At Rock the Vote Awards, 15 Bipartisan Candles

John McCain addressing the crowd at last night's Rock the Vote awards dinner at the National Building Museum.
John McCain addressing the crowd at last night's Rock the Vote awards dinner at the National Building Museum. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 9, 2005

Tom Nelson, chief operating officer of AARP, summed up the night for everyone from Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama to "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson and R&B singer Mya gathered in the National Building Museum's Great Hall:

"You were probably wondering, as you sat down at your table, 'What the heck is the AARP doing in a Rock the Vote event?' "

And while we're wondering about things: Why was Rock the Vote -- last year's ubiquitous celeb-magnet, get-out-the-youth-vote group -- throwing a barbecue dinner ($5,000 or $10,000 or $15,000 a table) three years early?

Because Rock the Vote, a teenager itself, is celebrating its 15th year. For the first time, it held its awards dinner and after-party in Washington (usually it's the night before the Grammys, in New York or Los Angeles), bringing in $680,000.

First there were burgers, beans and potato salad at the Building Museum, with erstwhile Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe hosting. Then it was hard-core partying ($25 a ticket) at Dream nightclub, hosted by the Black Eyed Peas with a performance by pop star Nikka Costa. Fergie, the lead singer of the Peas, might have violated the height restriction in Washington by vamping on five-inch heels, but they sure went well with her too-short shorts and tight spaghetti-strap pink and beige top.

"Ditch the suit, dig the denim" was the dress code for the dinner, said Hans Riemer, Rock the Vote's Washington political director, but McCain and Obama, fresh from the vote on Judge Janice Rogers Brown, wore their standard attire.

"Those old fogies won't let me wear jeans on the Senate floor," said McCain, in pinstriped charcoal suit as he walked off the red carpet.

He and Obama were honored with the Rock the Nation Award, the former "for his work on campaign finance reform," the latter for "forming a multiracial coalition in winning his seat," according to Rock the Vote. ("Just call me Funk Master McCain," he told the audience of 1,000 in accepting his award.)

The Black Eyed Peas, who promoted voter registration in their concerts last year, were presented with the Patrick Lippert Award, named for Rock the Vote's first executive director.

Bill Clinton, who accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award in a taped segment, won for being the saxophone-playing president of the MTV generation. And for "his efforts to make the world a better place."

The awards, though, took a back seat to the message Rock the Vote was sending: We want to be the AARP for the iPod-obsessed, ring-tone-changing, PSP and Nintendo DS-carrying generation.

The Bush-Kerry matchup was a landmark election for young voters, drawing nearly 21 million people under the age of 30 to the polls, Rock the Vote President Jehmu Greene said before the dinner. Citing a recent report -- by the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland -- that the increase in voter turnout among 18-to-24 voters was the highest of any age group, Greene went on, "This is the perfect time to ask for a seat among power brokers here in Washington."

There's the NAACP for black people, the Chamber of Commerce for business people, the National Rifle Association for gun-keeping people.

"Young people don't always pay attention to inside-the-Beltway politics," Greene said, "but with the ongoing war on terror, the threat on Social Security, the state of the economy on their minds, the times sure have changed."

Changing times make for changing partners: Last winter, AARP and Rock the Vote, both against the privatization of Social Security, locked hands in a campaign to defeat President Bush's plan.

Taped to the rails of the steps leading up to the red carpet last night were posters proclaiming "I {heart} Social Security." A cheering squad of Rock the Vote volunteers -- many of them political science and prelaw students at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, here for a school trip -- carried the posters, too, as they greeted McAuliffe, Kemp, McCain and Obama.

Across the street, in a planned protest by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which described itself as fiscally conservative, more than 20 people -- mostly students and summer interns -- carried counter-posters that read "My Retirement, My Choice," "Rock the Vote does not speak for me" and "Social Security Reform . . . That's Hot!!!"

In Washington, if you're a new political power player wanting a seat at the table, a protest is a welcome sign.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company