In a coup for Providence, nearly 3,000 progressive bloggers, grassroots and union activists, online organizers, journalists and more are gathering here this week for the seventh annual Netroots Nation convention.

The Thursday-through-Sunday event at the Rhode Island Convention Center is bringing top-drawer speakers and a broad agenda, ranging from "the 2012 War on Women," foreclosure fraud and climate change, to labor issues, the death penalty and strategies for effecting political change -- including in this year's election.

The convention, billed as the country's largest progressive gathering, spells big bucks and a high profile.

Attendees will spend a projected $3.5 million to $4 million for the convention center, hotels, dining, shopping and so on. Add to that the national and international buzz Providence will get through the blogosphere and media attention.

Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman will anchor a keynote address. Other featured participants include New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman; Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate; Van Jones, founding president of "Rebuild the Dream"; Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood of America; AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka; Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; the full Rhode Island congressional delegation; and a host of other political representatives, from the local to national level.

"The attendance is anyone doing progressive politics online," says Netroots spokeswoman Mary Rickles. Or as the Netroots website says: "Think family reunion for the left."

Beyond the speeches, there are caucuses, training sessions, screenings and panels, cultural events and several block parties.

"We always get local support from all of our host cities," Rickles said, "but seriously, the level of excitement and support from people in Providence is off the charts."

Mayor Angel Taveras said it's an honor "to host the best minds in America's progressive movement."
He added, "Netroots will play an important role in November as our nation makes a choice to move forward or go back, and Providence is very pleased to be at the center of the conversation about how we can build on the work we have accomplished in the last four years."

Netroots Nation started as a "meet-up" by the news organization and online political community Daily Kos. It outpaced expectations; grew exponentially, and re-branded itself from Yearly Kos to Netroots Nation. It has since hosted events in Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Organizers eyed Providence two years ago for the 2011 convention, but backed off when they learned about a now-resolved dispute between workers and management at the Westin hotel. 
When the dispute settled in February 2011, the wooing began.

David Segal, former city councilman, former state representative and founder of the progressive political action committee Demand Progress, put the parties in touch with each other. Having attended prior conferences, Segal said, "I've known the organizers for awhile," and stepped in when they asked for help.

After learning that Providence was again on the short list, "we made a personal pitch," Taveras said.
"I got on the phone and called the old-fashioned way. I did not tweet, did not e-mail," Taveras added, "but I got on the phone and called and let them know how much the mayor wanted them to come, and let them know much Senator [Sheldon] Whitehouse wanted them also.

"I promoted the city as a wonderful place for the bloggers to come," he said." It's a creative capital, we're young, we're hip; it's a city on the move, in good ways."

Taveras, Whitehouse and the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau touted the city's accessible East Coast location, its walkability, and cultural scene.

As a bonus, "we enticed them with ‘WaterFire'," Taveras said. The rivers will be in full-sparkle mode on Saturday night.

Whitehouse also placed calls, and traveled to last year's Netroots Nation in Minneapolis to announce that Providence would host in 2012, said spokesman Seth Taylor. The senator has since been involved with some of the organizing.

This spells good news for the financially strapped city that Taveras has wrestled, with some controversy, to pull back from the brink.

Bloggers "have an international reach, and it's a chance to showcase the city in a really positive way," Taveras said. "We want to make sure they have a really good time while they're here and make sure they know Providence is on its way back."

Martha Sheridan, the convention bureau's executive director, says Netroots Nation adds to a "really great summer on tap." That includes conventions on technological innovation, the World Triathlon Corporation - 2012 Amica Ironman; a gathering of plant pathologists, and the Rock 'N' Roll ½ Marathon, among others.

Meanwhile, Occupy Providence was planning a 24-hour presence on the sidewalk outside the Convention Center throughout the event. That includes sleeping bags, says Jared Paul, a member of the group's media outreach group.

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré said Friday that the city had reached out to Occupy to work out the sleeping-bag issue, since "there are no sleeping bags [allowed] on the sidewalk. If they have an intention to hold a vigil those four days, or some kind of presence, then we're interested in accommodating them for that purpose."The group is not protesting Netroots Nation per se, Paul said, but "it is for sure a protest," underscoring the group's continued fight against economic injustice and "lack of transparency in how the people's money has been spent." The latter includes on the recent 38 Studios debacle that stands to leave Rhode Island taxpayers on the hook for at least $100 million.

Rickles, the Netroots spokeswoman, said, "We welcome their presence."
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