Political strife threatened to turn the inaugural night of the Democratic National Convention into an uncontrollable wreck Monday, as fervent Bernie Sanders loyalists repeatedly — and loudly — resisted the impending presidential nomination of Hillary Clinton.
Masses of Sanders delegates booed every time a speaker dared mention Clinton — even during the invocation prayer — and continued after convention chairwoman Marcia Fudge, an Ohio congresswoman, used her opening remarks to beg for civility.
“I’m going to be respectful of you, and I want you to be respectful of me,” she said sternly. “We’re all Democrats, and we need to act like it.”
Sanders supporters proceeded to heckle U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland as he spoke about his father, a poor sharecropper. “Stop TPP!” they yelled, referring to the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
To make peace with Sanders’ delegates, convention organizers scheduled speeches from several Sanders backers now campaigning for Clinton. But some of the pro-Sanders delegates didn’t seem to hear the pro-Clinton message.
“This is what democracy looks like!” they chanted. Outside Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, they protested.
This was after Sanders himself, one of Monday night’s keynote speakers, had urged his followers earlier in the day to unite behind Clinton.
“Immediately, right now, we have got to defeat Donald Trump, and we have got to elect Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine,” he said.
They booed Sanders, too. Neither his speech, nor his text message to supporters, nor his former spokeswoman’s tweeting “NO ONE STOLE THIS ELECTION!” seemed to quell the unrest.
By the afternoon, whether the crowd in the City of Brotherly Love would let Sanders and the other late-night headliners — First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — get through their speeches was in serious doubt.
“When we turn on each other, we can’t unite to fight back against a rigged system,” Warren planned to say, according to prepared remarks.
After the first hour or so of the convention, tempers had calmed somewhat, as Democrats showcased Latinos, labor unions and other popular leaders. When things got riled up again, comedian Sarah Silverman — an early Sanders endorser — declared she’d vote for Clinton with gusto — and got booed.
“To the ‘Bernie or bust’ people,” she ad-libbed from stage, “you’re being ridiculous.”
If party leaders thought they’d stave off the discontent by stripping Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of her role, they were wrong.
The Weston congresswoman got jeered so intensely at a Monday morning Florida delegation breakfast — a place where she might have expected sympathy — that she later decided not to even attempt to bang the gavel to open the convention.
“I have decided that in the interest of making sure that we can start the Democratic convention on a high note that I am not going to gavel in the convention,” Wasserman Schultz told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
She’d been greeted at a ballroom of the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown with cries of “Shame!” from protesters enraged over leaked Democratic Party emails that suggested Wasserman Schultz’s staff favored Clinton over Sanders during the primary.
It was exactly the embarrassing display of disunity Democrats hoped to avoid by removing her from the convention speaking program Saturday. On Sunday, she said she would resign from her chair post by the end of the convention, on Thursday.
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy Sanders supporters.
“She rigged the election,” said 39-year-old Sanjay Patel of Satellite Beach in Brevard County. “She’s still here; it bothers me so much.”
Republicans gloated over Democrats’ discord, noting their own convention in Cleveland had been called chaotic a week ago when rebellious delegates tried to rid themselves of nominee Donald Trump.
“I was watching last night on the news: There were Bernie supporters on the street ready to throw down,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said at a West Miami re-election rally. “Any convention that begins with the resignation of the chair is not off to a good start. We spent a week being lectured about how divided the Republican Party is, but I think the Democratic Party is more divided.”
Surrounded by police officers Monday morning, Wasserman Schultz plowed through her remarks, struggling to be heard over the mayhem.
“We have to make sure that we move forward together in a unified way,” she said. “We know that the voices in this room that are standing up and being disruptive — we know that that’s not the Florida we know.”
Wasserman Schultz’s supporters, some of them clad in her re-election campaign T-shirts, tried unsuccessfully to drown out the naysayers.
“They’re not real Democrats,” state Sen. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood said of the protesters. “They were rude, disruptive and obnoxious. They should have stopped screaming and let her speak.”
Wasserman Schultz made no other public appearance, though South Florida donors went through with a “thank you” event at Philadelphia’s Del Frisco steakhouse. There, according to attendees, Wasserman Schultz got plenty of applause and hugs.
As the convention began, Donna Brazile, who will replace Wasserman Schultz on an interim basis, apologized to Sanders on the party’s behalf over what was said in the leaked emails, which were published Friday by the website WikiLeaks.
“These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process,” Brazile said in a statement. “The DNC does not — and will not — tolerate disrespectful language exhibited toward our candidates.”
Miami Herald staff writers Alex Daugherty and Amy Sherman contributed to this report from Miami.