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Vendors struggle at historically diverse Democratic Convention

Vendors-struggleVendors struggle at historically diverse Democratic Convention

‘Dump Trump,’ ‘Feel the Bern’ in the shadow of the Wells Fargo Center

By Michael H. Cottman, Urban News Service

PHILADELPHIA, PA – In a shady spot near the site of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), Sharon John set up a folding table covered with merchandise, stood behind it, and complained.

“This is the worst place for vendors I’ve ever seen at a convention,” said John, 60, who traveled from Harlem, N.Y. on a Greyhound bus to sell her buttons, t-shirts and caps. “They are trying to keep us out.” she said. “It’s not right.”

John and other vendors were stationed in FDR Park across the street from the convention site in the Wells Fargo Center.

John said vendors should have been allowed inside the gates of the convention center where about 20,000 people – with cash to spend – were walking through the area. In-stead, she said, the vendors were situated off the beaten path where few delegates roamed.

In marked contrast, the Democratic Convention in Denver in 2008 nominating candidate Barack Obama featured a host of independent vendors selling self-made goods inside Mile High Stadium. Inside the Wells Fargo Center, however, only “official” merchandise was available to attendees.

“But it’s OK,” John said, wiping sweat from her face on a sweltering 90-degree day. “It’s going to be alright. I’ll sell plenty of my things. The “Dump Trump” buttons, for five dollars, are my biggest seller.”

“Can I take your picture?” a photographer asked John. “I like your American flag dress.”

“Sure,” John replied. “But wait until I comb my hair.”

Philadelphia’s host committee said it was looking for diversity among its vendors for the DNC. DNC organizers said they wanted at least 35 percent of their vendors to be minority-owned, according to media reports. Minority contracts ranged from political consulting to providing t-shirts and buttons.

“The Host Committee looks forward to working with many businesses throughout the Philadelphia region, including diverse vendors and contractors,” according to the DNC web-site. “We encourage business owners – including minorities, women, veterans, and members of the LGBT and disabled communities – to register for con-tract consideration.”

Vendors hoping to get a boost from the convention gave the committee mixed reviews.

DNC officials, according to media reports, said about 2,500 vendors signed up through the directory and that nearly 30 percent of the vendors were considered “diverse.”

John didn’t read the information on the website but showed up in Philadelphia any way. “I lost my job in 2009 and I’ve been running my own business ever since,” she said. “God is good.”

As the sun baked the sidewalk, more vendors arrived at FDR Park and many said they expected to sell most – or all – of their products during the convention.

Mariah Sims, 16, stood on a sidewalk selling Bernie Sanders “Feel the Bern” t-shirts for $20. She drove seven hours from Columbus, Ohio with her father, mother and brother to sell an array of t-shirts, buttons and cold water.

“I like working with the family business and I like to travel,” Sims said. “It’s my first time in Philadelphia and we’re going to do well here.”

Sims’s table was set up on a corner across from Wells Fargo Center. She said it was an ideal location because supporters of Bernie Sanders were holding parades every day of the convention. Marchers – potential customers – were passing directly in front of their tables.

Her mother, Rhonda Sims, took the long view, saying it’s important to instill a sense of entrepreneurship and business sense to her children while teaching them life values. The family had two tables – a half block apart – stacked with t-shirts. “It’s a family business,” she said. “These experiences for my children are valuable.”

Food trucks were scattered around the convention center parking lot and delegates lined up for snacks and cold drinks. Trent Middleton, 46, from Philadelphia, sold cheese steaks and cold drinks and said he was pleased with his experience this week. “It’s been quite good for the food trucks at the convention this year,” he said.  The fact that many food stands inside the venue were replaced by exclusive VIP lounges intended for VIPs and donors drove customers to the trucks.

While Black vendors were competing for customers outside, the DNC was celebrating diversity inside the convention hall. Eleven of the 24 speakers on opening night were people of color, including First Lady Michelle Obama. On stage, at least, it was one of the DNC’s most diverse conventions in history.

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