Republicans are counting on America’s youth for a November victory — and they found a few in North Carolina.
Originally published in IndyWeek.
AT THIS MOMENT, JOSHUA WORKMAN might be the most sought-after North Carolinian anywhere in the country. Hair spiked and gelled, sporting a pierced tongue and a nipple ring, he has been fielding so many party invitations that he has to run a spreadsheet program to keep track of his social calendar. The phone rings in Workman’s Philadelphia hotel suite: It’s ABC News, asking if George Stephanopolous can grab a few minutes of his time tomorrow. As he chats with someone from the network, an MTV reporter in baggy khakis sits at a table, waiting to film Workman’s night on the town.
At 19, Workman is one of the youngest delegates to the Republican National Convention, and he’s an essential piece of the party’s marketing campaign. At a gathering where, according to one poll, there are more delegates in their 70s than in their 30s, GOP leaders want to convince America that theirs is the party of the future. The presidential nominee’s 24-year-old nephew, George P. Bush, is barnstorming the country to stir up the youth vote, inviting comparisons to a certain Latin pop star with his winning smile and dark, dreamy looks. ( The New York Times dubbed him “the thinking woman’s Ricky Martin.”) Tomorrow’s opening night will feature not just a rapper, but also a boy band crooning, “A-B-C-D, I love you, do you love me?” And as the frenzy builds through the week, the Republicans will trot out Jon Secada, the hip-wiggling Cuban-born singer who will look out at the delegates, let out a throaty growl, and croon, “I can feel your body!” (One newspaper described Secada as “the next Ricky Martin.” Note the pattern.)
Workman represents the best and brightest of this new generation. Raised in London, Ontario, he graduated high school two years ahead of schedule and came to North Carolina on a scholarship to Lees-McCrae College in Banner Elk. He skis competitively and plays lacrosse. As a freshman, he was elected president of the campus chapter of the College Republicans, and he’s already a veteran of numerous GOP campaigns. He’s majoring in criminal justice and psychology, and plans to go to law school. He recently became a U.S. citizen.
He’s so in demand that the Republican Party has assigned a staff member full-time this week to schedule his media interviews. But tonight he’s mine. I’ve agreed to shuttle him to his second party of the night — a General Motors bash featuring Hank Williams Jr. — in exchange for an interview, and soon we’ll be leaving the hotel. I want to know how a middle-class Canadian kid, the son of moderate parents who favored Bill Clinton in ’96, became a Republican activist at 16.
It seems that when other boys were thinking about girls and music, Workman had already started worrying about liberal social policy. “It started with economics,” he tells me. “I started thinking about the welfare system, and how people don’t act responsibly because they’ve got it to fall back on. There’s such a great economy in our world today that people shouldn’t have this crutch that they rely on just to be lazy.”
“Have you met people on welfare?” I ask.
“I’ve got friends that are on food stamps right now,” he says. “One of my friends is on it just as a total scam. He fills out a one-page application and gets 30 bucks a week or something like that. They take it out of our local Pantry store so he can go in and buy soda and chips and party stuff.”
After learning about welfare reform at 16, “I started thinking about other things — like whether minimum wage helps workers or kills jobs. Right now, I’m definitely leaning toward the idea that it kills jobs.” Like some of his party’s staunchest free-marketeers, Workman thinks the law should be scrapped altogether. No, he says, he wouldn’t work for less than the current minimum wage. But if someone offered him a $4.50-an-hour job, he’d simply look elsewhere. “That’s supply and demand,” he explains.
“You must feel at odds with your country of birth,” I say.
“Yes and no. I love Canada. I’ve got a maple-leaf tattoo. I like the fact that it’s safe there, that you don’t have to think about getting mugged.”
