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JOEL STEIN

The young delegates' guide to the convention

August 29, 2008|JOEL STEIN

DENVER — Other than Wal-Mart, politics is the only arena where old people get all the jobs. But the Democratic National Committee set a goal this year to have 10% of its elected delegates be young, which the party defines as 35 or under. I'm guessing they define old as Robert Byrd's parents.

California exceeded the 10% mark, largely because sneaky college Democrats persuaded the state party to hold many delegate elections on campuses. That'd be like Republicans choosing all their delegates in VFW halls. But the plan worked. California sent more young delegates -- 49 -- than any other state; in fact, there are more young Californians than there are total delegates for 22 states. "I'm sort of over the hill, washed up," said 27-year-old Mar Vista delegate Jeff Millman. "I was sitting next to two UC Davis students who were 20 and they were delegates."

I also heard that there was a lot of hooking up among the youth delegation. "It's a mass orgy! It's awesome!" said delegate Dan Schneider, 31, who, admittedly, was pretty wasted and totally sarcastic when he told me that at a party at 2 a.m. After about 10 belligerent minutes spent mocking me, my reporting skills -- and then me and my reporting skills -- Schneider told me that despite my assertions to the contrary, the young delegates were not dorks. "If they have to campaign and caucus to win, they have to be ebullient. If that means dynamic, if that means attractive, so be it. They're not nerdy." And, after enough beers at high altitude, I began to agree with him.

But the ringleaders of the campus vote push? Not ebullient enough, it seems. Nick Warshaw, 21, the president of the California College Democrats, and Rocky Fernandez, 30, the president of the California Young Democrats, each managed, somehow, to lose their election for delegate.

"I got my butt kicked," said Warshaw, a senior at Claremont McKenna College. "I lost to an older gentleman who took off two months from work." Warshaw, of course, has taken 21 years off work.

The delegate selection system is surprisingly complex, partly because it's run by Democrats and partly because I find anything so intricately boring complex.

In the primaries, each presidential candidate is assigned a number of delegates in each congressional district, depending on how many votes he or she got there. So in Warshaw's district, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton got two delegates each. But the DNC wants equal gender representation, so there were four separate elections: male Obama delegate, female Obama delegate, male Clinton delegate and female Clinton delegate.

If a district has an odd number of delegates for a candidate, one spot gets gender switched every four years, on a different schedule in every district. You can see why voters think Democrats are less efficient at governing. I was surprised the DNC hadn't yet apportioned for race, class, sexual orientation and willingness to wear a funny hat.

The downside of having so many young delegates -- and so many politicians desperate to be liked -- was that it jammed up the after-party scene.

"It's a lot harder to get into these things than in Boston [in 2004]," said delegate Becca Doten, 29. She tried to get into Wednesday's "Unconventional '08" party, hosted by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. "You needed to call someone inside and tell them to come out and get you," she said. "Same with Eric Garcetti's party."

Doten was elected to be a delegate at a downtown Los Angeles restaurant called Chop Suey, where only one guy showed up who wasn't dragged along by a friend in the running. So all four wannabe delegates delivered speeches directly to him. It was the same campaign strategy used by Chris Dodd, only for Doten, it worked.

Doten said having so many young delegates helped the Democrats reach out to young voters. She seemed to do this by constantly updating her Facebook status with convention news along the lines of "This is awesome!"

Schneider claimed he even won over a lot of his moderate Republican friends this week. "I'm on the floor texting them. I've sent 3,000 text messages over the last four days," he said, making me look at many of them. "They want to play Super Nintendo and watch sports and hit on hot chicks. But if you get them involved, then they vote correctly." If only to stop the texting.

Still, as much fun as I was having because of the 10% youth rule, I couldn't help but feel as though young people stole the one massive party old people throw for themselves. I just hope that next week at the Republican convention, the GOP doesn't skew so not-old. We have to leave those people something.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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