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Unions, Causes, 'Real People' Bask in Convention's Limelight

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NEW YORK--One afternoon during the Democratic convention here last month, the convention floor was nearly empty. But the broadcast facilities that had been carved from the upper reaches of Madison Square Garden buzzed with activity.

Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey was being interviewed, while Mayor David N. Dinkins of New York City was holding forth in the adjacent berth.

Facing the next set of cameras was Sheryl Williams, a teacher from Albuquerque, N.M., who was being interviewed by an unseen correspondent at KOT-TV in her hometown.

Ms. Williams was one of almost 500 delegates who are members of the two major teachers' unions, which bought satellite time to get their members' faces onto television screens back home.

Next up was Tom Mooney, a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers who hails from Cincinnati.

"Clinton has got the best education platform we've ever seen,'' he told an interviewer at WEWS-TV in Cleveland.

The teachers weren't all entirely comfortable with the situation, though. Asked to look more directly at the camera, Audrey Snead, an A.F.T. member from South Carolina, replied: "I'm not that kind of person. I'm a real person.''

The Children's Defense Fund took advantage of its ties to Hillary Clinton by holding a "prayer meeting'' at which Ms. Clinton was the star attraction.

The wife of the Democratic nominee once worked for the organization. She was chairman of its board of directors until resigning that post early this year, and remains a member of the board.

The C.D.F. maintained a presence in other ways as well. Many delegates sported the group's buttons, which proclaimed, "Leave No Child Behind.'' The organization also placed public-service advertisements around the city urging aid for disadvantaged children.

Even the packages of information and souvenirs given to convention attendees included a C.D.F. insert. A letter from the group's president, Marian Wright Edelman, filled one side; on the other was a child's drawing over the logo, "Don't Forget Me!''

The C.D.F. was not alone in trying to turn the convention spotlight on pleas to reorder federal spending priorities.

Keith B. Geiger, the president of the National Education Association, chaired a news conference touting the Campaign for New Priorities. The campaign's literature describes it as "a nonpartisan citizen-education effort established to mobilize the American people and to persuade elected representatives to reinvest in America.''

The lengthy list of organizations supporting the effort includes most major education associations.

Speakers at the forum included several members of the Congress; Gerald W. McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; and William Colby, a former chief of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, who lent his weight to the argument that the collapse of the Soviet Union should allow the United States to cut defense spending.

"People can't figure out how a former spy and a former teacher can be working together,'' Mr. Geiger said.

A thaw in relations between the two teachers' unions was evident when they co-sponsored a reception featuring Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee.

The possibility that the unions might consider a merger was a major topic of discussion.

In his speech, Senator Kennedy spoke of his family's long commitment to education, and specifically to public schools.

"One reason Robert Kennedy was running for President was fear of the abandonment of public education,'' he said.

Senator Kennedy noted that both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy served on education-related committees when they were in the Congress.

"Every Kennedy for 46 years has been there in the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States, and we're going to stay there,'' Mr. Kennedy said.

The political conventions do not offer many opportunities for involvement for those not old enough to vote. There is no minimum-age requirement, though, for practicing the freedom of the press.

Thus, the conventions have become popular training grounds for junior journalists. A Boston radio station sent six young reporters to New York, for example, while New York Newsday provided press credentials to three high-school journalists.

The New York Daily News, which is fighting bankruptcy, published two special sections during the week featuring the work of Children's Express, a news service run by young people.

Children's Express made a name for itself at the 1976 Democratic convention, when it scooped adult journalists with the news of the selection of Walter F. Mondale as Jimmy Carter's running mate. The service has covered every convention since.

The service's 100 or so T-shirt-clad reporters and editors did not produce any major scoops this time, but their reports covered such serious topics as the political hopes of female Congressional candidates, unequal funding for schools, the homeless, and AIDS.

"We had no hesitancy, despite the troubles the Daily News has had, to support Children's Express,'' said Matthew Storin, the paper's executive editor. "Any program that develops or encourages young journalists ought to be supported by anyone in the press.''

But many of the 13,000 grown-up members of the media at the convention might not have been so charitable.

The Children's Express troops brought new meaning to the term "pack journalism,'' flooding every press conference or event and shouting their questions nonstop, often to the annoyance of their subjects and their adult colleagues.

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, for example, was spotted trying to elude a group of the youngsters at a reception. He was trapped as he tried to exit, though, and was forced to take their questions.

Adult reporters "treat us so horribly,'' said Kym Wilson, a Children's Express editor. "They don't believe we are real press, and they push us around because we are smaller.''

Still, the C.E. crew has learned to use its size to an advantage, said another editor, Laurel Barclay. She once got an interview with the Rev. Jesse Jackson by slipping through the legs of his bodyguards.

"Children's Express reporters are pushy, too,'' she said proudly. "We squirm our way to the front.''

The news service's reports from the Republican convention in Houston this month will be published by the Houston Chronicle.

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