Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press

Elaine Knight of Sacramento is a first-time delegate after working as a volunteer at every convention since 1984. She wants to transfer her enthusiasm and passion for political volunteering to a new generation of voters.

Democratic delegate from Sacramento connects in Charlotte

Published: Friday, Sep. 7, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 16A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012 - 9:08 am

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Elaine Knight thinks of herself as the kind of person who "knows everyone." It's easy to see why.

On a shuttle to her Democratic National Convention hotel, Knight struck up a conversation with a group of women who were friends with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

She exited the van with an invitation to a reception for women in politics.

Later, she connected with a former colleague from Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign, who told her to stop by a glitzy party thrown by LGBT interests.

For Knight, making connections is key to getting more people, especially youths, engaged in politics. Such opportunities abound every four years as party activists, elected officials and party bigwigs pack into convention halls, hotel lobbies and swanky reception venues for the national political conventions.

Knight would know. The chatty former flight attendant has volunteered at every convention since 1984. She still has all the credentials from every one, as well as the buttons, yo-yos and frisbees she picked up as souvenirs.

After leaving the airline industry, she settled into a job as a scheduler in the Capitol, where she worked for several state legislators.

But for all her political connections, this year was her first as a delegate, a position she won in an election held for Democrats in the Sacramento area.

"I'm able to attend all the things I want to go to," she said of finally being a delegate after years of logging long hours behind the scenes.

Those things included attending meetings of the Hispanic and LGBT caucuses and screening of a film on federal nutrition programs for children backed by a charity started by another friend.

She also brought a student intern and former foster child she met in the lobby of the Blake Hotel as her guest to a delegation breakfast.

After the breakfast, she tracked down Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California Democratic Chairman John Burton, who has worked extensively on issues related to foster care, and introduced them to Lexie Gruber.

"You can do anything," Burton told the beaming 19-year-old college student from Connecticut.

Sitting in the audience at the Time Warner Cable Arena with the California delegation gave the 61-year-old Sacramento resident a different vantage point than in years past.

It wasn't her best view. That probably came in 1992, when she watched from the wings of the convention stage as she prepped speakers for the podium and served as keeper of the gavel.

Her worst was a week in 1996 spent supporting White House staff in a Chicago Hilton. That assignment gave her access to lots of inside political players, but little action on the floor.

This time, Knight picked a seat in the front row of the section of stands reserved for California's 609 delegates on Wednesday night, excited to see Massachusetts U.S. Senate hopeful Elizabeth Warren, one of her favorite candidates this year, deliver a prime-time speech.

Her view nevertheless was partially obstructed by sets and lighting staged for CNN and Fox News anchors reporting live.

"It's OK for me, I've been to seven conventions," she said. "I want people who have never been here before to see it."

By the time former President Bill Clinton delivered Wednesday's keynote address, Knight was surrounded by people she knew.

Elizabeth Moffet, a Democrat from Tiburon sitting with the delegation, leaned over from the aisle behind Knight to say hello. The two sat together in Denver in 2008.

Knight also connected with friends outside the hall. She popped into the aisle to snap pictures of the stage with her iPad during the major speeches, returning to her seat to post picture and video updates to her Facebook page in real time.

She said posts, especially her mentions of first lady Michelle Obama's Tuesday speech, were getting a lot of feedback for her page.

"I really tell a lot of people I really believe in pay it forward," she said. "So I tell them, I'm here representing you, too."

Knight, who lives with her husband in Sacramento, is now mostly retired but feeling a bit restless. She wants to transfer her enthusiasm and passion for political volunteering to a new generation of voters who can deliver wins to President Barack Obama and future Democratic nominees.

She tries to use her networks to help young voters like Gruber, who traveled to the convention through a nonprofit called the Washington Center.

"They didn't think I'd make it," Gruber said. "But now I'm here talking to Nancy Pelosi."

Knight smiled as Gruber told a reporter about her plans to study and intern in Washington, D.C. this year.

"I'm so proud," Knight said. "I kind of took her under my wing."

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