Straddling the Clinton-Obama Divide

Law school friends battle each other on the campaign trail.

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In the fall of 1972, Bill Clinton, then a fresh-faced third-year student at Yale Law School, decided to play a little hooky to work on George McGovern’s campaign in Texas. This year, Clinton’s legacy of political truancy has found two young, black heirs: Jason Green and Addisu Demissie, best friends locked in a fierce political battle in the months before their final-year exams.

Demissie is state director for the Hillary Clinton campaign in Connecticut; Green is the political director for the Obama campaign in the same state. In previous years, the two friends spent their down time like many law school buddies, practicing their golf swings or flying to Vegas for March Madness. Now with Clinton and Obama in a dead heat, the two have little time to speak. Even if they had time, they couldn’t say much.

“When your best friend is the political director for the other side, you keep it secure,” says Green, 26, who paused for a late-night interview while organizing appearances with Michigan Congressman John Conyers and other Obama surrogates. And even in the middle of the night, the political ticker never stops: at one point Green yelps–”Oh! We got an endorsement”–mid-sentence, before resuming his steady, engaged discussion of the ground game in the state.

Demissie found his candidate this fall while watching a Democratic debate. “I just looked at [Clinton] and said, ‘That’s the person I want on the other end of the stage in November and that’s the person I want sitting in the chair in the Oval Office.’”

He said his personal experience of watching family members go without health insurance also sharpened his commitment to the Clinton campaign. “It puts you in a ditch,” he says. “Clinton knows it’s a basic democratic principle.” He returned to the Iowa proving ground this December and, taking notice of his enthusiasm and dedication there, the Clinton campaign tapped him to lead the statewide effort in Connecticut.

As a Kerry staffer in 2004, Green was in the hall for Obama’s famous keynote convention speech in Boston, but says that even then, “I don’t think I was one of the first people in line.” But listening closely, Green found that Obama’s fresh approach stirred his work ethic. He speaks of his political life as a “calling,” a way of “involving people in something bigger than themselves.” After graduating from Washington University, he jumped into local politics in his home state of Maryland, campaigning for city councilmen and working on an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2006.

The two insist they have remained chummy, even in the face of heated disagreements between their candidates. “Jason is without question one of my best friends at the law school,” says Demissie, 27, speaking between classes in New Haven. As Democrats, “we agree on the issues, we just disagree on who the messenger should be,” he explains.

Green also makes clear that the pitched political battles holds nothing personal “Look, I [have] friends who like the Cowboys and I like the Redskins. My politics doesn’t dictate my life, and on a lot of these issues we’re on the same side.”

The two young activists have grown close, and for good reason: They were born the same year, majored in political science as undergraduates, and support the same progressive agenda. Both are fervent admirers of Lyndon Johnson (Demissie finds this ironic, given the recent controversy surrounding LBJ, Martin Luther King Jr., and their different contributions to the passing of the Civil Rights Act).

But perhaps the most important similarity is their shared belief that a political education lies both in the books and on the streets—a principle that links them to the rising class of black political leadership in America.

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