I paid someone to shave me on my first morning as a Democratic activist. It was expensive, but very pleasant. The barber didn’t take debit cards, so I had to run to an ATM in order to pay him. When I returned wheezing in my well-chosen tweed and lavender cashmere sweater combo—I thought hard about my outfit that day—I apologized. "No problem," he said. "Happy to wait. You look so handsome."
This was just the confidence booster I needed. After paying my $100 to register as a Young Professional member of the Democratic Women’s Leadership Forum (WLF), I was set to attend the group’s National Issues Conference in Washington, D.C., but feeling a bit nervous. What would they say at registration when I stopped by to pick up my lanyard? Would I be the only Democratic woman leader-in-training with a moustache, however well trimmed? I hoped the aftershave didn’t smell too strongly.
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The WLF was founded in 1993, according to the pamphlet I received at check-in, "to uphold a viable women’s finance council as an integral part of the Democratic Party and to increase their engagement in the Party. The WLF is made up of a national community of dynamic female leaders committed to maintaining a women’s outreach program by raising substantial resources, building political networks, and reaching women voters in 50 states." Leaders like me.
Day one was given over to a series of training sessions. After checking in I opened the white folder I had been given and scanned the conference material. A few key words and phrases recurred: "powerful," "dynamic," "leverage," "influence," "business." This was going to be serious, dynamic, powerful business. I was there to leverage, influence, and learn, not to fool around.
When I entered the meeting area for the opening session, I found myself wondering whether I should just make a leg for the Donkey Kong machine that beckoned to me in the lobby with its beatable-looking high score. Here were some very serious people: a roomful of women, more than half of them aged 60 or older, with expensive haircuts and elegant but sensible shoes—a surprising number of flats, not that I spend much time staring under tables at old ladies’ feet—and pearls and nice watches and pantsuit-handbag combos that probably cost more than a year of my rent. The women either eyed me with suspicion or pretended that I did not exist.
I tried to relax. I took advantage of the coffee and free pastries—on both days I really enjoyed something called an "oatmeal streusel croustade"—and did my best to steady my nerves. Despite my efforts I snoozed through the opening remarks from Lottie Shackelford, the chair of the DNC’s Women’s Caucus, and through most of the hour-long talk from the co-founders of a nonprofit called All In America. When I came to, someone was talking about the difference between diversity and inclusion.
"Diversity is about the people who are invited to the party," she said. "Inclusion means letting them pick the music."
Eventually I realized that I was in for two hours on outreach and social media. One of the most important things a Democratic woman leader can do, I learned, is to tweet. For most of the older ladies in attendance this was a stumbling block. To supplement the three-page "Introduction to Twitter" pamphlet given to all attendees—"Feel empowered to tweet about a recipe you’re looking forward to trying, a scenic snap of a place you just biked to, or your thoughts on a book you just finished"—there was a special panel from Cate and Kayleigh, two 20-something mid-level DNC employees. It did not go well.
"Who here can tell me what women’s issues are?" said Kayleigh.
I don’t know whether it was too close to lunchtime, but the crowd seemed disengaged. One person in the back raised her hand, but Kayleigh didn’t call on her. Instead, she pressed on, explaining that women’s issues are equal pay, paid leave, access to quality reproductive health care, and what she vaguely called "family issues." She made virtually no eye contact during her remarks.
"Everyone needs fuel for the road trip we’re going on—in an electric car, because we’re Democrats."
She showed us a PowerPoint as well, from which I remember two slides: "MESSAGE: Share a unique point of view" and "Hashtags #: Use sparingly."
Glancing across the room I noticed that there were three other males present, one of whom was sitting quietly to my left wearing a tweed jacket similar to mine, only with elbow patches, while another was in the back of the room manning—oops—a merchandise booth that sold "I Hate Tea (Parties)" travel mugs and "AMERICA IS ALREADY GREAT" hats.
The third man was enduring a not quite audible scolding from a grand old dame for removing a water pitcher from her table without asking. This fellow made my blood boil. I was doing my American damnedest to be courteous and well behaved, limiting my consumption of tobacco to one cigarette per hour, putting my best foot forward on behalf of my woefully underrepresented sex as I learned how to become a woman leader, and here he was blowing it over water of all things.
