While attending the Democratic National Convention I wondered: Where would I find outdoor sportsmen in Boston? Maybe they had all gone fishing. I checked the harbor, where Kerry was arriving in an overblown allusion. (Forget the analogies to the Vietnam gunboat; he came into the harbor wishing he were Washington crossing the Delaware.) But there were no fishermen around. I attended the caucuses. Surprise, surprise; sportsmen weren’t hiding in the Sheraton conference rooms either. Maybe my sleuthing skills were a bit dusty. Try the bars, I thought. That seems like a spot a few sportsmen might gather around. I spent a lot of nights in bars, but I never came across someone who would talk favorably about outdoorsmen on the record. That is until primetime on Thursday night.
Vanessa Kerry strutted onstage and finally gave us some lip service. Copies of her speech had been distributed to the press ahead of time, but I hadn’t bothered to read it closely; her father was the highlight of the program. She chirped on and on, telling a seemingly endless stream of embarrassing anecdotes in an attempt to give her stoic father a dose of color. And that’s where the hunters got their shout out. “People ask why Alex and I are so close to our dad,” she said, “especially since he loved to mortify us when we were little by showing up to our sports games in a bright orange hunting hat.”
Hunter orange is by no means a fashion “do.” But Vanessa’s speech and the rest of the speeches at the DNC were a political “don’t.” Outdoorsmen got a one-line fashion mention.
MTV’s “Rock the Vote” was omnipresent. They broadcast political activism on the bass beats of the “Black Eyed Peas” or through “Maroon 5’s” guitar riffs. But for them, the convention was a scene. Politics weren’t about issues, it was about yelling loudly, in a selfish way that only the hipster generation can. “Rock the Vote” claims 20 million strong in their youth movement, and they claim to be broadcasting a platform important to 18-30 year olds. That platform seemed to involve the right to party, nothing about social security reform, foreign policy, taxes, student loans or land conservation. Rockin’ and rollin’, now that’s a great agenda, but do these passionate youngsters vote? Statistically, that age group doesn’t turn out on Election Day (36 percent in 2000).
Yet, sportsmen show up in droves to the polls. More importantly, they are a force in the so-called “swing states:” Louisiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Magazines such as Outdoor Life have its highest concentrations of readers in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas. Two out of the three of these states are in play this fall. More importantly, sportsmen’s numbers are greater than the 20 million scenesters hanging on like Deadheads to the “Rock the Vote” motorcade. Over 35 million people claim to be a fisherman, hunter or both.
Al Gore’s inability to reach out to the sportsman’s caucus cost him considerably in 2000. The Democrats at the national level have a hard time separating gun issues from hunter issues. Public land access, the farm bill, conservation easements and clean water legislation are lynchpin planks in an outdoorsman’s platform. But the delegates I talked to on the Convention floor from Indiana and North Carolina equated hunter issues with the assault weapons ban. While I do advise hunters to use enough gun, that’s a far cry from advocating automatic weapons for pesky squirrels. There’s no sport to it. And that’s what most outdoorsmen are, sportsmen. Though hunters resist being labeled as a “one-issue” voting bloc, hunting , gun rights and conservation rank right up there with national security as their salient causes.
During my trek around the Fleet Center I secured 21 off-the-record quotes from the power brokers of the Democratic party down to the delegates in favor of outdoor sports, guns or wetland conservation. Reemarks varied from, “Off the record, I love to hunt,” to, “Have you shot the Benelli Super Black Eagle since the redesign? It’s a sweet shot.” Still, they wouldn’t go on the record. That reluctance to speak out in favor of a truly American lifestyle could hurt them this November.
Emotional euphoria and distaste for Bush will only lead the Democrats so far. Bush came into office ready to enact a business-friendly land policy. Listening to sportsmen, though, helped him implement more logical conservation policies. The Bush camp understood the importance of the sportsman, hopefully Kerry will too. I believe it’s a group with ideas on the environment that appeal to the most sought after sector of the electorate: the centrist.