Thirty seconds at podium pay off for city man going to Democratic convention

VERGENNES — In baseball terms, Vergennes resident Matt Birong’s performance at the recent Democratic state convention in Barre was like hitting a walk-off homer while trailing in the bottom of the ninth. 
The-38-year-old owner of Vergennes eatery 3 Squares was a relative novice in the political world, faced scores of others seeking the same spot, and didn’t even get to campaign — and yet he was elected to be a delegate to next month’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
“I figured what the hell, I’d give it a shot,” Birong recalled. “I figured it was a really long shot.”
To start with, Birong was one of four delegates — along with Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, Eliza Benton and Christopher Cousineau — chosen at the city’s Democratic caucus to go to the May 22 Vermont Democratic convention at the Barre Opera House. 
Then he was one of 117 delegates, many of them veterans on the political scene or major campaign donors, vying for one of just 11 district delegate slots to the national convention. The state has 26 delegates in all, chosen in several ways: 10 are the so-called super-delegates by virtue of holding elective office, while others, including Lanpher, later earned at-large status. 
Sixteen, including Birong, are pledged to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by virtue of his state primary win. Most of the super-delegates are committed to former Secretary of State and now presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton. 
Birong in 2014 was recruited by Lanpher and the Main Street Alliance to lobby in Montpelier and Washington, D.C., on small business issues. He said he decided in May that as long as he was going to be at the state convention, he would try to go to the next, bigger show, too.
“I was just curious about how the whole process operated, and by throwing my hat in the ring that qualified me to be elected (as a delegate to the national convention),” he said. 
Birong, a novice on the scene, did not know much about the process, which included intense campaigning by the other 116 candidates. Their friends and relatives were pressing the flesh and passing out flyers on the Barre Opera House floor, and some placed ads in the convention program. 
“I walked in the door and it was a madhouse,” Birong said. “I said, ‘OK, I guess they really do press for these positions.’”
Birong had intended to send out emails and prepare handouts, but those plans hit a roadblock that further reduced his election odds: He learned that he and his investment partners in a Dominican Republic cacao farm were victims of bank fraud. Dealing with that problem took up his time leading up to the convention. He did no campaigning.
Then he learned only on arrival that candidates for district delegate had all been allotted 30 seconds to make their case to the 550 state convention attendees. 
“I really almost bailed on it, because I was not prepared,” Birong said. “I had no idea what I wanted to say.”
But he buckled down while party dignitaries gave speeches, and made a list of bullet points on his iPhone. 
He emphasized the work he had done with Lanpher and the Main Street Alliance to help craft a Vermont bill that offers workers paid leave, but is not too onerous for small businesses like his; his meetings in Washington with the state’s congressional delegation and high-ranking staffers about ending tax breaks for corporations that send jobs overseas; and what he called his “socially responsible small business owner approach” to 3 Squares. 
Birong said he just tried to describe himself and his experiences, which he thought gave him a niche. 
“I know they wanted variety from the group, and I know people wanted variety when they voted,” he said. “I guess that worked.”
But not right away. Six women and five men were chosen. Officials called the names of the six women first, and then read four male names, none of them Birong’s. 
Finally, the words “Matt Birong” were spoken.
“Diane (Lanpher) said my face was priceless,” Birong said. “I actually used an expletive, but I cracked a smile, and was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, I actually got a slot?’ I just started laughing.”
Lanpher, a friend and regular 3 Squares customer for years (“At times I used to think he should charge me rent”) agreed Birong was stunned.
“He turned to me and said, ‘What have you gotten me into?’” she said.
Lanpher had asked Birong to come to the city caucus and then urged him to run in Barre. She cited his open-mindedness, abilities to express his thoughts and listen to others, and his “sound business head, and a sound political head as well.” 
Lanpher said his short-notice speech showed why she had faith in him. 
“I was so proud of him,” she said. “This just affirms his ability to be engaged and think quick and go out there in 30 seconds and knock it out of the park, to be able to articulate in a short amount of time and demonstrate his strengths.”
The 2016 Democratic National Convention will be held in Philadelphia July 25 through 28, a week after the Republican Party gathers in Cleveland.
Normally, the Vermont delegation, like most from the smaller states, does not play a major role. But given Sanders’ strong performance in the primaries and his stated desire to align Democratic Party policy more with his and his voters’ goals, the Vermonters will be prominent. 
Birong said Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, explained it well. 
“She said that usually (the delegation) is sitting in the rafters with Guam and Puerto Rico. Things are totally different this year. We are on the floor front and center, because this is Bernie’s big party,” Birong said.
Lanpher expects Vermonters will see plenty of time in front of cameras and microphones. 
“Vermont’s delegation is going to have a particularly important role to demonstrate who we are, and publicly represent not only our senator but our state as well,” she said. 
Birong, already on a first-name basis with many of Vermont’s D.C. contingent, added the delegates will stay in the main hotel right near the convention hall and be asked to help make the push for policy and rules changes. 
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I am finding absolutely exhilarating,” Birong said. “I’m looking forward to the challenges and education that comes with it, to actually do something that could actually have meaningful change for many elections to come.”
At this point, the Sanders delegates are awaiting their “marching orders” on specific details, Birong said. 
“We’ve got a sense from Bernie’s campaign the direction it’s taking,” he said. “We should be getting harder information in the next week or two.”
As far as the nomination, Birong said he and others know which way the wind is blowing. Personally, he knows how he will vote in November. 
“Nobody is going to jump ship. After the convention, my view of it is I didn’t get the guy I wanted, but the person he appears to be losing to is a hell of a lot better than the alternative,” Birong said. “To throw a loose cannon like that as the face of the United States would be nothing short of catastrophic.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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