He was the lucky guy with the fun job of introducing 57 states and territories as they announced their delegate votes, nominating Joe Biden for president of the United States.
At 17, Rae was the youngest person to be elected a member of the DNC. Now he’s the youngest party officer and the first openly gay secretary of the DNC and the convention. This is the first convention he’s gotten to call — as is the duty of the DNC secretary — and he, completely coincidentally, happens to live in Milwaukee, which he says makes this whole moment even more special.
Rae was the first DNC secretary since the start of that position in 1944 to oversee a virtual roll call, a brisk 30-minute affair, rather than the two or three (often incredibly charming) hours it usually takes for people to brag about their states while wearing outfits full of hometown flare. “It’s completely reimagined from any roll call that we’ve ever seen before,” Rae said. “You’ll have real people with real stories, which is something we haven’t done before.”
When Rae was 17 being raised by parents “who cared more about the Green Bay Packers than about politics,” he said, he tried to become a delegate for the 2004 convention in Boston, where John F. Kerry got the nomination. But the state party rules said he was too young; he had to be 18.
However, the party brass did encourage him to come to Wisconsin’s state DNC convention, where the party would be electing two men and two women to be members. Rae did some research and found that there weren’t any age rules about being a member. So, he filed to run, and when he showed up he launched what he thought was a protest campaign. His opponents, he said, were “the president of the state’s firefighters union at the time and a former state legislator, both of whom were endorsed and supported by our sitting Democratic governor.” He, again, was a 17-year-old, although he had been president of the student council and his senior-year class president and had spent half his junior year working as a U.S. Senate page.
“I just worked the hall to win people’s votes,” he said. “I stood at the convention hall door all night and all morning the next day to shake every hand.” He had hand-painted signs that said, “A Ray of Hope For the Future.” He talked about young people needing to have a seat at the table. Then, statement made, he left to go to Boys State, a leadership program for high school boys run by the American Legion. Then while he was registering, he got a call from the Wisconsin Democratic Party staff.
“They told me I not only won, but I came in first. I was so surprised!” he said. And as a member, he got to go to the convention in Boston, after all. “I remember being in the hall when Barack Obama gave the keynote address,” he said, “and as a young kid who loved politics, it was such a special experience.”
He won each of his subsequent state elections, every four years, and then ran to be the DNC’s secretary against the incumbent, former Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. It was a tough election, he said, so his strategy was to try to call all the members and pitch himself personally to them. “There are about 448. I called them until they asked me to stop calling,” he said. “I think some of them I called 10 times just because I wanted them to know my vision.” The roll call is one of the most fun things he gets to do as secretary, but he’s also working to make the DNC more transparent and engage with its members more. It’s a volunteer position. He and his staff are in charge of maintaining the roster of members and running meetings, plus certifying all 5,000 convention participants, which includes all the delegates.
Before the event, Rae practiced how to make his roll call of each state a little different.
“It’s not necessarily the scene we would have wanted in Milwaukee, but at the end of the day I know that we as a party did the right thing because we believe in science, and we’re going to show that we put the health and safety of people first,” he said.