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.
Demissie caught the political bug in 2000. “I literally couldn’t tear myself away from the TV during the [Florida] recount,” he recalls. “That’s what got me committed to getting involved in politics and policy.” After graduating from Yale College in 2001, he spent time in Washington working for the NAACP Defense Fund.
He honed his organizational skills as a field staffer for John Kerry in Iowa in 2004, where he mastered the grueling arts of door-knocking and back-slapping for his candidate. After Kerry’s Iowa win, he became a jack-of-all trades for the campaign, and was chosen to work on national organizing with Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe throughout the 2004 general election.
Green still marvels at the “huge, wonderful responsibility” of being at the wheel of a statewide campaign. The evident humility —Green prefers the term “public service” to “politics”—comes from his family’s roots in the United Methodist Church, and it was his deep respect for community-based organizing that led him to the Obama campaign.
Green first met Obama at a campaign breakfast when Obama was running for the senate. Obama talked then as he does now about, his work as a community organizer in Chicago. “I heard that more than electing him, we need[ed] to build a coalition of people willing to engage the democratic process. That was particularly interesting to me.”
Josh Strickland, a classmate and close acquaintance of the two, believes his friends epitomize the trend. “At law schools in general there are usually a lot of black women. Our class is really fortunate to have a strong group of black males.” He points to a handful of classmates of all races who have worked for other Democrats in the 2008 primary season. But that his friends are still at it “speaks to the caliber of leadership that Addisu and Jason have.”
And whichever way Connecticut falls this evening it’s clear, as Demissie says, that “it’s a small fraternity, or sorority of people who work in politics, and a close one—besides being on opposite sides of the fight sometimes.” Green agrees. “It’s always great to engage someone as talented as Addisu on these issues,” he says, though they do stay tight-lipped about strategy.
Apparently, teasing is still fair game, especially when talking about their own political futures. “I’d have to say Jason is on the top of the ticket,” said Demissie. [He] has way more political skill than I ever will.” Green responded playfully: “I will happily run Addisu Demissie’s campaign someday. Age before beauty, right?”
Dayo Olopade is a reporter at The New Republic.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.