright depressing, too, says Franco. The biennial convention recharges the party's activists, who can sometimes feel irrelevant in a world where even the Chinese communists are crazy about stocks and bonds.
"I think even [author and DSA founder] Michael Harrington was demoralized by the whole thing," says Franco, whose personal low point may have come a few years ago, when her daughter begged her to read Rush Limbaugh's book.
"We're not a big organization and never have gotten to the levels Harrington thought we would.... It's been be a difficult haul."
The San Diego meeting won't all be pep talks, politicking, and plenary sessions. A big dinner is scheduled on Saturday night, a kind of Socialist gala open to party members and the public. Tickets to the event, which will take place in one of the Handlery's banquet halls, will be about $30 a head. (Tickets to a similar event hosted by the Republicans at the Embarcadero Marina Park South cost $1000 three years ago -- and about 6000 people ponied up to get in.)
There will also be a youth-outreach rock concert (all they can say at this time is that Jewel is not the performer) and a screening at a local theater of a new film called Michael Harrington and Today's Other America: Corporate Power and Inequality. Harrington, the author of the 1962 classic The Other America, the "Silent Spring" of the anti-poverty movement, created the DSA in the early 1980s, when he merged his Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a left-wing group with strong ties to the Democratic Party, with the New American Movement, an offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society. Harrington died in 1989.