It was 20 years – and 18 points ago

DENVER – Everyone has a favorite Democratic National Convention, and for former State Democratic Party Chairman Ray Durkin and party executive director Emma Byrne, the year was 1988, when Democrats left Atlanta, Georgia with a 17-18 point lead in the polls and fully confident they would buck the GOP.

“The high we got from the convention was huge, and everyone was absolutely convinced we couldn’t lose,” recalled Byrne.

“That would change, of course,” said Durkin. “That was before we learned that Mike Dukakis was a nice man. He was afraid to attack, and he took a beating.”

The year was important for Durkin, the Vailsburg, Newark product who lived in the same neighborhood as other Irish-American party bulwarks: the late John Cryan (father of state chairman, Joe) and Assemblyman (And former State Party Chair) Tom Giblin (D-Montclair).

Elected to a four-year term as party chair in 1985, Durkin served as the head of the New Jersey delegation for Dukakis-Bentsen, which had some specifically Jersey storylines.

“Olympia Dukakis (a cousin of the nominee), who won the Academy Award that year for ‘Moonstruck,’ was from Montclair, so there was a lot of excitement in the delegation for her,” said Durkin. “When she spoke, Emma had the whole place decorated with half moons.”

It was also an important time for then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ), for whom Byrne served as state director, who would run unsuccessfully for president 12 years later.

“Many believed he could have had the nomination for the asking,” said Durkin of his close friend.

The delegation stayed at the Embassy Suites Hotel in the fashionable Buckhead neighborhood. Bryne says she remembers it was the first time in her memory that New Jersey had its own hotel.

“Up to that point, New Jersey was always crammed in some tiny ballroom while New York enjoyed the bigger, better accommodations in the same hotel,” said Byrne.

Durkin and Byrne are not at this year’s convention, but Durkin’s son, Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin, arrives tomorrow.

If the 2008 New Jersey Delegation comes to the big dance with wobbly legs – as more than half the delegates were Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) backers – the 1988 delegates had mostly been huddled up in and out of the convention.

Newark Mayor Sharpe James was a Jesse Jackson supporter, but Senate President John Russo led the overwhelming Dukakis forces into the fall.

Then came Dukakis’ nosedive as Lee Atwater’s Republican attack machine went full-bore negative, and Dukakis stumbled with his infamous tank ride and a bland response to Bernard Shaw’s hypothetical debate question about Kitty Dukakis getting raped.

“Was he in the helmet yet?” Durkin dead-panned, jokingly holding to that double-digit Dukakis mirage that George Herbert Walker Bush would obliterate in the weeks ahead.

“No, that came later,” said Byrne.

It was 20 years – and 18 points ago