If Bob Johnson is the business tycoon he’s supposed to be, he’ll remember meeting Zack Hawkins Monday night on the floor of the Fleet Center in Boston. Bob J. is the owner of the new Charlotte Bobcats franchise in the NBA and among the richest African Americans in America. Zack H. is that very bright young man from Durham with the master’s degree in biology–and plans for his Ph.D. –who’s a John Kerry delegate at the Democratic National Convention. He’s the head of the Durham Young Democrats. He’s working this fall on Congressman David Price’s re-election campaign. Keep his name in mind.

Indeed, keep it in mind this week as you consider whether the national conventions have outlived their usefulness and are, at best, a scripted and sanitized infomercial for a ticket long since picked and picked over. Every TV pundit says so, which isn’t surprising since, on TV, that’s exactly what they are.

What’s not on TV is the real convention, which is about ideas, people and networks–in other words, the stuff of a political party hoping to be a governing party.

These features apparently held no appeal for Erskine Bowles, the Democrats’ U.S. Senate candidate in North Carolina, nor for Gov. Mike Easley, putative head of the state’s Democratic party. They headed for the mountains and the coast, respectively, so as to avoid any photographic evidence that they’d ever been in Massachusetts or were associated with Kerry, its junior senator, or senior senator Ted Kennedy.

But for the three delegates we talked to late Monday night, after the opening session ended, people and ideas were the whole point of the exercise.

Nina Szlosberg of Raleigh was elected as a John Edwards delegate and will now vote happily on the floor for the Kerry-Edwards ticket. That’s not why she wanted to be in Boston, however.

Szlosberg is president of the Conservation Council of N.C., an environmentalist who is also a Democratic activist. That’s not always the easiest combination to pull off, especially in North Carolina, where pro-bidness Dems aren’t necessarily so green. But Kerry is green. “His record in the Senate on environmental issues is excellent, and Edwards isn’t far behind,” she says.

So Szlosberg is in Boston to network with pro-environment folks from other states, and this state, for the purpose of helping Kerry-Edwards (and progressive candidates) win in the fall and follow through on their issues once they’re in office. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Along with state House Rep. Joe Hackney of Orange County and others, she worked a lunch served up by Boston’s North End Italian restaurants in Paul Revere Plaza in honor of the party’s state legislative candidates across the nation. Then she made her way to Beacon Hill, Boston’s high-rent district, for a party boosting Environment 2004 and the Apollo Alliance, a policy initiative for sustainable-energy projects–and jobs–hatched by organized labor and environmentalists.

Is it worth the trip? “First of all,” an ebullient Szlosberg says, “just being around so many people who are talking about the issues, and talking about the war and how that’s gone wrong–it’s very inspiring and energizing. And the whole city is talking, everywhere you go.” And second? “There’s just a whole lot of green stuff going on!” she laughs.

Tim Liszewski, a Raleigh writer, drove to Boston with Aimee Schmidt, a Cary software engineer-horticulturalist (yes, both), to vote for antiwar candidate Dennis Kucinich, who won the four delegates out the state’s 107 that didn’t go to either Edwards or Kerry. They’re not sure they’re going to get the chance.

Kucinich remained an active candidate, with his name to be put in nomination Wednesday night, until the eve of the convention, when he dropped out and endorsed Kerry. Liszewski and Schmidt are no great fans of the Kerry-Edwards ticket–since both men voted in the Senate to authorize the war–so they’d looked forward to casting symbolic votes for Kucinich before signing onto the unified party effort to oust President Bush and his Republican ilk.

On Monday, though, Liszewski said they were under “some pressure” to vote for Kerry, and it wasn’t clear whether, if they didn’t, their Kucinich votes would actually be announced during the roll-call by State Democratic Party Chair Barbara Allen. “There is a point,” the soft-spoken Liszewski says, “of taking party unity a bit too far.”

Liszewski and Schmidt arrived in Boston last week, in time to attend the Boston Social Forum, a gathering of progressive activists who heard from lefty speakers like Harvard’s Cornel West, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and writer Jonathan Schell. Moving over to the Fleet Center, he says, their objective is two-fold: First, to show Democrats that the progressive folks in their midst aren’t out to “submarine” the party but rather to invigorate it; and second, “to show progressives that we’re not being co-opted by participating in the party.”

The latter is why it’s important that they get to vote for Kucinich, Liszewski argues. Then they’ll return to Raleigh to promote the Kerry-Edwards ticket, and also the future fortunes of the Democrats’ new progressive caucus, aka the Greendogs.

Zack Hawkins and two other drivers piloted a van-full of Young Dems to Boston, where they’ve been having a party/policy blast. Hawkins and friends spent part of Monday at Harvard University, where they took in a policy forum led by Harvard President Lawrence Summers on urban socio-economics. “It was great. We ended up talking and debating about it the rest of the day,” he says.

The discussion was about “family values”–specifically, the family’s support for educational achievement–and the critical role it plays in determining whether kids do well in school, graduate, go to college, and are successful in life. It’s more important than race as a determining factor; more important than income, too, although the less money you have, the more you need a degree.

“Education is the only way most of us can make it,” says Hawkins. “But we have an ‘instant society,’ and a lot of people don’t value the educational system and think they can get ahead without it. And then, too, a lot of people are being failed by the education system.”

Family support “can’t be legislated,” he adds. “The best public policy can do is recognize the disparities and try to fill in the gaps.”

Hawkins is his own best example. His family didn’t have lots of money, but they did give him lots of “moral support” and a clear expectation that he would finish high school and go to college. Which he did, graduating from Elizabeth City State last year and from N.C. Central this year with his master’s degree. After a year off to work on political campaigns, he’s planning to pursue a Ph.D. at Chapel Hill with the goal of making science policy his career.

And who’s he met in Boston, besides Bob Johnson? How about Harvey Gantt, Illinois Senate candidate Barak Obama, former Vice President Walter Mondale, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California, plus Bill Cosby, who hosted them all at a party in honor of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

He hasn’t met Mike Easley, of course. But then, Mike Easley hasn’t met him either. EndBlock