No matter what anyone says, it’s more fun to be on the winning team.
Losing with dignity is a nice idea, but a mirage – even Red Sox fans had to invent The Curse so they could feel like they accomplished something every year they were met with a certain pinstriped team from The Bronx.
So in the fall of 2005, when the candidate I’d been volunteering for in a pivotal New York City council district won on election night, it felt good to party, good to be thanked, good to be part of the team people wanted for the next two years.
I was new to all of it – campaigning, victory parties, and even the Democratic Party. Growing up in homogeneous suburbs and later attending a conservative Christian university, my party affiliation had never been a question – everyone was a Republican. My college campus didn’t have a Young Democrats chapter. Come to think of it, I’m not sure my campus even had a young Democrat.
I had been holding out longer than I’d realized, so when I swung left, I swung hard. November’s my month, and as a Scorpio, my loyalty is off the meter: when I pick a campaign, a cause, hell, a coffee shop, my allegiance is rock solid. As with most things, when you decide to associate yourself with an idea, it seeps into your skin more than you know.
My experience volunteering had been wonderful – I met all sorts of New Yorkers, learned about the political process, truly saw the importance of the individual in democracy. And even though my hours were nothing compared to the tireless staffers, they remembered my name and thanked me profusely at the humble yet energetic victory party, our new Councilmember even taking time to offer advice on my current career path.
And it’s good to be a Democrat in 5-to-1 New York City. We’d won most of the new seats in the council and our incumbents blew away any competition, though the King of New York remained, and remained Republican.
Don’t get me wrong – by November, I was more than dismayed at the inept, unfocused campaign Fernando Ferrer had run. Ignoring entire demographics, unjustifiably narrowing his image, press mess-ups… but I still voted for him. Yes, out of party loyalty, but for many other reasons ranging from Bloomberg’s stratospheric Bush campaign contributions to residual bitterness at his ridiculous Olympics bid, instead of practical initiatives like real change in public education and housing affordable for those of us who can’t quite assume the suffix –illionaire.
“Hey – wanna go to the Bloomberg victory party?” The whisper came from Angela, one of the staff members and my new friend from the campaign. We both looked around, a little guilty. “It’s still going on… and everything’s free.”
After all, our party had started to dissipate. And my fading energy and staunch Ferrer loyalty melted in light of the word that being a former starving artist had conditioned me to obey Pavlovianly: free. Plus, I reasoned, if I was going to endure four more years of Bloomberg, he could at least buy me a drink.
At the New York Sheraton, a purposeful loop of the crowded, donor-soaked lobby yielded official Mike ’05 buttons and the names needed to gain entrance to the 45th floor, the site of the staffers-only fete.
One thing that was immediately apparent as we exited the mirrored elevator: no one looked like a staffer. The staffers I worked with were all wasted from too little sleep and too many action lists, with wrinkled clothes and grateful smiles barely masking their complete exhaustion. The Bloomberg staffers were in cocktail attire without exception – apparently their literature handouts were stationed in salons rather than subways.
Our entrance was blocked momentarily by the no-nonsense female bouncer, who insisted she knew nothing about our connections to get in. As I stepped aside to avoid getting shoved back, I noticed a few women waiting in head-to-toe hipster vintage, making me exhale a bit in my less-than-glam jeans and velvet blazer.
Just then, the reason for our wait emerged: Mike himself, with complete security detail, leaving the party, the only one who looked at all drained from the day’s events. I’d only seen him in person once before, on one of his famed subway rides. He was still well-dressed, well-protected, and well-fettered with an intimidating entourage. As he breezed past us to the elevator, barely acknowledging congratulations, we ducked into his penthouse party, which was still going strong.
After promptly visiting the top-shelf open bar (welcome after pacing out our drinks at the previous cash-bar victory party so many floors below), we gravitated toward the back bedroom where Angela’s friends had set up camp. They, after all, weren’t regular Bloombergians, they were part of a fellowship that assigns workers to various campaigns, and several of them had been placed on this one – our key to entry. All of them were Democrats.
Eager to investigate the foreign land to which I’d gained passport, I embarked on a purposeful mingling circle around the penthouse. The large rooms housed glamorous groups of groupies looking me up and down with condescending approval (men) or dismissal (women), and the small rooms revealed twos and threes that I half-expected to snort lines off the pristine gold-and-marble countertops. Okay, call me overdramatic, but my only experience partying with people whose bank accounts had never been in the red included access to all the stuff conservatives were always railing against.
Why didn’t any of the Brooks Brothers-clad men offer me a drink? Why didn’t any of the women taste the copious chocolate cookies out on every table? Why didn’t anyone stop to admire the amazing top-floor view of the Manhattan skyline, which still floored me after five years in the city? I guess I wasn’t used to being up so high.
Back in our bohemian bedroom oasis, tones were more relaxed, conversation less forced. That is, until a well-suited staffer dropped in on our circle of downtown denim with childlike delight that we were drinking bourbon instead of PBR. The conversation with these legitimates was always polite, congenial; but in the way that made me rub my cheeks in sympathy for the forced smiles, and rub my ears in angst of the screechy tones people assume when trying to sound interested, or worse, interesting.
That’s when I realized the women sporting vintage hadn’t found their outfits rummaging through Williamsburg’s basement stores, like I had. It was the flavor du jour; trying it on for a party but not for an identity. Kind of like my temporary re-alignment with the Republican Party.
“You were a Republican?” Angela gasped. “You have to explain that.”
“Well, I was, but not like this…” I began, then stopped short, not only by the crowd of Jenna and Paris clones that pushed past us, but by my realization that the Republicans I knew in real life, the ones who were puzzled by my party realignment, were not these people.
The Republicans that populate the red states, and more pivotally, the red half of the swing states, are not oil tycoons and CEOs bathing in stock options and corporate bonuses. The Republicans who vote Republican – my mother, my grandmother, my best friends from childhood – were hard-working, tax-paying believers in the old American dream, and didn’t need big government to protect or even help them – yet. They trust that if the president says we need to go to war, well then, he must know, because after all, he’s the president. These are the values of their peers or parents that fought the good fight against Nazi Germany and Communism – and won.
I know this because this was how I felt until I lived through September 11, 2001, in Manhattan, when things started to seem more relative than black-and-white. When I found myself a resident of a city of immigrants, of every world culture, and of the widest gap between rich and poor, and it became all too clear that everyone in the land of dreams doesn’t wake up on the same pillow. The party I was presently party to has little in common with them other than US citizenship, yet they are the ruling class that the common people repeatedly vote into office.
The difference between the Bloomberg festivities and the Councilmember’s was like going to a Hollywood movie premiere from an Off-Broadway play opening: glassy, evaluating, “Should I know who you are?” eyes versus rolled-up sleeves, “We’ve only just begun!” energy.
“Parties aren’t what you’re beholden to once you are in office,” a former city council speaker had said in a symposium I’d attended a month earlier. “You’re responsible to your constituents. Parties are the vehicle to get you into office.” Now I understand what he meant.
If there’s one thing Ferrer was right about in his push for mayor, it was his concept of Two New Yorks: the rich and poor, the white and non-white, the represented and ignored.
Only this was the first time I felt solidly in the second category.
Originally published in 2005. Artwork by Amy Hutcheson, As Seen on TV, 36in x 48in, Oil on canvas