Photo by Joeff Davis
BOSTON — I penetrated the Avalon’s security maze by accident, as usual, and was now watching Howard Dean from the VIP Loge up top.
“People your age volunteer at the highest percentage of any other age group,” Howard Dean announced to a house packed with college-age kids. “You do a lot to help people. There are a lot of reasons for people your age to vote.”
The Avalon was the site of Rock the Vote’s big kickoff party Sunday night. Since Rock the Vote’s first convention soiree in 1992, its tickets have always been highly coveted. At Avalon’s entrance, an impenetrable chaos of security, press and people jockeyed for position and a chance to get in. It was an ugly scene, illuminated for all its ruthlessness by the lights of Fenway Park across the street, where the Red Sox were on their way to winning two in a row against the Yankees. This was the only line with more wrangling than the McGovern party at Via Matta across town, where the upscale lefties were doing everything in their power to get inside and relive the magic of 1972.
Dean’s was a solid speech. A call to arms for Kerry, but still imprinted with Dean’s own message: Iraq, health insurance, taking back the government. Dean was surrounded by people waving signs: I’m young, I’m a Democrat, I’m voting. As a perhaps unintentional testament to the power of learning by repetition, Dean showed us that he can still hit that litany of civilized countries — “even Costa Rica!” — with universal health care. And when Dean struck the notes that were the rhetorical backbone of his campaign — “the power doesn’t reside in Washington” . . . “it resides in you” . . . “you have the power” — it felt as reassuring as ever.
Dean tailored his words to the audience, talking up support for more Pell grants, noting that half the audience probably didn’t have health care, and plugging his Democracy for America candidates, a couple of which are under 30 years old.
Yet as Dean spoke, a guy next to me took a sip from his ale and said, “I wonder if that’s going to work, that whole grassroots thing?”
As do I. Rock the Vote’s effort is very much appreciated, but is it effective? No matter how many miles the Rock the Vote bus travels or even how many young Deaniacs first pricked up their ears to politics last year and excitedly spawned organizing cells across the country, the facts are that, at least today, the youth don’t vote. They didn’t vote when they first got the chance in 1972, and the percentage hasn’t changed much since. Ask the folks over at the Via Matta: It was that phantom Youth Vote in 1972 that helped delude the McGovern campaign, and the same hope for energizing a new demographic turned out to be one of the false legs on the Dean machine.
Yet there may be hope. Despite Dean’s disappointment in Iowa, voter registration and participation among young people increased dramatically during the primary season. And as I made my way down to the floor to check out Mission of Burma, I met Michael Evans, the chief operating officer of Rock the Vote, who detailed the democratic promise of their current round of organizing.
“We’ve registered 400,000 new voters so far,” he said — or yelled, rather — into my ear.
“And how many do you think you’ll get before the election?” I yelled into his.
“A million. And that will be twice as much as last time.”
I asked Evans if they’re able to verify how many people they sign up actually vote. He said that they’re now better able to both encourage participation and track it.
“Last time, everything was on paper,” Evans explained. “But because we’re doing it electronically, we can follow up. We have their e-mail, street address, cell-phone numbers. We’ll contact them eight times before the election.” Rock the Vote built its own software for online registration, and to widen the net it gave the software to over 250 youth-oriented Web sites to be featured on their pages. “And since our voter database is all electronic,” Evan said, “we’re also going to be able to study who votes, so we can figure out how to get them to the polls.”
That, of course, is a science the campaigns themselves have yet to master, and they have much more than the $7 million that Rock the Vote will spend this year. But neither the RNC nor the DNC get the street credibility of a partnership with MTV — or a visit from the esteemed DJ Biz Markie, who was about to get his hands on the eight turntables arranged onstage.
Evans went off to find Amber Tamblyn, from Joan of Arcadia, but never made it back. I returned to the VIP area, where I managed to be introduced to Vanessa Kerry, the senator’s daughter, without recognizing her. When I asked if she worked for Rock the Vote — it was loud, okay, and I was drunk — Vanessa said that was the best compliment she’d had in a long time.
By then, Biz Markie was laying out a killer, if somewhat mainstream, set. Having eight wheels of steel does wonders for a DJ; the Biz was able to hit quick, successive series of cuts between era favorites like Le Freak, K.C. and the Sunshine Band and 50 Cent. (One highlight was the television reminiscences, which included 15 seconds from the Welcome Back, Kotter theme.) On the left side of the stage, a woman bravely tried to translate the Biz’s rallies at the mic — “all the black and the white, the Italians and the Puerto Ricans — we gotta get Bush out!” — into sign language for the hearing-impaired. Who knew there is a specific sign for “Put your hands in the a-ya . . .”?
Terry McAuliffe is no match in stage presence for the Biz, so when the spinning stopped for a brief visit from the chairman of the DNC, there was mostly polite interest in his typical “We are the party to bring new leadership to the country.” It was a reminder that at these events, there is always the question whether they’re attended for the Party or the party. At the Rock the Vote awards show last February at the Palladium, Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes offered this political oratory: “I know this is all about voting and shit, but I want y’all muthafuckas to make some noise. Or is L.A. a bunch of pussies?” But although that crowd was plenty populated by lithe, bronzed and Fekkai-coiffed girls on the arms of agents, I was surprised to discover that they were far outnumbered by genuine politically minded people who were ready for action in this election cycle.
At the Avalon in Boston, there was even more politics and less coif — until, that is, the Reverend Al Sharpton appeared onstage and managed to unite both elements with an address that had DJ backup from Biz Markie. “Remember 2000, when they didn’t let us vote?” roared The Rev. “Well, back in 1974, James Brown cut a track that tells you what’s gonna happen this time” — and with that the Biz let the vinyl turn to bring in the high-pitched intro to the Godfather of Soul’s “Payback.”
“This is probably the funkiest the Democrats will get all week,” someone remarked as the place went wild. And sure as hell funkier than the Republicans will ever get. Rock the Vote, after all, is nonpartisan; its bus and planners will be heading to New York for the RNC in August. I wonder what that party will be like. Because if all that new technology helps the Youth Vote to materialize, it will likely tilt left and probably not interest the Republicans. Nor, I suspect, would a surprise appearance by The Rev. and his calls for payback.