“Canada also has national health care, has a more liberal immigration policy,” I note, and Workman interrupts me. “Canada’s pretty liberal,” he agrees. “No handguns allowed. The only time you have a gun is if you’re a hunter, or if you’re a cop. I don’t think that’s a good policy. If the wrong person was elected, the wrong party came to power, not having arms would be a major benefit for a dictatorship or someone of poor moral character to take over. If only the police and the army have guns, the government’s going to do what they want. If people have guns, then we have a means to fight.”
We’re interrupted by a knock on the door of his hotel suite. It’s Workman’s friend Celia Phillips, chair of the Delaware College Republicans. She’s an attractive woman with long dark hair and an enthusiastic squeal about all matters Republican.
“Have a drink if you want,” Workman says. He motions her over to his mini-bar, which has an impressive array of beverages: Crown Royal, Jose Cuervo Especial, Maker’s Mark, Absolut vodka. He pours himself a whiskey and Coke. “Hey Josh,” I say. “What’s the drinking age?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
“Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies,” chimes in the guy from MTV.
We’re all ready to leave for the Hank Williams Jr. bash when another journalist calls. The delegate settles into the sofa, singing the praises of Gov. George W. Bush. “He totally attracts people, young people especially,” Workman says. “He’s definitely pulling people in. Hispanics, minorities, women, everyone possible. The next eight years under his presidency are going to be great.” He looks at his guests and rolls his eyeballs.
“You’re eating into my social life,” Phillips calls out, but now Workman is opining about Dick Cheney. Phillips’ cell phone rings. She takes one call, then another, and by the time Workman hangs up, his friend is chattering away. “You’re cutting into my social time,” he says, mocking her.
Finally, the phones stop long enough for us to leave. But getting to the General Motors party proves difficult. With Philadelphia under high security, our exit is blocked by police. Workman directs me to the left-hand shoulder of the exit ramp, where I dodge flares to find a stopping place. He flashes his delegate badge, and an officer blurts out directions for a detour, then waves us impatiently away. As I merge back onto Interstate 95 — no easy feat — Workman starts laughing. “Wouldn’t that be a sweet story?” he chortles. “Nineteen-year-old youngest delegate serves jail time first night in Philadelphia. Philadelphia cops caught on video beating suspect.” Phillips’ phone goes off again. “Hey, how’s the boat show?” she asks. “Oh sh…hold on one second. Hello? Hey, how are you? We’re on our way, but we can’t get to the Navy Yard. How did you get there? Shit, I know, we just asked a cop, and we didn’t get the best directions.”
Our trip is starting to resemble After Hours, the movie in which Griffin Dunne spends all night trying to get home from a date-turned-sour, only to be stymied by one obstacle after another. Roads are blocked. Promised intersections never materialize. Workman jumps out of the car to ask directions of a Secret Service agent, and comes back smirking. “He’s being a bit of a dick,” the delegate reports. “He said, ‘You can walk, but it’s like five miles. Tell the girl to take off her heels and start walking.'”
But Workman is determined to get to the party. “At least this thing goes late, so we’ll get to hear Hank,” Workman says. “That’s all I want to hear, a little bit of Hank.”
“Do you?” Phillips asks.
“I love Hank,” Workman says.
“Oh really?” Phillips asks.
“Yeah. I’m a redneck.”
Phillips leans over to give me directions, but she’s interrupted by Workman. “Man, credentials here will get you into anywhere. The Secret Service guy was like, ‘You can go wherever you want. It’s like you got the key to the city.’ It’s like yeah! ” Phillips teases Workman for asking another police officer for an escort to the party, but Workman just shrugs. “I was like, ‘We’re totally lost. Just drive us over there.’ I was like, ‘We’ll follow you.’ When I picked up Elizabeth Dole, we had this sweet, sweet police entourage. It was awesome.”
We hit another blockade, which forces us to make a U-turn. There are pedestrians crossing the street. “Hit ’em,” Workman says. “They’re protesters.” Finally, after an hour, we find ourselves at a hangar-like cruise-ship terminal that has been decorated in patriotic colors for the evening. The place is crammed with delegates and their guests, and on stage is Hank Williams Jr., bearded and husky, wearing a black T-shirt and a spangled cowboy hat, singing away:
I’m a pissed-off Republican.