"Ugh, that’s the same slide," Cate said when I looked up, clicking the space bar on her laptop.
Meanwhile a few of the women were taking down every word, nodding thoughtfully, but most of them seem to have tuned out. By the time we wrapped things up, there were no pointed direct questions, but plenty of chatter.
"I’ve had Twitter for a long time but never figured it out. I remember we used to do this kind of thing by calling into C-SPAN."
"I sent a tweet just now but nobody wrote me back. I even tried again with the hashtag you said to use."
"I don’t know what to say."
"How do you get more followers?"
"Yeah, I only have 100."
"I would love it if you all followed each other," Cate said.
Next was a roundtable on fundraising, the topic, I soon realized, about which many of my fellow attendees were most enthusiastic. Speaking were Shefali, a veteran bundler and house party maven from California, and Julia, the DNC’s point woman on all things LGBT.
Shefali really put the fear of the Lord in me. She exuded money and energy, two things in whose presence I have always felt uncomfortable. She talked about hosting fundraisers at her home in the Bay Area and how important it was to be "warm and unthreatening" while figuring out their price points. "Remember that you are an extension of the campaign. We don’t want people who are not acting as kindly or are as properly as they should," which I took for a polite way of saying "Don’t get trashed at your Organizing for Hillary Wine and Cheese!"
I liked Julia more. She was very funny, even willing to mock DNC fundraising emails. "Those emails are terrible. I do this for a living, and I just can’t even with them. There are times when I just want to throw my phone away, which is hard for a 25-year-old to say. But we don’t have the Koch brothers! The Democratic Party is us."
During the Q&A session, a black woman who said that she holds block parties for kids in the D.C. area asked whether there was too much emphasis on fundraising in the party and not enough on other grassroots activities. "Some of the people I work with can’t afford to give anything, not even $10."
Here Shefali’s nerve began to fail her and she spouted something incoherent about "the ethnically diverse that may not have an abundance of money." Julia, clearly wanting the issue to be dropped, followed up by suggesting that they talk about the matter afterward in private.
Another woman stood up, also a local, or near enough—she said she lived, like your correspondent, across the river from D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia. Wearing a pink blazer the same color as Hillary Clinton’s tunic from the famous People magazine walker cover, she was clearly the WLFer par excellence, there to rouse the faithful in her southern lawyer’s drawl. "I’m giving all I have to Hillary," she said. "I’ve already raised $200,000 for her. It’s not difficult, folks. Give up your Coca-Cola for a week, give $10 to her. I’ve already convinced three women who work at my dry cleaner’s to do it."
This prompted the last of many reminders that day that the party did not in fact have a nominee and that, while it was a good thing that the strong women and allies present were enthusiastic about particular candidates, it was important that this remained an officially neutral event.
We were all, I think, relieved when Claire, the WLF’s somewhat frazzled director who had not forwarded the final schedule for the conference to attendees until 1:30 that morning, came up and said that it was time for another break before the appearance of the day’s marquee speakers, Muriel Bowser and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayors of D.C. and Baltimore respectively. Theirs were both excellent performances, and if it hadn’t been the end of a long day I might have been very impressed by Rawlings-Blake’s severe tone. "We do not accept excuses for poor performance," she said, making me think of Baltimore’s record-high murder rate this year. "Failure is not an option." (She has said she will not run for reelection.)
On the first day of the conference, the men’s room was deserted both times I visited it. On the second day there wasn’t one, at least not on the level of the hotel where the conference proceedings were being held behind a metal detector and a line of security personnel. Fortunately the folks in charge were very indulgent, smiling as I came in and out for multiple cigarette breaks throughout the day. They even ignored the—I assume—Secret Service-imposed curfew of 3:15 p.m., after which point no one was supposed to be re-admitted. I was grateful for this even though I had gone to the trouble of getting two packs of nicotine gum to tide me over in case I found myself stuck inside the secure zone.
There were about four times as many people there on day two, when the entire four-person Democratic presidential field was slated to speak. Lincoln Chafee’s concession speech, a model of terseness and humility, was obviously the best thing I heard all day. It was also over by 8:45 a.m. Later in the afternoon, I did have a good conversation with Tony, a black guy from South Carolina who sat down next to me after the conclusion of the Women Breaking Barriers panel sandwiched between remarks by Hillary Clinton and Obama’s speech. I asked him what had brought him to the conference.
