Thursday, February 23, 2012

Mac students invade D.C. for conservative political conference

Originally published in The Mac Weekly.

***

Every year, hundreds of conservative activists and students converge on a JW Marriott in Washington D.C. for CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Conference. On its face, the event is a gauge of the sentiment of the conservative movement at a given time. Simultaneously, it is infamous for its drunken revelry.

As a Macalester Republican, I jumped on the opportunity to attend. To be sure, there was some of that debauchery on display in 2012. One College Republican member I met from Iowa recounted blacking out after a night of festivities at the Marriott to wake up inside a van inside the gates of the Botswanan embassy. He lost his phone, which turned up later in the clutches of a man on a street corner in a less tourist-friendly part of town.

Macalester’s College Republican delegation had less of those problems. Personally, I hardly drink. As a Mormon, drinking is off-limits for Drew Ojeda ’13. And Paul McGuire ’12 passed on the opportunity; since studying abroad in Japan, he only drinks sake (a rice-based alcoholic drink). No, our antics came sober.

We left campus on Wednesday, February 8th, in a charter bus with 50 other College Republicans from Minnesota and Iowa. It was a long, 20 hour drive, and I cannot remember much of it. Suffice it to say, it was a miserable, uncomfortable experience.

Wednesday was the awkward get-your-bearings day. Thursday was the day the press arrived.

Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were all busy trying to win the straw poll at the event. Never mind its inaccuracy; the winner of the last five years, either Romney or Ron Paul, have bought tickets for their supporters to ‘pack’ the event.

I was not enthused. You can always count on Newt Gingrich to give a speech on thinking big, Romney to stress his nonexistent conservative credentials (this time he was ‘severely’ conservative) and Santorum to say whatever is on his mind (Full disclosure: I am a Ron Paul fanboy). We have seen this performance over a dozen times in an endless series of debates, so people should have already made up their mind.

For me, the highlight of the first two days was leaving a party early to hit up a random Subway around midnight. No, my big day was Saturday. It started awkwardly. I was chatting with Bob Costa, a reporter with The National Review, asking for basic journalism advice. Suddenly, David Weigel, a reporter for Slate, walked up and introduced himself. I read David Weigel often; his political analysis is smart and sarcastic, the perfect combination. As an aspiring journalist, I gushed and stuttered like a teenage girl meeting Justin Bieber. I told him I read his work every day and that I followed him on Twitter. It was bad.

Suitably shaken by embarrassment, I left and walked over to the local McDonalds. By the time I returned, a crowd of local Occupy protestors had assembled outside of the Marriott, chanting up a storm. Soon a number of conservative bloggers and College Republicans formed their own ranks. A few enterprising individuals on both sides reached out and started productive discussions; the rest simply yelled at each other.

I headed back inside for the conference. I was chatting up an operative on a Senate campaign in Texas when suddenly all eyes turned to the automatic doors at the front of the Marriott’s lobby. In a cleanly pressed suit and perfectly done hair, out of nowhere and with no entourage, entered Jimmy McMillan.

Andrew Ojeda with Jimmy McMillan outside of the Marriott's conference room.
Yes, the same Jimmy McMillan who as a perennial candidate for office focuses obsessively on the excessive cost of rent—the Rent Is Too Damn High! He strode through the hotel like a titan. Students ran up for pictures, and the famed McMillan took it all in stride.
 A spontaneous chant emerged from everyone, the campaign operative and I included. “The Rent is Too Damn High!”

After a few minutes he coolly strode from the crowd toward the main ballroom. Approaching the VIP entrance, he demanded entry like the proud icon he is. The confused volunteers ushered him off to registration.

I left as David Weigel began to buzz about the scene, snapping off a picture of McMillan for his unending stream of Tweets. I later discovered McMillan unsuccessfully attempted to breach Bloggers’ Row. Thirty minutes later, I asked a polite employee of the hotel named Cindy what happened to the man.

“The rent guy?” she asked. “He was escorted out by security.”

It was like he had never even been there. Still, the memory of MacMillan lingered in my mind, as did the rest of the day. Intoxicated or not, CPAC is always an interesting experience.

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