When you watch the presidential-nomination conventions, you're apt to see people in funny hats with big buttons on their lapels waving flags and acting super-excited just to be there. They're presidential-convention delegates, and in a year when the whole country is tracking — like fantasy-baseball junkies — the all-important delegate count in the Democratic and Republican presidential races, we wondered, just who are these people?While many of the delegates have yet to be officially chosen — that will happen at a series of upcoming state conventions from March through June — a number of the former and prospective delegates are young. When MTV News caught up with some of them, they said they're looking forward to playing their part in the most watched presidential election of their lifetimes.
Campbell, California, City Councilman Evan Low, already a political player at age 24, has secured what could be one of the most pivotal gigs at August's Democratic convention in Denver after being handpicked by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean to sit on the Rules Committee at the convention. If the race between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton remains too close to call by the time August rolls around, Low could be involved in discussions about whether to seat the delegates from Michigan and Florida — where delegates were stripped after the states moved up their primaries — or any other procedural issues about breaking the deadlock.
"With the race so close and each campaign looking for more delegates, it's an amazing opportunity to think about how much of a role that committee could play," he said.
Low, who plans to be a delegate for Obama, said he was able to secure his position on the committee thanks to a push by the Democratic Party to get representation from a wide variety of ethnic and gender populations to ensure diversity. "I'm actually a four-birds-with-one-stone bid: [I'm an] elected official, Asian-American ... gay ... and under 30," Low said, adding that the party is also looking to include Latinos, transgender people and a wide range of other demographics.
Before taking his seat as one of the five city council members in Campbell — a town located in the heart of Silicon Valley — Low was active as the president of the Silicon Valley LGBT Democratic Club and in other party activities in the area after becoming fascinated with politics during the hotly contested 2000 presidential election.
"It's an amazing opportunity to participate and to bring the perspective of the YouTube generation for which technology is so inherent in our nature," he said. "I'm excited to see which candidate speaks more effectively about the issues I care about, whether it's Social Security or affordable housing."
While Low is just getting his first taste of the presidential-nomination process, Nashville's John Lankford was a delegate for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and, like everyone we spoke to, he was well-versed in the series of increasingly complicated hoops you have to jump through to make it to the big show. After filling out his application, Lankford, 26, said he got lucky because the Tennessee Democratic Party made a big push that year to have youth delegates. But even so, before his name came up at the district convention, he had to do some politicking and cold-calling to local party members to boost his name recognition.
And, before you knew it, the vice chairman of the Henry County, Tennessee, Democratic Party and vice president of Legislative Affairs for the Tennessee Federation of College Democrats was at the convention. "It was wonderful," Lankford said. "For a political junkie, it's the equivalent of the Super Bowl. ... Everyone [was] there, including celebrities like [Diddy]. And for someone of my age, who has been involved in politics on a local level, to get to see it on a national level is leaps and bounds different."
Lucky for Lankford, his delegation was seated next to Ohio's, which was constantly swarmed with media thanks to a Buckeye State delegate by the name of Jerry Springer. "I think I made a difference," Lankford said. "There were training sessions put on by the DNC during the day, and the convention in the afternoon and at night." After the convention, Lankford hooked up with the Democratic Grassroots Action Institute & Network, which sent him out on tours to speak to college Democrats across Western Tennessee as a proxy for Kerry.
Though the race on the Republican side is a bit more lopsided, with Senator John McCain much closer to securing his party's nomination than either Obama or Clinton, Chelsea Chapman, 29, the president of the Houston Young Republicans and the national committeewoman for the Texas Young Republican Federation, still has her eyes on the convention prize. Locked in an intense battle with some of her Young Republican friends and colleagues, Chapman is gearing up for the March 4 Texas primary. That will be followed by a precinct convention, at which delegates to the state convention in June will be chosen.
"I think it's an honor to represent your state and local precinct, and there's no bigger event to vote in than the presidential election," said Chapman, who first served as a state delegate in 2006 in a non-presidential election year. "It's a tremendous opportunity to be part of something."
To shore up her bona fides, Chapman is serving as an election judge on March 4 in her precinct, a gig that will take up dozens of hours of her time — hours she'll have to fit in around her full-time job as an accountant — each week as the election day gets closer.
Chapman thinks her chance of getting to the state convention is pretty good, but then the road gets a bit rougher because she's up against some equally motivated friends from her district. "You really have to build your political résumé and sell yourself to get to the national convention," she said. "It's not like 'Survivor,' where you build alliances, but sort of. You talk to party elders, get their endorsement, talk to people on the ballot and ask what you can do for them and what they can do for you. ... I've served as an election judge in several cycles and precinct chair in the past — all volunteer positions, which can be like a full-time job ... but I'm doing it because, how many people can say they got to be a delegate and help determine who got to be the nominee?"
After years of working on local Democratic campaigns, Lon Seidman, 31, was a delegate for John Edwards in 2004. He said he lobbied to go to the convention because he wanted to be part of "what I hoped would be a massive movement to change the direction George Bush had set us on."
During the day, Seidman would meet as many people as he possibly could in lobbies and hotels, he said. But he lived for the nighttime, when the convention floor was like a huge political carnival. "On the last night, I was onstage right behind Kerry when he gave his speech, and when he came up and we all started waving our flags, as luck would have it, I was the guy in the first row, dead center," he said. "When they sent out their fundraising picture of Edwards accepting the nomination, which goes out to millions of voters, there's my forehead, which my mother said she recognized."
Seidman — who now runs a political-consulting group and plans to go to the convention this year, whether he's chosen as a delegate or not — said he learned one really important lesson at the convention. "There's this myth out there that young people have no ability to make a difference in the process," he said. "But that difference could just be participating. What I found there is that it's far from the truth. If you put enough work and dedication in, your efforts will be recognized. Everyone has a chance to play a role."
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