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Divisions erupt as Democrats gather in Philadelphia to nominate Clinton

PHILADELPHIA – Happy days aren’t here again.

Instead, a simmering unhappiness will spill out on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center when delegates to the Democratic National Convention gather there Monday.

That’s because this convention belongs to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist from Vermont who finished second in the Democratic primaries, almost as much as it belongs to the prospective Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

And Sanders supporters see slights everywhere – in leaked emails that show Democratic officials trashing their candidate, in the process that left Sanders running behind, and in the selection of a moderate as Clinton’s running mate.

This convention will be all about how much of that unhappiness bubbles to the surface – and whether it means that Democrats, like Republicans who gathered in Cleveland last week, remain divided as they head toward the fall election.

Clinton’s forces plan to do everything they can to prevent that, to show a strong front in opposition to Donald Trump, the bellicose billionaire from Manhattan who won the Republican presidential nomination in part by promising to build a wall at the Mexican border and to shut the borders to Muslim immigrants.

[Related: State’s convention delegation includes notables from Western New York]

In contrast, in the crowning moment of the 25-year soap opera of her national political career, Clinton will portray herself as a uniter, not a divider.

“Next week in Philadelphia, we will offer a very different vision for our country, one that is about building bridges, embracing the diversity that makes our country great, lifting each other up, standing together,” Clinton said in Miami on Saturday.

There’s some question, though, whether Democrats themselves will stand together at their own convention.

Some Sanders delegates may remain seated in protest during Clinton’s acceptance speech Thursday night, said Norman Solomon, national coordinator for the Bernie Delegates Network.

Then again, Solomon said, they might just walk out.

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MIAMI, FL - JULY 23: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Democratic vice presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) greet supporters during a campaign rally at Florida International University Panther Arena on July 23, 2016 in Miami, Florida. Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine made their first public appearance together a day after the Clinton campaign announced Senator Kaine as the Democratic vice presidential candidate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Democratic vice presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) greet supporters during a campaign rally in Miami. (Getty Images)

A sign of trouble for Clinton came marching down Market Street in downtown Philadelphia shortly after noon Sunday: a parade of hundreds of Sanders supporters, bearing signs with messages such as “Party insiders rigged the election.”

This was not a too-late protest of sore losers. Instead, it was a sign of the Democratic times, which seemed to shift Friday for two reasons:

• First, WikiLeaks released a treasure trove of emails from inside the Democratic National Committee, showing party officials plotting ways to help Clinton by hurting Sanders.

• Then, Clinton announced her running mate: Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a widely respected moderate, but not a progressive firebrand like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, a Buffalo-area native.

Sanders delegates seemed divided on Kaine, but unanimously disgusted that the emails show that DNC staffers had contemplated portraying Sanders as an atheist.

“Pre-Friday, a lot of people were basically saying they were going to work to defeat Trump and to support Hillary after the convention,” said Kathryn Regan Eskew, a Sanders delegate from Orchard Park. “But after Friday, people feel betrayed.”

The WikiLeaks revelations make it seem as if the DNC was colluding with the Clinton campaign from the start, putting Sanders at a disadvantage, said Kate Miller, a Sanders delegate from Hamburg.

“If this is the case, I’m a little appalled,” she said.

The email revelations prompted Sanders to call for the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., as DNC chairwoman, and later in the day Sunday, she announced she would quit at the end of the convention.

[Related: Changing perceptions of Clinton is campaign’s biggest challenge]

In the meantime, Sanders praised Kaine on CNN, saying: “On his worst, worst day, Tim Kaine is 100 times better than Donald Trump will ever be.”

But that didn’t seem to matter to some Sanders supporters, who perceive Kaine to be far closer to Wall Street than Warren and Perez are.

Sanders supporters are now wavering on whether to back Clinton, and it’s “related to her demonstrable contempt of the progressive wing of the party by the selection of Tim Kaine on the ticket,” said Solomon, of the Bernie Delegates Network.

Solomon said his group was thinking of challenging Kaine’s nomination as vice president.

And that’s just one of the potential embarrassments that Clinton could face this week.

“There are a panoply of reasons why there’s likely to be protests by Bernie delegates on the convention floor,” said Donna Smith, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America.

