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Cheering From the Den During a Virtual Convention

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LOS ANGELES — Rosalind Wyman has been a delegate at every Democratic National Convention since 1952, save the one in 1968. And, at age 89, she was certain that this year would be no different.

Until a pandemic ruined her streak.

This week, instead of sitting with the California delegation in Milwaukee, Ms. Wyman has been hibernating in her Los Angeles home, relegated to watching the spectacle on TV in her den.

“It feels so lonesome when you don’t have all the crowds and the excitement of the convention,” said Ms. Wyman, with audible disappointment.

The streaming bunting, the waving flags, the rousing celebration — all the familiar trappings of what would have been a convention hall of 50,000 supporters — have been reduced to video speeches. Ms. Wyman cheers from her chair, upholstered in blue, the color of Democrats.

Gone is the opportunity to network and energize, to come home and spread the party gospel with buttons, stickers and I-was-there stories.

“For hard-core operatives, the convention is the Christmas of politics every four years; it’s the quinceañera for political parties,” said Guillermo Meneses, a former Democratic National Committee staff member. “The fact it’s not happening is a huge disappointment for them.”

In Ms. Wyman’s house, the convention is blaring from television sets in four rooms. “I have it so that I won’t miss anything,” she said, in case she needs to get up for a glass of water or a bathroom break. “I wasn’t going to miss a beat, I assure you.”

She is the longest-serving member of the Democratic National Committee and the longest-serving member of the California Democratic Party. Had the in-person gathering in Milwaukee not been scrapped, she would have been one of the oldest delegates in attendance.

“Oh, I’m infamous,” Ms. Wyman declared. “I have been at it for a long time.”

Her home office, cluttered with campaign memorabilia, is a testament to a lifetime spent with the Democratic Party. A cork wall is coated with buttons from campaigns going back decades. Wristbands, lanyards and pens are stuffed in 14 boxes that she pulls out whenever anyone shows an interest.

In her den, framed pictures of her posing with past presidents, including Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, adorn a shelf.

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“My family comes first,” Ms. Wyman said. “Second comes the Democratic Party. Third comes baseball.”

ImageMs. Wyman has a collection of framed photos with past presidents and politicians displayed at her house.
Credit…David Walter Banks for The New York Times

For someone who shuns cellphones and the internet and is accustomed to being in the thick of the action, it has felt unsettling to be a spectator at a Zoom-style event designed to choose a presidential candidate whose face is but an image on a screen.

“This is someone who really cares about the party and the people,” said her son, Brad, 56, who joined her to watch on the first night. “It’s a really big deal for her not to attend the convention.”

Ms. Wyman, the daughter of New Deal Democrats, has been immersed in politics almost from birth. In 1932, her mother, Sarah Wiener, hung campaign posters for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the family drugstore in Los Angeles — over the objections of her father, Oscar, who was convinced it would cost them customers.

Her mother was a precinct captain for Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign.

Growing up, Ms. Wyman wrote letters to Roosevelt at the White House “like he was my uncle,” she recalled. In them, she complained about things like political apathy at her school. She savored the responses she received from Stephen Early, the president’s press secretary.

She graduated in 1948 from Los Angeles High School, where she was the first girl elected as a student body officer.

In 1952, she attended her first convention, in Chicago, as a member of the Democratic youth leadership from California.

The following year, as a 22-year-old senior at the University of Southern California, she ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. With friends, she went door to door distributing leaflets and little bars of soap. Her slogan was “Let’s Clean Up L.A.,” and she timed her door-knocking forays deliberately.

“We knew on Monday people would be home to watch ‘I Love Lucy,’” she said.

The youngest woman ever elected to the City Council, she played a pivotal role in bringing the Dodgers baseball team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1957. She also helped the city secure the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

It was partly at her urging, she said, that Bobby Kennedy agreed to move John F. Kennedy’s speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination from the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena to the larger Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. His main worry, she said, was that his brother would not draw a crowd large enough to fill the 100,000-seat venue. “I called everyone I could, and those buses started rolling in,” Ms. Wyman recalled.

A poster-size picture of Kennedy talking to Ms. Wyman while he was president graces the staircase wall in her house.

Ms. Wyman does not regret missing the 1968 convention in Chicago, where thousands of Vietnam War protesters battled police officers in the streets. Her husband, Eugene, attended — and left early, she said. “That one was a mess,” she said.

After leaving the City Council, Ms. Wyman took jobs in the entertainment industry and supported the arts and humanitarian causes in Los Angeles. But the Democratic Party remained her life’s work.

In 1984, she chaired the national convention in San Francisco, convincing Dianne Feinstein, who was then the city’s mayor and is now a California senator, to allow fireworks indoors. It was a first.

When Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated as vice president on her party’s ticket, Ms. Wyman recalled delegates screaming, women standing on chairs, and tears rolling down faces.

“That’s what being in a convention hall is all about,” Ms. Wyman said. “Nineteen eighty-four was everything to me.”

It was the only Democratic convention she can remember that had an official wine. But Ms. Wyman and Nancy Pelosi, chair of the host committee for the convention that year, did not drink. “In the afternoon, we would have ice cream delivered to our office,” Ms. Wyman said.

Later, she became a fervent supporter of both Bill and Hillary Clinton.

This election, she said, “I wanted Biden from Day 1.”

On the first night of this week’s convention, she had praise for John Kasich, a Republican and former Ohio governor who addressed the virtual audience. But she found herself waiting impatiently for that night’s keynote speaker. “I couldn’t wait to hear Michelle Obama,” she said. “I knew she would be great. I hope a lot of America waited for her.”

On the second night, her eyes lit up during the roll-call nomination vote. She was thrilled by Jill Biden’s closing.

“I was terribly concerned after Michelle, that Jill Biden might have a tough night,” she said. “She rose to the occasion and she knocked it out of the ballpark.”

With the second night a wrap, she was starting to believe that an online convention might work.

“Well, I feel pretty good,” she said. “They did a first-class job with this Zooming stuff. I am sure the Republicans will copy some of it.”

But she said she was not ready to do away with the boisterous intimacy of an in-person event.

“Bringing all these people together, it has a value for the party and to those who look at it,” she said. “It’s human beings sharing with each other, touching each other, talking to each other, even if arguing.”

If there had been an in-person convention, Ms. Wyman said, she would have been all over the place — with the women’s caucus, the senior caucus, meeting friends — while discussing issues like climate change, immigration and health care.

Jean Firstenberg, the former president of the American Film Institute, is watching the four-night event with Ms. Wyman and said she had seen how difficult it was for her friend not to be there in the flesh. “I think she sees it as her last convention,” she said. “And she has to stay home.”

Ms. Wyman is not ready to give up on being there in 2024. “I hope I am still kicking around when I am almost 94,” she said. “That’s a pretty big number,” she said, after a minute’s reflection. “My health is pretty good.”

How will the nation’s health be? “I hope we don’t have to Zoom four years from now,” she said.

Susan Beachy contributed research.

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