“Jason Rae’s eagerness was obvious to me,” Kohl says. “It’s rare to find that level of enthusiasm or interest among our young people for government and politics.”
Then in May 2004, toward the end of his junior year in high school, Rae resolved to try for a position that would put him in the decision-making role. He heard that the Wisconsin Democratic Party was electing new representatives to the DNC. He found out that although you have to be 18 to be a delegate at the Democratic National Convention, there is no minimum age for election to the DNC in Wisconsin. Since committee members automatically become superdelegates and begin their terms after the current convention (in this case, 2004), Rae could get elected and be 18 in time to serve as a superdelegate at the next (2008).
“I got my friends together and we hand-painted signs on tagboard that read A RAE OF HOPE FOR THE FUTURE,” he says. “I stood at the convention-hall door and I forced every person who walked in and out of the room to shake my hand.”
The next day, after the ballots were counted, the political director of the Wisconsin Democratic Party called him to deliver the news: Rae had beaten his two opponentsone 55 and the other in his fortiesand he’d be heading to the convention in Boston as a special guest. Rae was lugging a suitcase up some stairs when he took the call. “I was surprised beyond belief,” he says. “I was totally blown aback.”
At his first DNC meeting, in February 2005, Rae found himself at the podium in a ballroom at the Washington, D.C., Hilton, in front of upwards of 600 fellow delegates, delivering a nominating speech for Congressman Mike Honda, who was running for vice chair.
“It was a nerve-racking experience, with all the cameras and the lights,” Rae says. “I kept talking through the first applause line.” But he paused for the next one, and the congressman won the seat.
Over the next few years, Rae attended dozens of meetings around the countrybuilding connections and honing strategies to win over young voters. Then things got surreal. He was watching a movie in his dorm room last January when he answered his phone and heard the voice of his childhood idol.
Jason, Bill here. How are you?
I’m fine, sir, Mr. President, sir!
After Rae had breakfast with Chelsea Clinton last February, his picture made the front pages of the Milwaukee papers and his phone began ringing nonstop. He did the news-channel circuitfrom Fox to CNN to MSNBCand people started recognizing him and pointing him out on campus. But while he was a rock star at school, he was the focus of debate among pundits and other campaign-obsessed grown-ups. How could this much power be placed in the hands of a college student?
“He knows as much about politics as anyone who follows politics closely,” says MSNBC host Dan Abrams, who had Rae on his show during this time. “But the fact that his vote is the equivalent of roughly 10,000 Democratic voters to me reflects a problem with the system.”