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School Board Member Gets In on the Action in San Diego

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Lorraine Ferrell's unkind arrival for the GOP convention might have seemed like payback for leaving the Democratic Party 15 years ago.

After nine hours aboard planes and in airports, the Anchorage, Alaska, school board member's luggage was lost. Ants checked into her $70-a-night hotel room well before she did. And a citywide power outage abruptly canceled a long-anticipated Mexican dinner.

But her pilgrimage here was worth the hassles once she entered the main hall of the San Diego Convention Center, a swirl of activity trimmed in red, white, and blue.

"I'm sitting here and I see this gray hair and he's surrounded by security," Ms. Ferrell recalled. "Then I thought, 'My gosh, it's Newt Gingrich.'"

A geologist and mother of two, Ms. Ferrell triumphed in getting the speaker of the House to autograph his book, To Renew America.

Indeed, things were soon looking up for Ms. Ferrell. She attended the Republican National Convention as a guest of Alaska's delegation after narrowly losing a bid to be one its 19 delegates. She was so eager to be here, she used frequent-flier miles earned on her credit card to cover airfare.

And even though she was officially just a guest, Ms. Ferrell sat in the delegate section in clear view of the podium with a better seat than most reporters.

"I really expected to be up using my binoculars," she said.

An Activist Agenda

Her four days were a mixed bag of socializing, shopping, and networking by day and conventioneering by night.

She was moved by Nancy Reagan's tribute to her husband, former President Ronald Reagan, who now suffers from Alzheimer's disease. "I don't think there was a dry eye in the place," she said.

There were breakfasts with Alaska's Republican senators, Frank H. Murkowski and Ted Stevens. She also made a point of attending events like a "Faith and Freedom Rally," where Navy pilot Scott O'Grady talked about surviving in the mountains of Bosnia after his plane was shot down.

In between meals, speeches, and events, Ms. Ferrell carefully managed her $100 souvenir budget, picking up items from the convention for her family. She was an avid pin trader, swapping with delegates from other states.

As for convention etiquette, Ms. Ferrell said her state's attendees were coached to be at their most courteous and to educate the press about Alaska and its potential for timber cutting and off-shore drilling.

The Alaska Republicans skipped a country music tribute to Mr. Gingrich to host a surprise birthday party for one of the state's delegates. Topping any of the showstoppers planned for Mr. Gingrich, the Alaska delegation burst into laughter when the birthday delegate figured out that his waitress, wearing a red miniskirt and slinky orange jacket, was his wife.

"He did a real double-take," Ms. Ferrell said with a laugh.

A New Party

Political parties are nothing new for Ms. Ferrell, even though she has not always been a part of the Republican revelry. She attended the 1980 Alaska Democratic convention as a voting delegate.

"I was so insulted by little interest groups trying to railroad issues," the two-term school board member said, contrasting the parties. "There was no debate like we have had on abortion."

And the former Democrat showed no signs of wavering on GOP platform positions adopted here, especially in education.

"I'd agree that we need to put more of the public back in public education," she said.

It was the kind of line used a lot during the convention as shorthand for terminating the U.S. Department of Education and the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the school-improvement law backed by President Clinton. Ms. Ferrell agrees with the party on both positions.

Ms. Ferrell echoed a theme of Mr. Dole's Aug. 14 acceptance speech. "We have some great teachers, but we have a problem with union domination of teachers," she said. Mr. Dole generated wild applause with a similar line.

Ms. Ferrell is an eager backer of the former Kansas senator.

As the last of 50,000 balloons rained down on the cheering crowd following his acceptance speech, Ms. Ferrell said: "I'm so proud of him, and I would be so proud to call him president. I know he'd keep his word."

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