I’m a P.O.R.
I’m a pissed-off Republican.
That’s what I are.
There’s a sushi bar and a margarita bar, platters of chocolate rum balls and bowls of homemade peach ice cream. Workman lines up for a frozen strawberry margarita — no one checks his ID — and before long, he and Phillips disappear into the throbbing, dancing, sweating Republican crowd.
“I WAS TALKING TO A YOUNGER DELEGATE last night,” I say, “who wants to see an abolition of the minimum wage, because he feels it stifles job creation.” I’m sitting with David Gouge, an officer in his local College Republicans, inside a clubhouse overlooking the Philadelphia Phillies baseball field. We’re at a reception for Tar Heel Republicans sponsored by Sprint and CP&L. I’m relaying my conversation with Joshua Workman, not mentioning the delegate by name. Gouge, an earnest, ruddy-faced young man with stick-out ears and deferential manners, seems positively repelled.
“I don’t understand that,” says the 21-year-old college junior, who is helping staff the North Carolina delegation. “So you can pay them just as little as you want?”
“If the market supports $2.50-an-hour jobs, you can do that, because then you can possibly create twice as many jobs,” I explain.
“Well, then maybe you can ask him if he wants to work for $2.80 an hour,” says Gouge, “and see what he says.”
At first blush, David Gouge seems like the Republican Everyman. The son of an automobile dealer from Thomasville, he attended Virginia Military Institute before transferring to High Point University, where he now majors in political science and philosophy. He hopes to be a lawyer, believes in serving his country, and admires the heck out of John McCain. “He went to a war that may not have been very popular, and did what our elected officials told us to,” Gouge says reverently of the Arizona senator. “So many times, we don’t see that what keeps us from a two-bit dictatorship is the fact that our military commanders are under the authority of our elected officials.”
Interviews like this can be scripted in advance, or so I might have thought. But sitting at the table overlooking the baseball diamond, Gouge keeps taking me places that I don’t expect to go with a Republican.
Growing up, he tells me, “I wasn’t exposed to many different religions or to any kind of racial differences. I think that really hampered my world view. It really gave me a lot of prejudices that I had to break through.” It wasn’t until college that Gouge learned to question his childhood assumptions, and the first to go was his complacency about economic justice. “One thing that really has molded a lot of my political thinking is the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, not only in the United States but all over the world,” he says. “With the technology age, with the big stock market, the rich people are getting so much richer, and pulling up the middle class with them. But the people who rely on skilled labor, it seems like they’re getting poorer. People making minimum wage right now are below the poverty line, and that’s not right.” A waitress comes by offering chicken saté hors d’oeurves. He waves her away politely.
“So far,” I note, “you’re talking like a leftist.”
“So far, I am,” he says. “I don’t believe in everything that’s on the Republican Party’s platform. It’s like Ronald Reagan said: If you agree with me 80 percent of the time, we can work out the other 20 percent. That’s how I feel about the Republican Party. I feel like, honestly, there’s a bunch of big money in both parties. To deny that would be ignorant. We have to realize that a lot of policies are making poor people poorer: Policies like NAFTA and free trade, that take companies out of our country, put them in other countries because of cheaper labor, and don’t give the American worker a chance. Maybe he’s not intelligent enough to go to college. Maybe he’s not fortunate enough to go to college. Maybe his parents weren’t rich enough to send him. It doesn’t give that person a chance, and I think that’s very wrong.”
So where is Gouge’s 80-percent agreement with Republican ideology? Thus far, he hasn’t said anything particularly conservative, yet he clearly considers himself in step with George W. Bush. Well, for one, there’s their shared opposition to gun control — “maybe that’s just the Southern upbringing in me,” he says. Then there’s his opposition to abortion. “Another big part of my upbringing was the church,” explains the Methodist. “I really feel like the Republican Party has the best venue for a modern-day Christian who desires to become involved in politics.”
