Youngest Delegate Has Capitol Ambitions

Posted July 23, 2004 at 3:50pm

Convention attendees may find themselves doing a double-take when they pass Jason Rae, one of four Wisconsinites elected to represent the Democratic National Committee in Boston this week.

That’s because, at 17, Rae is the youngest member of the DNC — both currently and, possibly, in the organization’s entire 156-year history — to represent his state at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Rae won one of two coveted male positions on Wisconsin’s four-member committee after defeating two veteran Democrats — former state legislator Stan Gruzynski and firefighter union leader Rick Gale — at the state Democratic convention in June.

His victory is especially impressive considering that Rae, a rising high school senior in Rice Lake, Wis., waged a three-week campaign for the DNC seat on a shoestring budget with only his family and closest friends to support him. While Gruzynski had the advantage of DNC incumbency and Gale the endorsement of organized labor, Rae had only his own grassroots campaigning efforts to aid him.

“I just did everything I could, making cardboard signs, printing stickers off my home computer, using the photocopier at my dad’s work to make fliers,” Rae said. “The real key was just making human contact and shaking every hand that came through the door.”

His efforts clearly paid off. Rae won the DNC seat by about 20 votes out of the 350 or so cast by delegates over two days.

“You really have to give it to him,” said DNC spokesman Seth Boffelli. “He did everything on his own and just worked a lot harder than the other two guys.”

Now, as a DNC member and a future delegate for Wisconsin (newly elected members aren’t inducted into their state delegation until after the national convention), Rae hopes to advance his dual political agenda of energizing young voters while encouraging the Democratic Party to “reach out to America’s youth” more.

“I’m representing the country’s youngest voting generation at the convention,” said Rae, who describes the 18- to 35-year-old voting population as a potential wellspring of political activism and support for Democratic candidates today. “People my age would get out and vote if they were just encouraged to be a little more involved politically.”

These comments are telling coming from someone who cannot yet vote himself: Rae’s 18th birthday falls three weeks after the November presidential election, much to his dismay. If he could have, Rae says he would have voted in the 2000 election — and probably the 1996 and 1992 elections, as well.

Rae was an avowed Democrat at an early age.

At 5, he first saw former President Bill Clinton speak at a televised campaign rally and remembers being inspired enough to subsequently insist that his parents vote for Clinton on election night. After writing a fourth-grade report on John F. Kennedy in 1996 and marveling over then-President Clinton’s “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century” re-election speech, Rae says he knew that his future was in politics.

Since then, he has pursued this future with a drive that is remarkable, if not a tad overwhelming.

A Senate page earlier this year, Rae serves on Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold’s re-election steering committee, worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Tom Barrett and is vice chairman of the Barron County Democratic Party. He also serves as vice president of the Wisconsin Association of School Councils, a state leadership organization promoting civic engagement among students, and, perhaps not surprisingly, he is student body president at Rice Lake High School.

This litany of civic posts and his recent election to the DNC have afforded Rae the opportunity to kick back for a while this summer and enjoy his time in the spotlight.

He has already made a big splash in his otherwise quiet hometown of Rice Lake (population: roughly 3,000), where many residents hope to follow his every move at the convention. And earlier this month, CNN flew a reporter and cameraman in from New York to profile him, along with a slew of reporters from local, state and national papers.

“It’s flattering to receive all this attention,” he said. “I never expected it, but I guess it’s all part of the job for me now.”

After Boston, though, Rae plans to take a break from this “job” for a while. Once the convention ends and his excitement subsides, Rae says he’ll pick up where he left off in Rice Lake — working his summer job at a local department store, learning to wakeboard on the lake near his home and preparing for his family vacation.

“Maybe one day I’ll be working as Congressman,” he said. “But right now I just want a nice chance to lay out on the beach and enjoy the sun in the summer.”