CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bob Welsh has been a "card-carrying liberal" his entire life. But it's only recently that the 74-year-old school bus driver has become involved in politics. The Wauzeka resident first got involved two years ago, working to reelect his congressman, Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse). Then he got swept up in the Wisconsin protests last year.
"It was four trips to Madison, going around the Square in the winter time," Welsh says. "I just got caught up in it.... For two solid years, that's all I was doing."<>Welsh's efforts did not go unnoticed. His Democratic peers elected him a delegate to this year's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. There was just one problem: He couldn't afford it.
Most of the delegates that come to the Republican and Democratic conventions are not political big-wigs. They're every day folks -- attorneys, retired school teachers and bus drivers -- who have to pay their own way.
That means a few hundred dollars on plane fare, along with lodging and food, which are generally inflated for bashes like this. The Wisconsin delegation is staying at the Embassy Suites Hotel near the airport -- not the toniest hotel in the city, but still expensive. Rooms cost $189 a night, says one delegate. Many delegates are doubling, tripling and quadrupling up to save money.
"As soon as I found out I was elected, I checked into the price of everything," Welsh says. "And I called our county chair and said, 'I'm afraid I don't know if I can do this or not. I'm a school bus driver. I don't make that much money.' He said, 'Don't worry about it Bob. We'll get you there.' And they did."
"They put out donation jars at the county fair, members of our Democratic party were handing me $20 bills, $50 bills," Welsh adds. 'One friend of mine wrote out a check for $250 and said, 'Bob, just go down there and represent us.'"
Even some of Wisconsin's big political names have a hard time affording it. State Sen. Mark Miller (D-Madison), who became the Senate majority leader after this summer's recall elections, has never been to a Democratic convention before this year. "They're expensive," he says. "You pay your own way. That's the primary reason" he hasn't gone.
But this year, Miller says, he used campaign contributions to help defray the costs. "I'm the newly minted Democratic leader of the state Senate," he says. "I think it was important for me to be here."
The Democratic delegates say they are invigorated by the experience. "This has been a very exciting learning experience for me,' Miller says. "The main thing I've learned is that I'm very optimistic at the president's chances for reelection. He's done a lot for the country in spite of the Republicans trying to make him fail instead of trying to help the country succeed. We need to get the story out."
For Susan Van Sicklen, a retired school teacher in Iowa County, going to the convention is a dream come true. Van Sicklen has long been involved in politics -- she's the co-chair of the Iowa County Democrats -- but this is her first national convention.
"Believe it or not, this was on my bucket list," Van Sicklen says. "I've always been active in politics.... I just felt it would be really exciting to represent the state of Wisconsin and be at a national convention.... It's something I just really wanted to do."
She's clearly thrilled being here. "I can't even photograph it because I'm so in awe and my jaw is wide open," she says. "There's so much to take in."
Van Sicklen is hoping she can take some of that energy back to Iowa County for the final months of the campaign.
"When I get home, I'll be able to bring back the energy I'm getting from the convention and all of what we're learning here is going to help us in the next 60 days," she says. "We have to get excited again. We've been beaten up pretty badly. So this is rejuvenation."
Listen to Wisconsin's lesser-known Democratic delegates talk about why it's important for them to be at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Joe Tarr is in Charlotte with reporters from WORT 89.9 FM covering the Democratic National Convention, following their reporting on the Republican National Convention in Tampa.