Western Slope delegates looking forward to conventions

Barbara Ann Smith plans to attend the Republican National Convention, which begins this week in Tampa, Fla. The first vote Smith cast in a presidential election was for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Her hands-on involvement in politics started after establishing her teaching career.

Jayne Bilberry, left, of Montrose and Mary Beth Pyle of Grand Junction plan to attend the Democratic National Convention set for Sept. 3–6. The two women also attended the 2008 convention in Denver.

On TV, it often looks like confetti mayhem: People resplendent in red, white and blue, wearing Styrofoam boater hats, clustered around signs declaring their home state, cheering and hooting through impassioned, fist-pounding speeches.

However, the seeming chaos of the national party conventions in a presidential election year is really the channeled energy of thousands of party faithful, charging their batteries for the battle ahead.

“You really do come back energized to support our nominee,” said Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “You come back really committed to understanding the stakes and better versed in understanding our candidate.”

At the Republican National Convention, being held Monday through Thursday in Tampa, Fla., and the Democratic National Convention, set for Sept. 3–6 in Charlotte, N.C., candidates from each state and several territories, will nominate the party’s candidate to run in the presidential election.

Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican nominee and President Barack Obama the Democratic nominee, though the certainty doesn’t lessen the importance of the national conventions and the delegates’ roles, Call said.

That’s why the process of becoming a delegate can be so hard-fought. Most delegates work their way through a process of being nominated at primary caucuses, county assemblies and congressional district conventions, finally earning their nominations at the state party conventions. Those who get elected generally are those who campaign for the spot and demonstrate a passion for the work of politics.

“Enthusiasm is, I think, the number one thing that makes a good delegate,” said Rick Palacio, Colorado Democratic Party chairman. “(The convention) is a good opportunity to bring people from the grassroots level together to share stories and ideas about the work that’s required to win elections.”

The Colorado Democratic Party will send 86 delegates and super-delegates, as well as six alternates, to the national convention, and the Colorado Republican Party sent 36 delegates and 33 alternates. Among those numbers are several longtime political activists from this area.

‘I’ve never been shy about saying I’m a Democrat’

They met four years ago at the Democratic National Convention in Denver and clicked almost immediately. Both were involved and enthusiastic and passionate enough about politics that they were willing to canvass neighborhoods, knock on doors and make calls.

That 2008 convention was so thrilling, so exciting, that friends Mary Beth Pyle and Jayne Bilberry decided they couldn’t miss this year’s convention in Charlotte, N.C. But first, they had to get nominated, and that’s where their political savvy came in.

Pyle, a former chair of the Mesa County Democratic Party, grew up in a politically active home. Her mother worked on the election board in Logan County and her father ran for county commissioner.

After moving to Longmont as an adult, she decided to get involved and saw a notice in the newspaper for her caucus. The day before, she drove by the address “and it was just a house,” she recalled. “I thought there was no way everybody could fit. And then the next day, five people showed up.”

Welcome to politics.

She volunteered to serve as a precinct committeewoman, and her first campaign was Tim Wirth’s successful 1974 run for the U.S. House of Representatives. Pyle herself later ran for a seat on the Moffatt County Commission and while she didn’t win, “I enjoyed the campaigning and learned a lot about how politics work,” she said.

Bilberry’s entry into politics happened after she and her family moved to Montrose and she began looking for a “place to vent my energy for the issues and opinions,” she explained.

She joined the Jane Jefferson Democratic Club and jumped whole-heartedly into Sen. John Kerry’s unsuccessful 2004 run for the U.S. presidency. She admitted that campaigning for Democratic candidates in the traditionally conservative Western Slope can be intimidating, but said her commitment to the party’s ideals — and how they align with her personal beliefs — propels her.

“My job is to give equal voice for the Democratic Party,” Bilberry said.

“I’ve never been shy about saying I’m a Democrat,” Pyle added.

