Off the top of her head, Pat Lehman can’t remember exactly how many Democratic National Conventions she’s been to.
“I’m not sure, seven, probably eight, maybe,” she says with a laugh.
But Lehman, the dean of Kansas Democratic delegates, is dead serious about what she wants her party to accomplish at its gathering in Charlotte, N.C., starting Tuesday.
The Democrats’ mission is two-fold: to counter the criticism heaped on their party and President Obama at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., last week and to remind the nation of what their party stands for and how it differs from the vision offered by GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
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“It is an opportunity to really contrast two very different candidates who have very different views of the world,” Lehman said.
The biggest difference from Lehman’s point of view is that Obama, the son of a single working mother, has “empathy for America’s working families.” She said Romney, son of an auto company executive, and his wife, Ann, don’t.
She scoffed at a story once told by Ann Romney that the couple were so poor when they were in college that they had to sell stock holdings to pay their rent and board.
“That’s not exactly how the average person views the world,” Lehman said. “They (the Romneys) don’t relate to real families in this country.”
Lehman is one of 53 Kansas delegates to the convention, a group mostly made up of party activists but with a few politically prominent names.
The chairwoman of the state delegation is Joan Wagnon, a former state legislator, Topeka mayor and secretary of the state Revenue Department.
Charlotte is her first convention, as it is for another well-known Kansas Democrat, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.
Brewer said his main mission in going to the convention is to “listen and learn what the overall vision is” and how it relates to city government.
He said he had watched some of the Republican convention speeches and while some made good points, “some, you had to say, ‘what, are you kidding?’ ”
Brewer said he’s especially concerned about Republican plans for deep spending cuts, which he said will add further pain for people who are already struggling. He said what he wanted to hear from the Republicans and hopes to hear from the Democrats is “What do you do at the local level about people who are suffering?”
“Cutting spending and driving it down to the city level, I don’t think that’s the answer,” Brewer said. “We can’t do it by ourselves.”
Wagnon said she’s focused on regaining ground for Democrats in state politics and hopes she can make connections with the national party that can help.
She said she has an 8x10 picture of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback on the wall of her office to keep her on track.
At the convention, “I’m interested in trying to figure out how I can make some connections with the DNC (Democratic National Committee) for two years from now, when we’re going to have what I think is going to be a huge election.”
In terms of immediate concern, Wagnon said she hopes Kansans tune in to the convention for a reminder of what the party stands for. She said Democrats have fielded strong candidates in state Legislature and congressional races and “I don’t want them to be dismissed because people don’t know who Democrats are.”
Both Wagnon and Lehman said education is an issue where they think Democrats have the advantage over Republicans.
“I believe at this time in Kansas, education is not valued (by Republican state officials) and schools are getting short shrift in a lot of ways.”
Lehman said Republicans, especially vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, are on track to “dismantle Medicare and Medicaid and every other social program, including education.”
She said education is the only route most Americans can use to improve their lives and “the thought of having our public education system basically devastated, I’m really worried about that.”
Lehman said her biggest concern about the election itself is voter-identification laws that Republicans have pushed through in a number of states, including Kansas.
She said the purpose is to suppress the vote, especially among Democratic-leaning constituencies such as elderly voters. And she scorned the Republicans’ contention that the laws are designed to combat voter fraud.
“It’s like Hitler said, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big lie, and if you tell it often enough and say it in a loud enough voice, some people are going to believe you,” Lehman said.