I was eight years old when I entered politics. I ran for Class Delegate to the Student Activity Committee. On Election Day, I wore a dress shirt and put gel in my hair. In a two-way race I came in second, which made me the Alternate. I thought of it like being the Vice President. In the event that the Delegate could not carry out his duties, I would assume office. Coming in second did not disappoint me. It was still an honor to serve my classroom.
That spring, I visited Washington D.C.. After that trip, I could no longer think of myself apart from politics. I took a picture with a cardboard cutout of Bill Clinton. I went on a tour of the White House, where I saw Buddy, the First Dog. I asked my congresswoman if she could shorten the school week to three days. I thought, “This is where grown-ups do the important things that change people’s lives.” I wanted to be a politician.
I already had some understanding of politics before I went off to D.C. My socialist grandfather used to talk politics to whoever would listen. Before I even knew about Marx and Engels, I think I inherited some of his radicalism. However, in D.C. I contracted Potomac Fever, and my underlying radicalism was replaced with political ambition.
My friend from camp shared my passion for politics. Nate came from the South Side of Chicago. He wanted to be the first black president. He was charismatic. I was academic. Nate had girlfriends—plural. My closest friend was my math tutor. I wanted to be as popular as Nate.
My one hope of elevating my social status was a girl I knew from grade school named Sari. She thought I was going to be President, and she wanted to be First Lady. She decorated my locker with pictures of presidents. We were going to be a power couple, like Bill and Hillary.
Instead of becoming Slick Willy, I grew into a nerdy teenager. My high school social studies teacher asked my class to write an essay response to the question, “Why do you watch MTV?” I wrote, “I watch C-Span, not MTV.” When I was 15, I met then-Senator Barack Obama at a fundraiser. I said to him, “I want to be your Chief of Staff.” He grinned, and said, “I’ll let my Chief of Staff know that you’re after his job.”
However, I needed to go to college before I could go to work for the future president. I expected college would be where I would meet other budding politicians, who would admire my political acumen. My time as an outsider is ending, I thought. I ran for a seat on the Executive Board of the College Democrats. I hoped this would be the start of my ascent to power and popularity. I think my grandfather would have snickered if he knew I was running for a position with the College Democrats. He was convinced the Democrats were just as corrupt as the Republicans, but I did not think of myself as corrupt, because I had never given any money to Rod Blagojevich.
In a two-way race, I came in second—a decade after I lost the race for Class Delegate to the Student Activities Committee, my electoral record remained the same. The President-elect of the College Democrats offered me an appointed position to the Executive Board. I decided not to take it. The honor of serving was no longer enough for me. I wanted to win.
Politics proved tricky for Nate, too. For reasons that are now history, Nate did not become the first black president. Instead, he gave up politics to become a rapper. I think he wanted to stand out, be it politics or music.
Sari and I went to the same college, but I rarely saw her. When I did see her, she acted like she did not know me. I wonder if she regretted having had a crush on me. We didn’t have the staying power of Bill and Hillary.
I did stay politically active, though. I interned in the office of a state legislator. Jeff Smith owned a window-washing business before representing Eau Claire in the Wisconsin State Assembly. Interning in his office was not the political work I hoped to be doing. It did not involve briskly walking down corridors with fellow staffers, having witty conversations about tax reform and nuclear proliferation. Instead, I replied to his constituents’ emails about pending legislation to regulate the milk industry.
In 2010, Jeff Smith lost for reelection. He lost by roughly 50 votes to a polka band leader-turned-politician. I was surprised when he lost. I thought he was well-liked in his district, but I also found his defeat comforting. I was not the only loser.
My defeat in the College Democrats election and less-than-glamorous internship made me certain political success was not in my future. If I couldn’t win an election or secure an important position, I might as well stop caring about politics. I was adrift.
A year after I decided that there was no room for politics in my life, I walked to the state capitol to see why so many students and professors were leaving campus. The Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, had proposed a controversial anti-union budget. Students were skipping class, and workers were calling in sick. They went to the state capitol in order to demonstrate against the budget, and the governor who proposed it. At first, I did not know if I was going to participate in the protests. I just wanted to see what all of these people were doing.
When I got to the protests, I saw hundreds of thousands of people, bundled up in their winter jackets, many of them carrying homemade anti-Walker signs. I stood with them in the cold. Inside of the capitol, protestors chanted, “You know what’s disgustin’? Union bustin’!” I joined them. I felt like I knew all of these people, even though I had never met them. I knew my grandfather would have approved of my joining a mass movement to challenge Walker’s anti-union budget. He died before Walker became Governor, but had he been alive, he would have had some choice words for the union buster.
Sari was also at the protests. After college, she moved to D.C. to work for lobbyists. Apparently, she did not need to be half of a power couple to enter the Beltway.
Jeff Smith stayed politically active as well. He ran for his old seat two more times and lost each time. He then ran for Chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. He lost.
I could not give up politics either. I began writing about politics for my college newspaper. I liked seeing people call me a “douche” on the paper’s online comments section—at least they were reading what I wrote. Along the way, I discovered that politics was not about my readers or me. It is about those people chanting inside of the capitol—their passion, their humor, and their shared efforts. When I see candidates behind a podium talking about how great they are, I think, “That’s not what they should be doing. They should be out with the people.” I know this, because I rediscovered my love for politics once I joined the crowd.
Jeff Schultz is a writer from Lincolnwood, Illinois. He received his Bachelor’s in American History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he is a Master’s candidate in Applied Linguistics (TESOL) at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Jeff’s op-eds have appeared in the Badger Herald,a student-run college newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in Chicago’s Chinatown, and his dog, Linda, is the apple of his eye.