"See that Asian lady over there?" he said, gesturing across the table. "My boss. She’s a county chair."
A doughty woman in a blue pantsuit wearing many, many pieces of jewelry was frowning and drinking a complimentary Perrier.
Tony and I chatted pleasantly for a few minutes, during which I tried my best to avoid saying that I was here to make fun of the proceedings. When the subject of candidates came up, he said that he hadn’t made up his mind. I mentioned that it was a pretty pro-Hillary crowd.
"Everybody with money supports Hilllary," he said. "My brother supports Bernie, though. I kind of like O’Malley."
What’s wrong with Hillary?
"Well, I’m from South Carolina, and you might remember that her husband said some"—he paused—"interesting things about the president when she was running in 2008."
All in all, I thought I’d learned a lot. The only thing I regretted was that I wouldn’t be able to put on one of the house parties I’d learned about from the training packet. At the very least I figured that I should try to go to something like it, so last week I signed up to attend a party for Hillary Clinton supporters at a condo in Arlington, Virginia, where we were scheduled to "Watch the debate, meet new friends, get organized and thinking about our HRC plans for 2016."
In contrast to the intense, mercenary spirit of the WLF, the house party was a quiet and stilted affair. Charlie, our host and a retired Navy man, turned out to be a nice guy who shook my hand at the door and offered me beer, wine, or soda. Otherwise the introductions were so awkward that I didn’t catch everyone else’s names, though there were only seven of us there in the living room. There was a woman who looked to be in her 60s who, like Charlie, was a precinct captain in Arlington, a young couple, and two gay Navy men in their early 30s, both of whom were named James.
The Jameses, though they were dating, did not see eye to eye on all the issues. Most of my conversation during the night was with one of the Jameses, who was from North Carolina. His boyfriend felt "very passionately" about what he called "the gun thing," but this James said that it was something he didn’t have a hard time compromising about. The economic issues were more important to him—raising the minimum wage, breaking up the banks, hiking taxes on the wealthy. Here he said that he thought Bernie had better instincts than Hillary Clinton. The younger woman was also a Bernie supporter at heart. "At some point, though," she said, "I realized that he could never win."
There wasn’t much love for Chafee or Jim Webb in the room either. When I asked not-anti-gun James whether he missed having them on the stage, he bluntly said "No." The other one chimed in about how disappointed he was with Webb in the Senate after having supported his candidacy. Nor did the Jameses like O’Malley much—there were cries of "Pandering!" when the former governor of Maryland expressed his support for Black Lives Matter—though Charlie did, sort of.
"I agree with a lot of what O’Malley says. But, well, I remember 2008 with Barack Obama. The feeling was like we were on a crusade or somethin’. We were gonna right all the wrongs in the world. This time"—he trailed off as a commercial break ended.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad evening at Charlie’s. The beer was good and the room was cozy and lived-in in the way that only apartments of older people seem to be, with photographs and Navy memorabilia on the walls and a decent selection of hardcover books—Hard Choices, Living History, My Life—on shelves that did not look as if they had come from a box. I only felt really uncomfortable a few times—the first time when anti-gun James was discussing gay marriage with the older lady. "It’s so different for our generation, you know. It’s totally monolithic. No one under 40 is against it." I looked at the floor.
Mostly, I was just bored and depressed—bored with the cynicism and depressed by the fact that these six people, none of whom struck me as being big paid-up Hillary supporters, did not feel at all up to voting their consciences in what is now a three-person primary.
"How’s the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell going in the Navy?" Charlie asked the Jameses towards the end of the evening.
"Pretty badly," said anti-gun James. "Basically nothing’s changed."
"I served under it," Charlie said. "It was a pain in the ass. You’d hafta sit there ’n’ listen to these guys talk ’bout what they did on leave, how they saw their girlfriends or wives ‘n’ did this, that, ‘n’ the other. You’d just kinda say, ‘Uh-huh.’"
Which was pretty much what I spent the rest of the night saying.