EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Berkeley Daily Planet launches a full week of online coverage of the Democratic Convention in Denver. It will include coverage by our regular Public Eye columnist, Democratic Party activist Bob Burnett; by special correspondent Chris Krohn, who previously covered the 2004 conventions for us; and by our BeyondChron colleagues Randy Shaw and Paul Hogarth; plus videos and photo essays.
Ayelet Waldman is going to Denver! She is a Democratic Party delegate for Barack Obama, representing the East Bay’s 9th Congressional District. When she’s home, she’s a busy woman. She writes fiction and personal essays and lives in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood with Michael Chabon, her writer husband, and their four kids.
The Planet caught up with Waldman this week as she was vacationing on the East Coast and getting ready to leave for the Democratic Convention in Denver, which begins Monday. As she multi-tasked in her kitchen, stirring cake batter and then taste-testing it, adjusting the oven temperature, and listening to incoming calls on her phone answering machine, she spoke candidly and passionately about how she decided to run as an Obama delegate.
Celebrity status aside, Ayelet Waldman is clearly someone who has paid some dues in Democratic Party politics. “I worked for Obama early on, mostly fundraising,” she begins the conversation, “and then I made my first trip out to Nevada.” She is pensive, the mixing bowl stirring stops for a moment as she recalls that time. “I know this sounds corny, but this gave me my Democratic Party inspiration.”
The Nevada caucuses in January were the third primary this year. “The caucuses were what it used to be like—a town meeting. It gave me a patriotic feeling,” she says. She steps back, “You know, I went to Wesleyan and I am a bit cynical. Patriotism does not come naturally to me, but I was excited when I came back from Nevada.” The stirring begins again, “Oh s****!,” she exclaims, touching the hot oven door. She forgets for a moment about this interview, trying to get her cake finished in time for a later evening engagement.
“Then I went to South Carolina to work in the Voter Protection boiler room,” she continues. “We were dealing with calls from all around the country.” The oven door slams again. “I worked in Voter Protection for Kerry,” she pauses, not sure whether to say more about that failed candidacy. She chooses instead to press on with her case for Obama.
“But now I feel like I am putting my money where my mouth is. I had this epiphany while waiting for Barack to give his speech [in South Carolina]. I was standing next to some statue, you know, one of those really ‘southern’ statues, and here we were in this room, black and white, and up come Bill Clinton’s comments about Jesse Jackson on the big TV.” She is resolute, focused, sending chills down the listener’s spine as she continues. “I was standing with some students and they started chanting, ‘Race doesn’t matter! Race doesn’t matter!’ And here we were in the heart of Dixie chanting ‘Race doesn’t matter!’ She takes a breath, “And, of course, race matters. I just felt so excited with the possibility of electing a man [Obama] with such compassion and intellect.”
The next place Waldman traveled to was Texas. “I met this woman who takes her kids to vote with her in every election, but this time she had decided to work the caucuses, and as we said our goodbyes, we said we’d see each other on the Mall on Inauguration Day. “I thought why wait, I can do more” to make an Obama Presidency happen.
The answering machine is going off in the background, she stops speaking for a moment, it’s a call for her husband and she lets it go. “Then I came home and decided I would be a delegate. I decided to run.”
What was it like on the day you met the voters who would be selecting delegates?
“I was surprised I won. I wasn’t sure who would come. I ran on a slate with a friend, and we asked as many friends to come as possible; they would have to give up a beautiful Sunday. And when I arrived I saw this line, and I went up and down the line of people, campaigning.”
What did you tell them? “What I had already done for Barack and what I plan on doing in Denver.”
Like what? “At the time I thought there would be a floor fight at the convention [between Hillary Clinton and Obama], but now most of Hillary’s supporters are on board and will support Barack.” And in Denver, what will happen? “I think we will see party unity, we will rise to the occasion. I don’t think you will see any ‘NoBama’ signs. Look, the last eight years, no matter what your political persuasion, have been a disaster. Most thinking people understand that four more years of these policies will be a disaster.”
Do you think you should be representing Berkeley? “I’m from Berkeley and I think I will pretty well represent them.”
What are your three top issues, Berkeley issues? “The issues are the war in Iraq and by extension, and perhaps more importantly, ending torture and ending the suspension of habeas corpus. Back when we had the Magna Carta, we had a commitment to habeas corpus. If this country has stood for anything it’s stood for the constitution. The constitution is the very definition of grace. In the past eight years we have abandoned that.”
The answering machine goes off again. Waldman pauses to listen. It is a friend—she strides through that conversation, ending it quickly: “I’m being interviewed on the other line.” She’s excited.
On our line she does not miss a beat, “I am also very interested in the criminal justice system and ending the war on drugs.”
And your third issue? “The Supreme Court. Everything comes to the Supreme Court and the next President might appoint three or four justices.”
What will you actually do at the convention as a delegate? “I’m not exactly sure, I’ve never done this before. Maybe it will be a four-day bacchanal.” She laughs. “There are floor sessions every day from 4-9pm. I will be going to meetings and parties outside of those times. I just RSVP-ed for a session on African genocide … there will be others I assume. I will also do a blog for New York Magazine. Gail Collins has the political side and I am doing the delegate side.”
Her cake is nearly done. She glides around the kitchen—there are sounds of opening drawers, wax paper being ripped. The phone rings one more time and she has to answer it.
We spar for a moment as I probe for her possible disagreements with the Illinois Senator on the Telecom bill and the death penalty. She finally avers, “You know, I just want to say, I think one of the reasons he is such a successful candidate is that he has committed himself to working across political lines. I have always believed America gets the President it deserves. I know Barack will be one of the best Presidents ever. We will see if we deserve him. It’s our choice to prove whether this country deserves Barack Obama.”
[Editing errors in the print version of this article have been corrected: the school Waldman attended,what she currently writes and her current employment.]