Again, his words veer off to unexpected places — certainly not toward the Christian Coalition’s brand of religion. “As a Christian, I say that God created everyone in his likeness, and that we should love each other. The Constitution says all men are created equal. But, as we know, that’s not true. We don’t see that in our everyday lives, with the Civil War, with slavery, and especially in North Carolina with the influx of the Hispanic population and the ethnic tension that they probably feel. And with women in politics: I feel like as a Christian, and as someone who’s desiring to be true to their Constitution, they can only seek true equality. I’m not socialist by any means, but I believe an environment is created where certain people become advantaged and certain people aren’t.”
By the time we finish talking, I can understand why Gouge is a Republican: He supports the party’s pro-military leanings and leans rightward on hot-button issues such as abortion. But what fascinates me is that, while he can address these issues articulately, he can’t stay there for very long before he comes back to redistributing the wealth.
THE THEME AT SOTTO’S RESTAURANT in downtown Philadelphia is nautical. A giant ceramic squid clings to the ceiling above the bar, presiding over a kingdom of starfish chandeliers and seahorse wall lamps. Glass waterfalls punctuate the aquamarine walls. Solicitous servers make their rounds, offering up boiled shrimp, crab cakes and oysters on the half-shell to North Carolina’s Republican delegates and their guests. United Airlines and U.S. Airways are picking up the tab.
The conversation is low-key and polite — but then suddenly 50 Tar Heel noses are pressed against the restaurant’s plate-glass windows. Outside, police in riot gear are converging, with horses and squad cars and buses to cart off arrestees. A few minutes later, a knot of demonstrators rounds the corner, many of them wearing black clothing and scarves over their faces. They are protesting the mistreatment of people of color by the criminal justice system: the disproportionate number of minorities who face prison sentences, police brutality, immigrant detention centers and the death penalty. “Stop the Texas killing machine,” says one sign, referring to the steady clip of executions under Gov. Bush’s administration. “Not one more lynching,” says another. Some of the protesters break into a run, and the police give chase. Blue lights flash everywhere.
The North Carolinians’ eyes spin like pinwheels.
“This is ape!” says Joshua Workman.
“Where is Colin Powell when you need him?” asks Gilbert Parker III, the 25-year-old assistant director of the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.
“Looks like they’re going to throw them in the paddy wagon,” says another young Tar Heel. “No harm.”
“Well, I think it’s wonderful,” says an older Republican woman, clearly in the minority here. “When you are young, you ought to do things like that. That’s where the energy of the world comes from.”
Elise Mayse, a 19-year-old student at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, steps outside the restaurant to photograph the commotion, only to find that she has run out of film in her disposable camera. She comes from Kings Mountain, just on the other side of Charlotte, and has never seen anything like this. “We still have tractors going down the road in my town,” she says.
Mayse has been reflecting on the protesters all week. She thinks they’ve been grabbing too much attention, creating an impression that America’s youth are grubby, noisy radicals. She wants me to know that there are “good” youth too — conservatives like her who respect the system and love America. Like David Gouge, she is helping to staff the North Carolina delegation, and she thinks of the many interns serving the convention as examples of her generation’s finest. “There are 200 of us in our program who are here because we want to study the government, we’re so fascinated with how it works, and we have so much faith in the process,” she says.
Mayse doesn’t oppose protests per se. It’s just that her parents have told her so many stories about the 1960s — when the nation was grappling with legalized racism and the Vietnam War — that the current issues seem so trivial. Thirty-five years ago, “so many Americans were being driven apart just because of the color of their skin,” she says. “And people were being drafted into a war that many believed we shouldn’t be in. And this? It just seems very small, them wanting to release some guy who’s on death row.” Besides, she says, we should all feel lucky to live in the United States. “Even the people who say, ‘We’re underpaid, we’re underprivileged,’ they are so much more privileged than many people. If you went to Africa, India, there are so many people who are poor and dying and starving. The people in America who are considered poor are rich compared to people in other countries.”
