Having covered the Democratic National Convention next door at the Staples Center back in 2000, I noticed just a couple of glaring differences between that gathering and my first exposure to the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly here at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
There’s far less security at the NEA. There aren’t any metal detectors, and I was only asked once to show my badge. And Peter Jennings isn’t here.
The similarities, on the other hand, are abundant—beach balls getting batted around among the delegates, goofy hats, and loud music to liven up the troops.
Picture a line of 50-something women performing a rehearsed dance and top NEA officials trying to clap in time to Shania Twain’s, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” I’m not sure why that was one of the numbers chosen to kick the whole thing off.
Speeches about the “broken promises” of Republicans sound rather familiar as well.
A thunderous “boo” exploded from the crowd when California Teachers Association President Barbara Kerr mentioned “the governor of California,” who has angered union members here for not restoring school spending cuts he made last year and for proposing to change the state’s public pension system into a 401(k)-type plan.
“He lied to us. He walked away from us. And he wants to destroy our retirement,” Ms. Kerr charged.
The 8,000-some delegates also responded with huge applause when President Reg Weaver, who was re-elected with no opposition Sunday, mentioned the NEA’s lawsuit over the No Child Left Behind Act.
The adoration of Mr. Weaver is strong here. Outside on the streets of L.A., Von Dutch trucker hats are a big fashion trend. But inside the Convention Center, delegates are proudly wearing trucker hats in neon shades of pink and green that read “REG” in bold letters.
NEA Vice President Dennis Van Roekel, in his introduction of Mr. Weaver, says even Hollywood star Denzel Washington and the beloved former President Ronald Reagan are no match for “Reg.” Wow!
As a resident of Los Angeles, I also got my first chance to see and hear our new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. He used to organize members for the United Teachers of Los Angeles, and talked about how disappointed he was that he didn’t get to welcome the NEA to this city four years ago when he lost to James K. Hahn. Los Angeles mayors don’t have any say over what happens in the schools here, but Mr. Villaraigosa has pledged to do more to improve education. He said, “Don’t let anyone tell you that this effort to make our schools the best they can be will come cheap.”
Flamingo Hats and ‘Party Animals?’
An outsider, like me, can’t attend something like this and not marvel at the outfits some people will wear to make their points and to advertise their associations or their states. I saw folks with flamingo hats and one wearing an orange foam-rubber cone that reads “Caution: Party Animal.”
I saw a couple “Recall Arnold” T-shirts, which wasn’t too surprising, given the tone of some of the opening remarks.
But considering this is a group of teachers, I was a little taken aback by the beer shirts I saw. One read “Beer is Food.” Another identified the wearer as a member of the “Beer Caucus.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the NEA blog.