Both women said they’re most interested in working on local and state elections — “most things happen at the local, grassroots level,” Pyle said — but were very involved in the 2008 presidential election. Since the national convention that year was in Denver, it seemed especially important that they attend. Both earned nominations at the state convention, though Bilberry was pledged to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Pyle to Barack Obama.

“I never wanted to leave the (convention) floor,” Bilberry recalled of the experience. “The energy was just incredible.”

The two women had such a good time that they decided they needed to attend Obama’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. And then, four years later, they agreed they wanted to attend the national convention again.

Separately, they were nominated at their precinct caucuses, county assemblies and congressional district conventions (both were running as delegates from the 3rd Congressional District, though they had the option to run as at-large candidates).

Then, at the state convention in Pueblo, they campaigned for votes to become Colorado delegates at the national convention. Bilberry handed out candy bars with her name on them and Pyle campaigned with packages of cookies and crackers. Both handed out fliers about themselves, highlighting their beliefs and experience, and both received enough votes from the 1,411 delegates to the Democratic state assembly to be among Colorado’s 86 delegates and super-delegates in Charlotte.

“We’re so excited,” Pyle said, and Bilberry added that the convention will infuse them with the energy to continue with the hard, sometimes mundane and necessary work of campaigning.

“We’re going to let people know that we’re enthusiastic about our candidates, that we need to get out and vote, that we need to re-elect President Obama,” Pyle said. “I think, as a country, we’ve turned the corner from going off the precipice, and we need to keep that momentum going.”

‘I have that fire in my belly to help people’

Her uncle wasn’t even a Republican, he was just helping out a friend. But seeing her uncle help his friend campaign for sheriff in Buffalo, N.Y., made an indelible impression on Barbara Ann Smith.

Smith, a Grand Junction Republican, began learning how campaigns and politics work, especially at the ground level, and most importantly, learned that political beliefs should be decided rather than inherited. So, though her father was a labor union man and a staunch Democrat, she decided in college that her beliefs aligned more closely with the Republican party.

And she also decided that political change comes from individuals such as herself, so she got involved. Her decision was not without precedent: She was mayor of her class in elementary school and a class vice president in high school. The politics began young.

The first vote she cast in a presidential election was for Barry Goldwater in 1964, but her hands-on involvement came later, after she put herself through Buffalo University and the Buffalo State Teachers College, earned a master’s and doctorate degrees and built a career in special education teaching and administration.

Once her career became established, however, she became more involved. She attended caucuses and worked on campaigns, and served as president of the Manassas (Va.) Republican Women’s Club.

In 1988, she was a guest of the Virginia delegation at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, at which George H.W. Bush was nominated as the Republican candidate for U.S. president. The experience, she said, was electrifying and indelible.

Two years later and a full-time Colorado resident, she ran in the preliminaries to get on the ballot for the 3rd Congressional District U.S. House seat. Her bid was unsuccessful, but “you learn a lot about yourself in that process,” she said, “and you learn a lot about how politics work. It’s a zoo out there.”

Though busy as a member of the District 51 school board budget committee and a Precinct 36 committeewoman, as well as a longtime member of the Mesa County Republican Party, Smith decided that to try becoming a delegate to the Republican National Convention this week in Tampa.

“This election is so important,” she explained. “Our conservative values are just eroding under this president and we’ve got to get back on track.”

She was nominated as a delegate at her precinct caucus, county assembly and congressional district convention. Before the state convention in Denver, she sent out 100 fliers to Mesa County delegates to the convention, as well as made 200 calls to 3rd Congressional District delegates in Pueblo, Durango and Grand Junction.

At the state convention, Smith was nominated to be among the 36 delegates and 33 alternate delegates to attend the Republican National Convention.

“I have that fire in my belly to help people,” said Smith, who attend the convention as an alternate delegate. “So (attending the national convention) will help all of us, I think, get the energy to come back home and work and win this election.”


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