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Olivia Love-Hattestad, a supporter of Bernie Sanders and an Illinois delegate, with a cutout of Sanders during a rally the day before the Democratic National Convention in downtown Philadelphia. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

Olivia Love-Hattestad, a supporter of Bernie Sanders and an Illinois delegate, with a cutout of Sanders during a rally the day before the Democratic National Convention in downtown Philadelphia. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

Protests or no protests, Clinton supporters said this convention will be the showcase the nominee deserves, a well-programmed piece of television that will offer a much brighter vision and more policy specifics than the roundup of rage that the Republicans offered.

“I think it will be much more substantive and much more about the future,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the convention will give Democrats the chance to explain what they are for, a week after Republicans spent their convention talking about what they are against.

As the Democratic Party again attempts to reach out to the middle class, “this will be a test for us,” Schumer said.

It will be a test, too, for Clinton, who, after decades in the public limelight as first lady, senator from New York and secretary of state remains a familiar yet remote figure.

“She has to be seen more like a sentient being rather than this hard-core personality,” said Michael V. Haselswerdt, a professor of political science at Canisius College. “Kiss some babies. Hug some kids.”

The convention itself may not be the place to do that, but don’t be surprised to see a video showing Clinton to be far warmer and fuzzier than she is when speaking from behind a lectern. Similarly, top Democrats said they expect that much of the convention will be geared toward rebuilding public trust in Clinton, which has shrunk in the wake of the reprimand that FBI Director James B. Comey Jr. issued regarding Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state.

Expect, too, that her convention speech Thursday will be an optimistic look forward, building on the Obama years, in contrast to the 75-minute diatribe delivered by Trump at the GOP convention.

And while it has almost gone unnoticed amid the email scandal and the late rebellion from the Sanders delegates, Clinton’s nomination will also mark a historic moment. She will be the first woman ever to be nominated for president by a major American political party.

For longtime women’s right’s advocates such as Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, seeing a woman accept the nomination “means everything,” she said.

But Slaughter stressed that there’s another important reason for Clinton’s nomination. She said that given her service as first lady, senator and secretary of state, Clinton would be among the best-qualified presidential candidates ever.

You might think that sort of candidate would win the nomination by acclamation, but that’s not going to happen.

In fact, Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant from Manhattan, said the goal of the convention would have to be far more modest than that.

“They have to not have chaos,” Sheinkopf said.

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Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner speaks at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton in Depew. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner speaks at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton in Depew. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Chaos – or at least trouble – could also erupt in the smaller-scale venue that is the New York delegation, which, like many delegations, is split between Clinton and Sanders loyalists.

There’s a separate split in the New York delegation downstate, between supporters of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Responsible for keeping order in this messy political family will be Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, the new chairman of the New York State Democratic Party.

“I will be making sure the delegation is unified, that they enjoy themselves, and that they leave to elect Hillary Clinton the next president of the United States,” Brown said.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner, an at-large delegate, said he anticipates no major problems from the local Sanders delegates.

After the primary in which Sanders finished a close second in Erie County, many of the senator’s volunteers drifted toward Zellner’s headquarters operation and the Clinton effort.

Still, Zellner said some delegates will remain unhappy with the Clinton-Kaine ticket.

“You’re always going to have that with a big tent, diversified party,” Zellner said.

That diversity will come clear onstage, where big-name Democrats from across the country will speak.

Warren and first lady Michelle Obama and will speak Monday night. Former President Bill Clinton, the candidate’s husband, will speak Tuesday. President Obama, Vice President Biden and Kaine will all speak Wednesday, followed Thursday by the nominee herself.

In addition, three big New York political players – Cuomo, Schumer and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand – all will take the stage at some point during the four-day convention.

But other than Hillary Clinton, the most-watched speaker at the convention may well be Sanders, whose speech Monday night will give his supporters some clues as to how they should conduct themselves.

As of Sunday, though, some Sanders delegates seemed to be in the mood for a rebellion, and Smith, of the Progressive Democrats, said she saw nothing wrong with that.

“This is a democracy,” she said. “This is not a production show here in Philadelphia.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com and rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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