Adventures of an Accidental Delegate
Fresh off the plane, still smelling like Manhattan in August, I can discern in the thin Denver air the faint ozone tang of righteousness. Stepping out onto this mile-high plateau of a city, like a rabbit on a helipad, all I want is a dark, odorous, subway-shaped hole to hide in.
The floor of the Denver airport features mosaic tiles of fleshy pink and acid green that look, to my eye, like salmon spawning on a self-portrait of Francis Bacon—an odd choice, I think. The airport also has some just-plain-scary murals, one of which shows children in "It's a Small World After All" international costumes carrying around American-flag-wrapped bundles of viciously curved swords and one of which features a soldier swinging a broadsword and toting a bayonet while a sleeping Latin-American family seems to have made a nest for itself in the folds of his cloak. Stetson-clad greeters keep popping up, seemingly out of the floor—my usual perplexed expression attracts them like blood-chummed sharks. By the time I get on the shuttle, I'm on the verge of a full-fledged panic attack and have to keep from hyperventilating audibly. Or maybe it's just the altitude.
Denver looks brand-spanking new, newly planted with zinnias and petunias. Greeters swarm the downtown, free bikes are available, and people hand out free bottled water with huge smiles. Even the Falun Gong protesters, who in New York are usually covered in fake blood and screaming, practice tai chi on a tinsel-covered float, color-coordinated to match the petunias.
By contrast, the Sheraton, where the New York and California delegations are staying, has '70s-era decor that could charitably be described as "porny." (The Hyatt, where the DNC money people and VIPs are staying, is much nicer, but you have to sweet-talk the doormen even to get into the lobby.) The first New York delegation event I attend is a reception in honor of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, looking as affable as ever despite the fact that the New York Times, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News all endorsed his opponent last week—33-year-old Obama delegate Paul Newell, who was a year old when Shelly started in the Assembly. I score an insulated tote bag with the logo "Speaker Sheldon Silver," the fourth tote bag I've been given since my arrival.
Swag so far has included antibacterial hand-sanitizing gel, branded Hogan & Hartson (a D.C.-based law firm) and hung on a carabiner; an SEIU magnetic poetry kit (including words and phrases like immigration, health care, retirement, and Si, se puede); a squashy lump of fake rubber coal stamped "Peabody: coalcandothat.com"; and Democratic Party limited-edition Kraft macaroni and cheese with donkey-shaped noodles. (The quiz on the back asks you to identify the president who said, "Ask not what KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese can do for you—ask what you can do for KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese.")
I just wish that one of the swag bags had contained painkillers. The welcome letter I received from the DNC a month ago contained five separate warnings against excess consumption of alcohol at high altitudes. ("In Denver's rarified air, golf balls go ten percent farther … and so do cocktails.") Sitting next to me on the plane, a lobbyist for the Business and Industry Association, wearing a seersucker suit and Wilma Flintstone-style necklace, told me I should have cut out alcohol and doubled my water intake at least two days ago in order to acclimate. No kidding—after just two glasses of white wine, I can feel my liver curling up around the edges as it tries to take shelter behind my pancreas.
The New York delegation so far has a weird notion of what constitutes a party. A 9 p.m. event offers ice cream instead of an open bar, a speech by Gov. David Paterson that no one even pretends to listen to, and "living statues"—people covered in gold body paint dressed as a baseball player, a mariachi, a Greek statue, and an old-school Scottish golfer in a tam-o-shanter. Tipsy and altitude-sick delegates weave among them, doing the occasional double-take.
So what am I doing here? People are always asking me (often in a tone of voice I don't find particularly flattering) how I ended up as a delegate. This is my first political campaign, and as a poet and public-interest lawyer, I'm hardly a power player. Here's my answer.
To be a pledged delegate, as opposed to a superdelegate, you have to be nominated by the campaign as a delegate candidate. In my district on Manhattan's West Side, there are six delegate slots, for which the Clinton and Obama campaigns each nominated six delegates. I was nominated by the Obama campaign—I had done a little bit of canvassing and some petitioning—but I didn't win a slot. (My district split, sending three delegates for Clinton and three for Obama. Still, I thought it was fun to have appeared on the ballot and to have people pull levers with my name on it in New York City's antiquated voting machines.)
Later in the year, however, after I had done some fundraising and legal work for the campaign, my name was put in as a candidate for "delegate at large"—one of 51 slots that aren't tied to results in any particular congressional district but that are allocated based on the overall statewide vote. This time, I got a slot. I still am not sure how, but for those of you aspiring to be delegates in 2012, here are a few lessons I learned from the delegate selection process:
1. Be Asian if you can manage it. (The definitions are pretty loose.) If you can't do that, at least be a veteran. The Democratic Party doesn't mess around with any loosey-goosey "diversity goals"; it just goes with straight-up quotas—racial, LGBT, veteran, and disabled. That means that if you were Asian and supported Obama, you automatically had a pretty good shot. Many Asians aren't politically involved, another substantial fraction trend Republican, and most of the self-designated Democratic Power Asians signed on early with Hillary.
2, Live in Oneonta … or Brownsville … or North Canton—any place where your chosen candidate is likely to get spanked. Try to pick a place where there is a large population of damp, raspy-voiced party bosses who start a lot of sentences with "I don't want you to take this the wrong way …" and end them with offhand slurs of George McGovern. These guys will pretty much ensure that anyone with a well-developed political survival instinct won't touch your candidate with a 10-foot pollster. In Manhattan—Hillary's home turf—any aspiring politico who'd ever hoped one day to be a judge, a city council member, or an apparatchik of any kind knew better than to sign on with Barack. At the time the campaign was making its initial selection of its delegate slate—back in September 2007—it became ridiculously hard to find anyone in the more far-flung districts who was politically savvy enough even to care about the Democratic primary but who was also willing to buck the local party machinery.
Thus, one guy who ended up on the delegate slate in Utica, N.Y., was a 19-year-old college student who was working part-time at a pharmacy. This guy was really killing himself during the petitioning process, standing with a clipboard for eight hours at a time in the snow-covered parking lots of assorted strip malls (in Utica, it snows in November) and serving as a perfect target for the most creative cussing efforts of the local Republican population, who thought hunting season had started early that year. (Petitioning hint: If someone is wearing a baseball cap featuring a screaming eagle over crossed rifles, he is probably not a good Obama prospect, regardless of Barack's interpretation of the Second Amendment.)
3. Start early. Uncool early. The first canvassing trip I took to New Hampshire was in early July 2007, and even then, self-designated old-schoolers were dispensing attitude about how good things had been back in February, before all these newbies showed up. Appearing so early didn't necessarily endear me to New Hampshirites, who like to delay their presidential politics until at least fall foliage season. (This is true even as they pride themselves on being able to have a detailed policy discussion at the drop of a leaf.) Reactions among the locals ranged from violent distaste to threats of bodily harm and at least one dog attack.
But no matter what your success with the locals, the die-hards sharing the van with you were the people who ended up running your local campaign office. And when it came time for them to nominate the initial slate of delegates, it helped that they had a strong memory of you trying to fend off an enraged Doberman with your clipboard.