Politics & Government

The new stars of the Democratic Party

In 2004, a young U.S. Senate candidate named Barack Obama stepped before the audience at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and delivered a speech that would launch him to the White House.

Were there any breakout stars in 2016? More than a dozen delegates interviewed at the convention pointed to a number of memorable faces, all of them under 51.

Cory Booker

Perhaps no speaker struck the audience more than the New Jersey senator whose rousing call to action, many delegates said, reminded them of Obama’s keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

“His speech was moving, inspiring and it got everyone unified,” said Zach Rudner, 18, a Dallas, Texas, high school student. “It was like I was watching Obama’s 2004 speech again.” 

Booker, 47, has been a prominent surrogate for Clinton and his name was floated by pundits as a possible vice presidential candidate.

“Just as Barack Obama parlayed that speech to running for president, Cory Booker will do so in eight years,” said Al Garrett, a Michigan delegate and union leader, who is retiring in November.

Chris Murphy

The Connecticut senator, 42, has been a leading gun control advocate since the shooting deaths of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, leading a 15-hour filibuster last month on the the Senate floor to press for more gun restrictions.

He delivered an eloquent tribute to victims of gun violence as he called for challenging the National Rifle Association. The crowd stood and applauded as he took stage, speaking after the mother of a man slain in the Orlando nightclub massacre and before the daughter of the Sandy Hook Elementary school principal.

“There are moments when I try to forget the things that I saw, the things that I heard that soul-crushing morning at the fire house in Sandy Hook, Connecticut,” he said. “I am furious that in three years since Sandy Hook... the Republican Congress has done absolutely nothing to prevent the next massacre."

Alison Lundergan Grimes

She was trounced in 2014 when she challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But the Kentucky Secretary of State, 37, had delegates cheering and chanting “Hillary, Hillary” when she took the stage during an otherwise sleepy Tuesday afternoon.

She credited Clinton with helping her take on McConnell, whom she dubbed “one of the Senate’s biggest bullies.”

“I’m proud to be part of a new generation of Southern Democrats, and I wouldn’t be here without Hillary,” Grimes said.

In the hall, delegates took notice. “She’s got experience as secretary of state and she really can relate to an audience,” said Vicki Burke, 71, a retired school teacher from Onalaska, Wisconsin. “I think she’ll be back.”

Steve Benjamin

The mayor of Columbia, S.C., delivered a heartfelt tribute to Clinton from the perspective of his daughters. His 10-year-old met Clinton, he said, and told Clinton she believed “the guys have been president long enough, and now it’s time for a woman to take control.”

Benjamin, 46, whom TV cameras captured sitting next to former President Bill Clinton during speeches by Booker and first lady Michelle Obama, told a Columbia TV station that his focus remains at home.

“I’m running for reelection,” told WIST-TV in Columbia from Philadelphia. “I expect to serve the people of Columbia at least for one other term. You know, if it’s God’s will that I go do something else, with the permission of my wife and two daughters, you know, we’ll see where that takes us, but that’s not in my plan.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

The Hawaii lawmaker endorsed Bernie Sanders early, resigning from her position as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee to do so. And on Tuesday, the 35-year-old nominated Sanders from the floor of the arena as his ardent supporters cheered.

Why not a “Booker-Gabbard or a Gabbard-Booker ticket” in 2020 or 2024, suggested Justin Click, 21, a Morgantown, W.Va., college student: “We just nominated the first woman, so I think anything is possible.” 

A 2013 Vogue profile showcased her as a potential party star, suggesting the youngest Democratic woman in Congress was part of a “vanguard of women leaders positioning themselves to succeed such long-running institutions as Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein.”

Kamala Harris

Running against Rep. Loretta Sanchez in a Democratic primary for retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer’s California seat, the state attorney general didn’t have a speaking role, but she worked the Philadelphia gatherings, attending fundraisers and visiting state delegation breakfasts.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York introduced Harris, 51, to his delegation as “one of the people I have always had my eye on.”

Back in Washington, at Monday’s White House briefing when reporters asked about her opponent’s suggestion that President Obama had endorsed her because both of them are black, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he wasn’t sure what Sanchez had meant to imply but Obama stands by his endorsement of Harris “and is quite enthusiastic about it.” 

Joe Kennedy III

The Massachusetts congressman introduced his former Harvard Law School professor – U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren – in prime-time at the convention.

He drew laughter as he recalled Warren as the “toughest teacher on campus” who asked him whether he owned a dictionary after he failed to deliver the meaning of an arcane legal term.

The grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and the son of former Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy II, the 35-year-old was considered as a possible successor to Warren, had Clinton chosen her as a running mate. 

Christopher Cadelago of the Sacramento Bee and Danielle Prieur and Jenny Lee of the Northwestern University Medill News Service contributed.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark