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Roll Call

Donna Edwards Afforded Rare Speech Opportunity at Convention

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Donna Edwards speaks at the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It is fairly obvious that Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has tried to turn the Democratic National Convention into a coming-out party for a future presidential run.

But obscured in the political shadow he cast, it was also a big week for another Maryland Democrat: Rep. Donna Edwards.

Opportunities to leverage a convention are rare and difficult for an ambitious politician to execute. How this week played out for her is a window into how a convention can elevate a backbencher within a political party's hierarchy.

When Edwards came to Charlotte by car on Sunday, it was already shaping up to be an important week. But the stakes were about to get much higher. Earlier in the day, she moved up the television food chain, advancing from appearances on the cable news networks to one of her first Sunday show appearances, on ABC's "This Week."

The highlight of the week ahead was her minute-long scheduled address to the Democratic convention in Time Warner Cable Arena - along with a few other female House Democrats. Edwards had written a few biographical remarks for her Tuesday night appearance.

But during that car ride on Sunday, she received a call from Broderick Johnson of the Obama campaign, asking her to instead speak for four minutes at Bank of America Stadium at 7 p.m. Thursday. Whereas so many up-and-comers jockey for any sort of moment on the stage, Edwards flatly denied she had engaged in any lobbying.

Her overbooked schedule instantly changed. Everything now revolved around the Thursday speech. The upgrade left her thrilled but "petrified."

It was a different story four years ago, when Edwards was a brand-new Member of Congress thanks to a special election. She had just successfully ousted then-Rep. Albert Wynn in a primary, despite his having the support of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Maryland establishment.

This time around, Edwards spent the first part of the week making delegation breakfast appearances, but the speech was always on her mind.

On Tuesday, she mulled it over in a car packed with her entourage as they drove from the Maryland breakfast to speech rehearsals.

"I would say so, yes," she said, when asked if this was the largest crowd she would ever speak in front of. She then laughed from anxiety.

Her staff took jovial delight at her stage fright.

"I have no idea what I'm wearing on Thursday," she admitted moments later, adding that there would be no rushing out to a department store in the next 48 hours.

"I almost always over-pack. When I packed, I didn't know I would be speaking on Thursday. And so, whatever's in the bag is what's gonna happen."

Her next stop was the most important of the day. She was headed to the Democratic National Convention Committee headquarters, the nerve center of the convention's logistics in downtown Charlotte.

She arrived early - rare for a Member. But Edwards made clear to her staff that speech preparations took precedence over everything else.

Edwards sat in a waiting area as MSNBC blared. Her lips moved as she read and re-read a worn copy of the speech that she personally wrote in "the span of an hour and a half." It seemed as if the writing of the speech was the easiest part of it all for her.

After a few minutes, a woman named Suzanne Franchetti emerged. She had a stopwatch around her neck and ushered Edwards into the committee's "rehearsal room."

In normal circumstances, it is a windowless conference room. But today it had a podium with a microphone duct-taped onto it. Off to each side were teleprompter panels. Directly across from the podium was a head-on teleprompter and a video camera. A three-woman team in charge of the prompter sat at a table to the side.

Franchetti's job was to coach all of the speakers. With Edwards, Franchetti's first task was to put her at ease.

"Where's my gin and tonic when I need it?" Edwards joked back to her.

Then Franchetti sat Edwards in a chair and had her fill out a worksheet about her clothing choices. Franchetti warned her to avoid patterned materials because they do not translate well on television.

At this point, Obama campaign speechwriters were editing Edwards' speech from a remote location. At last, the speech loaded and practice began.

Franchetti started her stopwatch and Edwards started her speech. Franchetti monitored the performance primarily through a TV monitor.

When it was over, Franchetti looked pleased as she stared at her stopwatch.

"Three and a half minutes," Franchetti said.

The next half hour resembled how one might imagine it looks as a professional baseball player takes hitting practice. He knows what he's doing, but the coach makes small criticisms that produce a more polished product.

"That's exactly what's like," Franchetti said. "That's a good analogy."

The room teemed with Edwards' staff offering moral support, but there were also several strangers. It was an odd sight to see a politician drop her facade and take criticism constructively.

"They're professionals. They know what they're doing, and I respect that," Edwards said later. "And I felt like they wanted me to succeed."

The prompter team noted words that tripped up Edwards. Soon those words appeared underlined or capitalized in the prompter.

Edwards gave the speech a second reading. This time Franchetti stopped her often and broke down specific criticisms.

She encouraged Edwards to shift her whole body left and right when using the side prompter panels, rather than just turning her head.

"No U.S. Open!" Franchetti chimed.

Edwards read through the speech one last time, and all agreed she had improved and the session was over.

The Edwards entourage then hustled a few blocks to another Maryland event - a luncheon honoring Sargent Shriver.

A litany of Maryland political leaders spoke. When it was Edwards' turn, her delivery was free of notes, let alone a prompter. It was a far cry from the rehearsals only an hour before.

After the lunch, there was a surprised and murmured reaction to the standing ovation she received.

Edwards has a big smile and disarming brown eyes that belie the frustrations sources on Capitol Hill privately express about how she goes about business. She has locked horns with colleagues over a host of issues from Maryland redistricting to the debt ceiling.

Some of the very people she has frustrated most were in that room, but judging by the reaction, the state's most junior Democratic House Member - and only female - was on equal footing with more senior Members, such as Maryland Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings and Chris Van Hollen and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer - and O'Malley.

After lunch, it was off to a Democratic National Campaign Committee-hosted women's tea.

The rest of her day was cluttered with event after event. She managed to steal some time to head back to her hotel 30 minutes outside Charlotte to prepare for her appearance that night with her fellow female House Democrats on the convention stage.

On Wednesday morning, the news came down that Obama's address, and Edwards' too, would take place in the smaller basketball arena because of threatening rain.

Because of the move, Edwards' speech timing carried no greater significance than the dozens of other speeches delivered in the Time Warner Cable Arena at off-peak times.

But what probably matters most is that she was asked to speak at the football stadium in the first place.

"I'm not part of any establishment," Edwards said Tuesday when discussing the trajectory of her career. "That's not how I came in."

For this convention, though, it's how she came out.

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