DENVER Utah delegate Phil Riesen was kicking back at a sidewalk cafe in downtown Denver, watching the adult circus known as the Democratic National Convention, when a band of protesters marched by followed by an army of black-shirted SWAT policemen.
Instinctively, he almost got out of his chair.
Not so he could join them. So he could interview them.
"I'm sitting there picking out stories," says Riesen. "It was like second nature."
But he resisted the urge to actually get up, for several good and important reasons beyond the fact that he hadn't yet finished his drink.
He didn't have a cameraman with him, he didn't have a microphone, and he hasn't worked in TV for more than a decade.
"You always find the best stories when you're not working," smiles Riesen.
Not that he isn't working as a convention delegate, but it's a far different kind of duty from the career he left behind in journalism. These days, he's the one being interviewed, not the other way around.
This is Riesen's first national political convention as a delegate but the fifth he has attended in person. As a correspondent for KALL Radio and then a news anchor for Utah's ABC affiliate, Channel 4, he covered conventions in 1972 in Miami (Democrat), 1984 in Dallas (Republican) and San Francisco (Democrat) and 1988 in Atlanta (Democrat).
The first one was the most memorable. He was a young newsman summoned to a news conference in Miami where aides to nominee George McGovern announced the breaking news that there had been a break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington.
The conventions fascinated him. Politics fascinated him.
"It wasn't like I constantly thought about it," he says. "But a small part of me always thought, 'Gee, I'd like to do that someday."'
He first left the mainstream media for the political world in 1999 as a nonpaid volunteer with the campaign of Ross "Rocky" Anderson, who was running for mayor of Salt Lake City.
Rocky won and hired Riesen as his first director of communications. Twenty-three days later he was called into the mayor's office.
"I was told we had to come up with an exit strategy," Riesen recollects.
Riesen turned out to be the first of more than 40 people who would be fired or resign during Anderson's tenure. He looks back on it now as "a good learning experience," but he's still stunned that it happened. He suspects his identifying with the media might have been a factor.
"I was told I needed to work the press," says Riesen. "I said, 'I work with the press, I don't work the press.' I think that got back to Rocky."
He retreated to what he knew, opening an ad agency and recording studio that he continues to operate out of his house. He does voice-over work for clients around the country and is a local spokesman for, among others, John Paras Furniture and the University of Utah Credit Union. It keeps his voice in the air and face on the screen.
"I'm still stopped 10 or 12 times a week in the supermarket or the mall by people who say, 'You're the news guy. I see you every night,"' says Riesen.
He made a second foray into politics three years ago, when Democratic Party leaders approached him about taking his high-profile looks and well-known name and challenging incumbent Republican Susan Lawrence for the House seat in District 36 in the Olympus Cove area of Salt Lake City.
A rookie campaigner at age 63, Riesen agreed, walked the district twice, lost 25 pounds, and won by fewer than 250 votes in what had been a Republican stronghold as long as anyone could remember.
He remembers looking at his wife, Glenda, on election night and saying, "Now what do I do?"
Well, for one thing, fly to Denver a year and a half later and cast one of Utah's official votes to nominate Barack Obama for the presidency.
For the record, he says attending a convention is a lot easier than covering one."I'm enjoying this phase of my life," he says. "I did the other phase for a long time and enjoyed that too. But other than when I'm at a sidewalk cafe, thinking, 'That would be a good story,' I don't think about it much."
Lee Benson will be filing columns daily from the Democratic National Convention. You can e-mail him at [email protected]