It’s no surprise that where the protesters see racism and harassment, Mayse sees opportunity. She grew up in an intact family, the daughter of a man who escaped his parents’ hog farm and earned a scholarship to medical school. “My parents always showed me that if you work through the system, then everything can work,” she says. She was educated in first-rate schools and taught to respect authority — and that’s why she votes Republican. “It’s not so much being a conservative as it is being a good kid,” she says.
As we talk, what strikes me is how little this election has to do with issues for Mayse. She seems to have no passionate political convictions. Abortion? She has friends who have had the procedure, and she thinks the issue is more complex than either side claims. “I can see both sides,” she says. “I have not hardened my view.”
Gun control? “I can easily see both sides. I’m in the middle.”
Gay rights? “I’m from a small town. It really doesn’t affect me that much. We have homosexuals, but it’s never really made a large impact.”
Bush’s economic program? “I’m sounding really dumb. I don’t know. I didn’t really base my decision for him on his economic principles. I’m a college student, and no college students have money.”
School choice and charter schools? “My parents were very, very big on the fact that I would not go to a private school. I’m glad I went to the public school system.” On the other hand, “everything Bush says sounds great.”
Campaign finance reform? “It’s a big issue, but I’m still not formed on a lot of my opinions.”
So why Bush? “Our country seems to be in a rut,” Mayse says. “Although Gore maybe would make a good president, he will also be associated with the Clinton administration. Right now, we really need someone to come in and shake things up. I think the Republican Party can do that.”
The rut theme has woven its way through much of the Republicans’ rhetoric this week, and it perplexes me. The economy is humming along just fine, creating unprecedented opportunities for Mayse’s generation. We are experiencing relative peace in the world. Crime is down, and the president’s approval ratings are high. What’s the rut, I ask Mayse.
She motions to the protesters outside the plate-glass window. “People are upset,” she says. “People don’t trust the government. People have so many things that they feel they’re not being heard about. And I think the current government is not taking care of it.”
THE CONVENTION FLOOR HAS BEEN BUILDING to a frenzy for the last four nights, and even the normally restrained North Carolina delegation is starting to catch the spirit. David Gouge was swept up by Tuesday night’s military theme, buoyantly singing Anchors Aweigh during a musical interlude. As Norman Schwartzkopf spoke on a video screen from the Battleship U.S.S. New Jersey — “Freedom is not cost-free. It is bought and paid for with the blood and guts and lives of veterans” — Gouge jumped up from his chair, shouted “Yes!” and gave the general a private standing ovation. “I love General Schwartzkopf,” he says. “It definitely makes you want to thump your chest.”
Tonight the convention floor is so packed that the security staff is getting worried about a fire hazard. Elise Mayse, though not a delegate, has scored a floor pass, and is standing in the middle of the North Carolina contingent, dancing in place. Joshua Workman, worn out from his intense social schedule, is looking a little red around the pupils, but his smile is beatific. “It’s been awesome,” he says of his week. “The best political experience of my life. It’s reinvigorated me. Any tiredness I felt is re-energized.”
Just as the floor can’t get any wilder — middle-aged delegates with elephant-patterned clothing are now swing-dancing in the aisles — the nominee takes the podium. “Our generation has a chance to reclaim some essential values, to show we have grown up before we grow old,” Gov. Bush says. “But when the moment for leadership came, this administration did not teach our children, it disillusioned them. They had their chance. They have not led. We will.”
A chant sweeps the room, from one state to another, and finally to the North Carolina section. Even Workman, usually one of the last to start cheering, gets caught up in the moment. Standing in the aisle, he pumps his right fist in the air and joins in the echo of his party’s standard-bearer:
He means it.