This week marks the start of the political convention season — two back-to-back weeks in which Republicans and Democrats each gather to officially nominate their candidate for president.
The conventions are also where the parties adopt a platform that articulates what each party believes in and their vision for the nation. While these platforms get a lot of press attention before and during the conventions, they aren’t binding on the presidential candidate and congressional members of each party.
More important than the party platforms are the speaker line-ups in determining how the convention sets the tone for each party’s engagement in the general election campaign and the themes they hope will carry over into the next administration. It’s a given that each party traditionally has their leading members of congress and high-profile state governors speak, as well as the spouse of the nominee.
What’s especially interesting to note are the non-politicians — such as individual leaders in the fields of civil rights, faith, business, or public health, as well as students, actors, and authors. These speakers tend to appeal to a wider audience, not just the political junkies, and their messages tend to raise the profile of issues by virtue of being on the national stage.
In 1992, two HIV-positive women, Elizabeth Glaser, founder of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and Mary Fisher, founder of the Family AIDS Network, spoke at the Democratic and Republican conventions, respectively, about how AIDS was impacting their own families and people across the nation, including people of color and gay men. And before either of them spoke that year, my friend Bob Hattoy was actually the first HIV-positive person to address any national convention of either party (he preceded Glaser in the program at the 1992 Democratic National Convention). At a time when many were ashamed of family members who had contracted HIV, or thought it was someone else’s problem, and government had done little to tackle the growing health crisis, Bob’s speech, as well as Glaser’s and Fisher’s, put the issue front and center in the minds of convention delegates and elected officials.
Their speeches reflected the hard work of advocates who had fought to place the issue on the forefront of the national consciousness and on policymakers’ radars. In the years following these speeches, greater resources were won for AIDS services and research, and the stigma surrounding the disease softened. Funding for the Ryan White Act, which had been passed by Congress in 1990 to provide services to those unable to afford care themselves, more than tripled in the five years following the speeches by Fisher, Glaser, and Hattoy.
It remains to be seen who and what will make this year’s conventions memorable. There’s no lack of issues to be addressed. Violence prevention, reforming our criminal justice system, and fairness for immigrants, including access to affordable health coverage, all deserve urgent attention. Since the scheduled speakers for the Democratic convention include a DREAMer and the Mothers of the Movement (the mothers of Black men, women and children whose deaths inspired the Black Lives Matter movement), we can expect those issues to be discussed prominently. The Republican convention’s speakers will include a former astronaut and several veterans and entrepreneurs. The tone that these speakers set at the conventions in the coming two weeks have the potential to help transform how government and society approaches the issues they raise.
In decrying the disparities between rich and poor when it came to access to potentially life-saving care, Glaser emphatically said, in words not unlike those we use today, that “we need health care for all.” Twenty-four years later, it’s a new generation, with new and similar communities in mind, that calls for health and justice for all.