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Delegates stuffed with speeches, issues

ST. PAUL -- First-time delegate Tonya Sconiers compared a day at the Democratic National Convention to a meal.

The Minnesota delegation's morning meeting featuring speakers from around the country is the appetizer, the Duluth woman said.

"Then in the middle of the day you kind of have your dinner, which includes your vegetables," she said of meetings heavy on policy and issues.

"Then in the evening you have your dessert," Sconiers said of the big-name speakers and raucous convention hall atmosphere. "It's a well-balanced meal."

That meal is leaving delegates hungry to return to their home state to campaign for presidential candidate Barack Obama, promote causes important to them and work with other Democrats they have met this week.

First, though, the more than 100 Minnesota delegates and alternate delegates will wrap up a jam-packed several days of luncheons, speeches, issue meetings, interest-group caucuses, volunteer efforts, parties and more speeches.

Delegates say those evening speeches in the convention arena - and Obama's outdoor stadium address tonight - are energizing, but so too are events held far from spotlights and cameras, where delegates learn about many issues - voting rights to campaign strategy, the environment to the health-care system - before they return to Minnesota.

"It's inspired me to go home and really want to work, and I think that's the point," first-time national delegate Valerie Coit of Wrenshall said of the blend of floor speeches and policy meetings.

Like other female Minnesota delegates, Coit attended women's caucus meetings this week and listened to other women with advocacy experience. They were instructed on grassroots organizing efforts and met people with similar interest from around the country, she said.

Coit said she has not been in the convention hall to hear all major speeches "because I have wanted to go to some of those other things that are going on."

"I'm trying not to waste this opportunity at all," she added.

There are daily caucus meetings for a host of groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, seniors and people from rural areas.

Erma Vizenor is concentrating on improving federal involvement in Indian country. The Democratic delegate and White Earth Band of Chippewa chairwoman said she is working with others in the Native American Caucus to craft their own policy platform.

Issues such as health care and education are at the top of Indian needs, she said.

The Indian Public Health Service has not been adequately funded for 15 years, she said.

"In fact, the Bemidji area office (which covers Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan) is the lowest funded area in the United States." Vizenor said. "We are funded at 37 to 43 percent of needs. It either has to be life or limb before we can go to a hospital."

On education, the platform is critical of the federal Now Child Left Behind law because, Vizenor said, requirements in it are "not culturally appropriate for Native American children or communities."

Also, education needs are under funded, she added.

"We need funds for school facilities, we need funds for scholarships, we need funds for post-secondary," the chairwoman said. "We need to address the high high-school dropout rates in Indian country and the achievement disparity."

Delegate Andrew Falk of Murdock was having trouble deciding how to fill his time Wednesday morning and early afternoon. He had many options, but a meeting about rural issues won out.

"There's so many things going on," said Falk, attending his first convention.

The western Minnesotan said he has been energized by floor speeches from leading Democrats, including those who have talked about renewable energy. Falk works in the wind energy industry.

On Wednesday, delegates spent time away from the convention hall to volunteer in and around Denver. The Minnesota group helped to package meals for an area Meals on Wheels program.

"It was well set up so it was a quick effort, but it's probably one of the more productive things that are going on around the convention," delegate Mike Sundin of Esko said as he finished the food preparation.

Political conventions are not just about policy and volunteering, of course. There also offer a steady helping of receptions and parties.

Delegate Colleen Nardone of Grand Rapids said she and her husband went to a luncheon for Italian-Americans that featured U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"It was fun," Nardone said. "It was very interesting and Italians, you know, the food was wonderful."