GOP convention still needs 1,000 volunteersby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
With a volunteer sign-up deadline looming Tuesday, the Minneapolis-St. Paul host committee still needs more than 1,000 individuals to work for free during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
St. Paul, Minn. — The volunteer shortage has prompted the committee to get creative in its pitch for help.
For starters, they've enlisted the help of professional wrestler Kenneth Anderson, known better by his ring name, Mr. Kennedy.
The Minnesota native made famous by the World Wrestling Entertainment show "Friday Night SmackDown" recently filmed a public service announcement encouraging volunteers.
"This convention matters to our cities," Anderson said in the ad. "We need your help, no matter what your political affiliation. Go to msp2008.com and volunteer to make our cities look great. Let's show everyone what Minnesota Nice really means."
The host committee is relying on the star power of Mr. Kennedy, as well as Matt Birk of the Minnesota Vikings, to persuade everyday folks to help out with the once-in-a-lifetime event.
Organizers need 10,000 unpaid workers to serve as docents, greeters and all-around Minnesota ambassadors in the first week of September. With about 8,900 signed up, the committee says it's confident it will reach its goal.
Coordinators fanned out at the Taste of Minnesota with signup sheets. At the Mall of America, they've set up laptops where shoppers can fill out online applications. A local company has donated the use of billboard trucks that roam around local lakes, with signs urging people to "be a part of history."
The committee is also offering incentives for the person who can recruit the most volunteers.
Meanwhile in Denver, so many volunteers have registered for the Democratic National Convention that hordes will likely be turned away.
More than 26,000 individuals have expressed interest in pitching in. Denver host committee spokesman Chris Lopez says the volunteers are coming not only from across Colorado, but from every state in the nation as well as U.S. territories like Guam and Puerto Rico.
"I think it's really part of the energy that the country is seeing around the Democratic Party," Lopez said. "When Denver was named the host city for the Democratic convention, we pretty immediately began to get interest from individuals about coming to Denver to volunteer. The interest has been building for well over a year now."
Many observers point to obvious reasons why the volunteer are so different in Minnesota and Colorado.
For one, Denver has been recruiting volunteers much longer than Minneapolis-St. Paul. In Minnesota, the host committee started getting the word out just a couple of months ago.
And the GOP convention falls one week later than the Denver event, beginning on Labor Day -- which generally represents the last weekend of summer for cabin-retreating Minnesotans.
But politics probably plays a part, too. It's no secret that voters in Minneapolis-St. Paul tend to lean Democratic. While the cities' two DFL mayors recently encouraged volunteers to step up as a matter of nonpartisan civic pride, many people don't seem to buy it.
Republican political consultant Tom Horner says it's been especially difficult to get non-Republicans excited about the convention because of the polarizing figure of President Bush.
"You never get that incumbent president fully off the ballot, even when he's off the ballot," Horner said with a laugh. "I think he and this administration, after nearly eight years, still define the Republican Party."
"And I think there are those people who aren't overtly partisan -- independents -- for a lot of those Minnesotans, it's hard for them to disconnect the Republican Party from the Bush administration," Horner continued.
The timing of the event may also be a deterrent to college students, who will be starting school that week. In addition, many die-hard Republicans from Minnesota are already busy volunteering for Sen. Norm Coleman's re-election campaign, Horner said.
Horner's Republican friends are pitching in with the convention, but in other ways. They're coordinating the "high-level logistics" of hosting parties and fundraisers during the convention. Horner said he didn't know anyone who is doing the ground-level volunteer work.
The host committee is hoping the volunteers will work at least two shifts of four to six hours each. The shifts will be flexible -- volunteers can come in after their regular day jobs if they need to.
They'll be asked to perform tasks ranging from giving directions to greeting visitors at the airport, said Kjersti Duncan, the committee's volunteer director.
"Folks can help direct people through baggage claim. For those of us who are familiar with the airport, it's a matter of saying, 'You can go down both escalators as opposed to one,'" Duncan said.
She said the jobs are rooted in the idea of "welcoming people, making sure they see the friendly faces right when they get off the airplane or when they arrive into town."
Only a small fraction of volunteers, however, will have access to the Xcel Energy Center, where the convention will take place.
Nonetheless, host committee spokeswoman Teresa McFarland says volunteers can still get a front-row seat to the action in other ways.
"You've got 45,000 people coming in, including 15,000 media," McFarland said. "So you can imagine the faces that are going to be seen in the crowd. You might see a Katie Couric, you might see a Brian Williams. You might see pretty significant individuals coming through during the convention, in addition to elected officials."
McFarland thinks the momentous nature of the event will sink in with people over the coming days.
By early August, the host committee plans to offer an initial orientation, teaching volunteers convention facts and the basics of customer service.
- Morning Edition, 07/10/2008, 7:20 a.m.