The Celebrity Delegate

On the beat with New Mexico’s second-most-famous Democrat.

BOSTON—If there’s a political epicenter of the Democratic National Convention—the FleetCenter, the spin room, Teresa Heinz Kerry’s shoe closet—I have discovered the point farthest from it: the New Mexico delegates’ breakfast at the Sheraton. This morning, most of the state’s grizzled crew of 37 gathered to dine on eggs, bacon, and sausage served from stainless steel tins. One man, a wizened 82-year-old ex-teacher from Las Vegas—this Las Vegas—told me he was pretty sure Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 terror attacks. Next to him was Fred Harris, a former U.S. senator from Oklahoma, now a resident of Corrales, N.M., who launched two doomed presidential runs of his own, in 1972 and 1976. Then there’s the rarest of convention archetypes: the celebrity delegate.

When I ran into Francis Williams this morning, she was wearing a blue track suit, gold-plated glasses, and the kind of turquoise jewelry that hangs from every grandmother in New Mexico. Through sheer force of personality, Williams has risen to the status of celebrity delegate, twice. In 1988 in Atlanta, her first Democratic convention, she arrived wearing a hat adorned with chili peppers, Native-American tchotchkes, and a Dukakis bumper sticker. For reasons no one seems to remember, the hat became a national sensation, and Williams’ photograph appeared in papers around the country. (She’s in today’s Boston Globe, too, in a convention headwear retrospective.) “Some man actually walked up to me and said, ‘Can I have it?’ ” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah, and I’ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.’ ” The man was from the Smithsonian. He convinced her to part with the hat so he could put it in the museum’s permanent archives.

Williams used her celebrity to fuel her own political ambitions. She ran for mayor of Las Cruces, N.M., last November, finishing fourth out of five candidates. (The race is the subject of a forthcoming memoir, tentatively titled, she says, Running on Empty.) She spent the summer pestering the line-standers at Fahrenheit 9/11—Las Cruces’$2 100-seat theater was sold out for days—to participate in local politics. Then CNN called. The network told her she had been tapped to be a one of the convention’s “delegate embeds,” who would be given hand-held cameras and free rein to shoot footage for broadcast. Williams has no idea how the network came up with her name.

The network told Williams to look for the camera in the mail. But after consulting with a marshal who lived next door, she informed CNN she wouldn’t be opening any strange packages. “You know, al-Qaida was gonna attack us,” she said, bouncing up and down and squeezing my arm. “They could have put a transmitter in there, plastic explosives. You gotta be careful.” So CNN relented and delivered the camera by hand.

Williams was perched in the front row at Tuesday’s delegate breakfast, interrogating every Democrat who wandered into the room. First came Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. Then Terry McAuliffe. Then Bill Press, who without a trace of irony introduced himself as “the former host of Crossfire, the former host of The Spin Room, and the former host of Buchanan and Press.” After the ex-pundit reeled off a few liberal platitudes, Williams grabbed him and asked for an interview. In her camera’s viewfinder, Press was in extreme close-up, and half of his face was lost to the left side of the frame. He gamely answered Williams’ first question. Then he tried to escape, pleading that he had an urgent appointment with the Illinois delegation and couldn’t answer any more questions. Williams looked Press straight in the eye and shouted, “One more!”