On a cold, clear Friday morning in March, Jason Rae opened his e-mail and found a Google news alert announcing his death.
“What?“ he said to the screen. “Um, I appear to still be breathing.“ He then discovered that his Wikipedia profile had been amended to reflect his recent demise (of a suspected drug overdose), at which point he learned that he had also been buried. What’s going on here? he thought.
Turned out it was a different Jason Rae—the husband of British soul singer Corinne Bailey Rae. This Jason Rae was very much alive, sitting in front of a computer monitor in the Marquette University student-government offices in Milwaukee. Maybe it seems strange that a college junior would have a Google news alert on himself. But he has it for good reason. At 21, this Jason Rae is the youngest superdelegate in the country.
Barely 14 years old when George W. Bush took office, Rae—who wears oval glasses, has meticulously cropped hair, and possesses a voice like a Sunday-school teacher’s—is now one of the roughly 800 unpledged delegates who will crown a nominee this summer. During the white-knuckle drama of the Democratic primaries last winter, while his classmates were beer-bonging and cramming for sociology exams, Rae was fielding phone calls from Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and John Kerry, having powwows with Hillary Clinton and with Barack Obama, and eating breakfast with Chelsea Clinton—all of them hoping to influence his endorsement. No one—not even Rae—could have predicted how tight the race would be, or how quickly the term superdelegate would enter the American lexicon. There’s an expression Rae uses when he’s talking about things that surprise him—like getting a phone call from Al Sharpton one night in 2005 when he was working on his high-school yearbook. “I was totally blown aback!“ he says.
He’s been saying that a lot lately.
Born and raised in the town of Rice Lake (population 8,312), in northwestern Wisconsin, Jason Rae beat out a former state legislator and the president of a fireman’s union for his seat on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at the age of 17. It’s a remarkable achievement, especially considering his lack of pedigree. Rae wasn’t the scion of a local political dynasty. He was just a precocious kid with a passion for government.
“My family was much more interested in the Green Bay Packers than they were in politics,“ he says. Rae’s dad works as a supervisor in a tool-and-dye factory, and his mom runs the office of a medical clinic. For all his political activism, Rae still doesn’t know which party his parents favor. But he does remember reminding his parents to vote for Bill Clinton one day as they were leaving him with the babysitter. He was 5. By the time he was a high-school freshman, he was riding his blue Huffy six-speed to local Democratic Party meetings, where he was charged with knocking on doors and cold-calling voters. His next step was D.C.: In 2002 Rae found out about a program open to high-school juniors and, for the fall 2003 semester, went to work under Wisconsin Democratic senator Herb Kohl on Capitol Hill.
“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 opponents—one 55 and the other in his forties—and 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 country—building 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 circuit—from Fox to CNN to MSNBC—and 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.“
Whatever the arguments against the institution that placed him there, Rae takes his position seriously. He uses the calls he gets from influential politicians, he says, “to find out what’s happening on the ground.“ In the midst of the media frenzy in March, he announced he would be supporting Barack Obama at the convention this summer. And Rae’s already behaving like someone who’s considering his own candidacy. When the Facebook requests started pouring in from people he didn’t know, for instance, he encountered a dilemma: “I was like, Well, what if these people are potential voters someday?’ So I was like, You know what? I’d better just accept them.’“
It is not easy to keep up with Rae. He flits through the languid packs of students on the snow-covered campus as though he were running from something. He’s got the four-and-a-half-block walk from his dorm to the student union down to less than four minutes. He’s usually smiling, and he calls girls “dear.“ He doesn’t eat breakfast and often can’t be bothered with lunch. One typical day in March, he attends a morning class on the history of Asia and three student-government-related meetings, then finishes a paper comparing Machiavelli’s and Socrates’ views on virtue and hightails it to OfficeMax in his Dodge Neon, which is littered with McDonald’s Mighty Kids Meal bags, to campaign for his reelection to the DNC in June—fielding two phone calls at once while parallel-parking out front. Later, after inhaling a heap of spaghetti at a charity dinner in the basement of a frat house—in three minutes and 28 seconds flat—he is wringing his hands, staring past the orange residue on his Styrofoam plate as if depressed by the sudden downtime.
Back in his dorm room, where a black-and-white poster of the Kennedy brothers hangs on the wall and all seven seasons of The West Wing sit on a bookshelf next to the TV—right above ALF and Dawson’s Creek—Rae kicks off his Nike Shox and lies back on his futon to talk about something else he’s had to deal with since signing on with the DNC: answering questions about his sexuality. Rae is gay. Last year he joined the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Caucus of the DNC—a fact he figured would stay more or less within the confines of the committee. But in February the DNC released its list of openly gay registered superdelegates (along with members of other committees)—and Rae’s name was on it. The gay media picked up on it, and pretty soon, when Rae did a Google news search on himself, that story was the top result. That’s when Rae realized he had a problem: His parents had no idea he was gay.
“I was like, Hey, soooo . . . we need to talk,’“ he says, describing the phone call (Rae was away at a conference). “I was glad I wasn’t home when I told them. They weren’t angry—they were just upset that I told the DNC before I had told them.“
Over dinner at the Water Street Brewery downtown one night, Rae’s close friends—three giddy girls who are fellow RAs at Marquette—give him shit about the time he threw up in P.E. class after 15 minutes of exertion. Rae laughs it off. “I never exercise!“ he says. Halfway through his rum and Coke, the girls coax him into doing his choreo-graphed routine to R. Kelly’s “Ignition“ right there in the wooden booth. It’s an elaborate series of R&B hand gestures and some spirited lip-synching.
In the wake of all the recent craziness, Rae has developed a new motto. “I realized I need to take each day as its own,“ he says. “Before that I was always so focused on what’s going to happen next, and always planning three or four months down the road. I still have things booked months out, but now I’ve learned to take each day a little bit slower and savor opportunity. Now I’m just focused on getting through the school year, getting through November, and then I’m leaving it open after that.“ Though he’s probably unaware of it, Rae sounds more like a politician than ever: He’s making a promise he knows he can’t possibly keep.