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Mattson has been delegate to Democratic conventions since 1976

Oct. 5, 2012

Edna O'Neill MattsonEdna O'Neill Mattson is pictured at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Amid the speeches and pageantry, viewers of last month’s Democratic National Convention just may have seen – besides Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and many others – CCRI’s own Edna O’Neill Mattson in the crowd.

Mattson, the coordinator of facility use based at the Knight Campus, has been attending Democratic Conventions since 1976. She has met presidents and vice presidents, presidential hopefuls, and senators, congressman and governors galore while helping to shape American political history.

Rhode Island sent 40 delegates to the DNC this year in Charlotte, N.C. , (19 attended the Republican National Convention), all of whom were elected in a similar way to candidates for local offices. Mattson first ran in 1976 and she was the first woman to be a party chairperson in Rhode Island. She has since become the Rhode Island Democratic Party’s vice chair and national committeewoman.

The convention in 1976 was held in New York City and nominated Jimmy Carter for his only successful White House run. “It felt fantastic,” Mattson said. “It was very exciting. I was in awe.”

She added, “At a convention you meet a wonderful cross-section of people from all over the country: teachers, workmen, doctors and lawyers – great people.”

There is more to a convention for either party than just what is shown on TV, Mattson said. During the day, thousands of delegates attend forums on many topics and discuss the party’s platform. Formal and informal discussions and official open forums abound, concerning campaign strategy and the issues of the day.

And sometimes there is even drama at night during the nomination process. A criticism of political conventions is that, for all the televised spectacle, they represent a foregone conclusion: Who didn’t know that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would emerge as the nominated candidates for 2012?

But twice in Mattson’s experience, in 2008 and 1980, there were down-to-the-wire nomination battles. Historians and political junkies consider the latter, in particular, a significant event.

At the New York City Democratic National Convention in 1980, President Carter was seeking nomination to run for a second term against the up-and-coming governor of California, Ronald Reagan. Sitting presidents almost always receive the nomination but, toward the end of Carter’s first term, a dip in the economy and the unresolved Iranian hostage crisis (revolutionaries had stormed the U.S. embassy and taken hostages) shook confidence in him.

Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy ran a strong primary challenge against Carter. He seemingly entered the convention without enough primary votes to secure the nomination but sought a rules change that would allow delegates pledged to Carter (as decided by the primaries within their states) to switch their votes to Kennedy.

Mattson was a pledged Kennedy delegate at the time and remembers the fervent activity that accompanied his plan. Political scientists regard this nomination fight, carried out on live television, as one of the most exciting convention events of the 20th century and it was the last time that a member of either party used this tactic.

“It was a little more volatile than it is today but we worked it out,” Mattson said. Because Carter is from Georgia, “the South just would not vote for Ted Kennedy at that time.”

The nomination outcome was similarly in doubt in 2008 during the contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton, Mattson said, but it lacked the historic import of Kennedy’s attempted rules change.

“That went right up until the end,” Mattson said. “It was never a slam dunk for either of them.”

Mattson traces her involvement with politics, and the Democratic Party in particular, to when she briefly met President and Mrs. Roosevelt on a family trip to Washington, D.C. Her interest in politics snowballed from there, encouraged by her politically active parents. Mattson’s first job for a political campaign came when she was 10 years old, stuffing envelopes for John F. Kennedy’s 1947 congressional run.

“I still stuff envelopes now but I’ve added a lot more responsibilities,” she said.

Since the Roosevelts, Mattson has met or at least seen speeches by many people who have made it into the history books – including some of recent history’s also-rans. “Walter Mondale was, I thought, a fine gentleman and I liked Hubert Humphrey as well,” Mattson said. “He had a great way about him.”

Mondale was Carter’s vice president and lost his presidential campaign against Reagan in 1984; Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, ran for president in 1968 and 1972 and served as a senator until his death in 1978.

Mattson met Hillary Clinton and John Glenn during their presidential runs. Glenn, the famous astronaut and Ohio senator, ran in 1984. “John Glenn would have made a great president and so would Hillary Clinton,” Mattson said.

Mattson said she is not interested in running for office herself but attends conventions because of her love of the democratic process. “I enjoy civics and democracy and U.S. history,” she said. “I think that we’re remiss in our education system for not teaching more U.S. history.”


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Last Updated: 8/25/16