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DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION '96 | FROM THE FLOOR

Family Values, Gorillas and the Newt

August 30, 1996|BILL BOYARSKY and AMY WALLACE

On the convention's closing day, we looked up the young mother whom Hillary Rodham Clinton had praised in her speech. "A typical Chicagoan," the first lady had called her. "Tough on the outside but with a heart of gold underneath."

We found her in the primate exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo. Binti-Jua, the 8-year-old western lowland gorilla who two weeks ago rescued a toddler who fell into her enclosure, was scratching her hairy belly and eating hay.

We'd admired Binti since we'd heard her story: Rejected by her own mother, she was raised by humans and had to be painstakingly taught to care for her baby, Koola, now 18 months old. From the gentle way she handled the injured 3-year-old boy, it seemed the parenting lessons had worked.

All week, this triumph of family values has lured Democrats to the zoo, especially on the day that Kraft Foods put on a "Political Animals" party there for delegates. We wondered if the invasion had had any effect on Binti.

"She's the same old gorilla," a zoo spokeswoman told us. But Marty Sevenich, coordinator of animal training and behavior enrichment at the zoo, said Binti's popularity may bode well for the ape's political future.

"If she was a Democrat," Sevenich asserted, "she'd be nominated for sure."

*

With everyone talking harmony here, we felt a bit guilty pursuing a story of Democratic strife. But we couldn't ignore the chatter about a feud between Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and State Controller Kathleen Connell, two highly competitive pols who may wind up battling for governor in 1998.

A misstep at a political function earlier this year sparked the talk. At one of those touchy-feely ceremonies that California politicians love, party officials were supposed to stand hand in hand--but Davis and Connell didn't make hand contact. Rumors flew, fueled by staff members who can't wait for the '98 battle to begin.

Then, this week, Time magazine listed Connell--but not Davis--among the nation's top 10 "Rising Democrats." Speculation had it that Davis was steamed.

Not so, he told us when we bumped into him in the gym at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. Later, he explained, "The people who elected me expect me to work with everyone else they elected, whether it is Gov. Wilson, the controller or secretary of state. And that's what I do."

We were still skeptical, but Connell was equally dismissive. The feud, she said "was created by the media. I don't feel tension or friction with Gray."

All this could become moot if Sen. Dianne Feinstein decides to take a second run at the governorship. With her name recognition, she'll probably squash Davis and Connell like a couple of bugs.

*

When we heard that Dick Morris, the Clinton strategist, had resigned abruptly after reports that he had shared campaign secrets--including advance copies of the vice president's and first lady's speeches--with a $200-an-hour hooker, we had a simple question:

If you were paying someone $200 an hour to perform a service, would you use up valuable time perusing the musings of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton?

We put this query to Mickey Breaux, a delegate from Port Arthur, Texas. "Pretty expensive proofreading," he said, shaking his head in wonder.

Gary D. Vaughan, a delegate from Knoxville, Tenn., reacted much the same way. "I'm asking for minimum wage, and you're talking about $200 an hour," said the research assistant at the University of Tennessee. "I guarantee you, I don't make that."

Finally, we cornered Tom Umberg, the Clinton-Gore campaign's California state director.

"The weather is beautiful. I love Chicago and everyone has been very hospitable," he said. "That's all I have to say."

*

Even though most conventioneers seemed preoccupied with the canonization of Clinton, pollsters agree that the Democratic sainthood award should really go to Newt Gingrich.

One of them, Peter Hart, told us that the single most important factor behind the president's current lead in the polls is that people just can't stand the Republican House speaker from Georgia. Gingrich's negative rating, 51%, is highest of any major politician. And 45% of those Hart surveyed consider him "the most annoying political figure" on the scene.

*

We stood on the convention floor late Thursday as the event was wrapping up. We were flooded by fond memories of what we had witnessed during our time on the political front lines: the Ohio woman wearing a huge buckeye on her head, the mock wedding at which a protester married a donkey, the movie stars pretending to be policy wonks.

It's in vogue here to whine about how boring this stuff is. But we've had a great time. We may never feel comfortable using "I" again.

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