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Sunday
Oct252015

The 10 week journey of a lifetime

Cross posted at Florida Politics: http://wp.me/p5cd4C-OfB

For me, it started in September 2008.

Barack Obama had just selected Joe Biden as his running mate, and I was to staff the new VP candidate in Tampa, at a rally at the University of South Florida.

Now prior to this day, I had grown quite cynical about Washington, so I just assumed the whole Biden thing was an act. And frankly, with the task of managing a 600 person staff, about the last thing I wanted to do was go to a rally with him that day.

During that campaign - and many before and after it, I've been lucky to live with my sister Colleen and her family in Tampa. As a result, I could spend a lot of time playing my favorite role in life, Uncle. On this day, I decided to give my then thirteen year old nephew Connor a day off from school, thinking he could keep me company.

After getting to the Sun Dome early and doing the usual walk-thrus, Connor and I waited in a back stage hallway, just outside a locker room where political types and donors were waiting for a photo op. Soon Senator Biden walked in, sporting his trademark aviators. I reached out my hand to introduce myself, but he blew right past me and walked right up to Connor, put him in a headlock and gave him a noogie. Both Connor and Biden lit up. And in that split second, I realized I was wrong about the guy. He was the real deal.

During that campaign, I staffed him a few more times, witnessing moments that he's surely forgotten, but that I won't. Time and time again, he showed an unusual sense of kindness and humanity. He would linger on the photo line to listen to a story, and when it came to members of the military or law enforcement, he always had time for a handshake and a picture. And in a business where so many are looking over the shoulder of the person they were talking to, he was one of the rare ones who seemed oblivious to all but the person he was talking to.

I always got the sense that Joe Biden, a kid from a rusting blue collar town not unlike the one I grew up in, lived every moment almost with the sense of "I can't believe I get to do this" (another thing that I can relate to). I've never met a person who met him who didn't like him, and even more so, everyone who ever worked for him would seemingly walk through fire for him. In 2012, I had the honor to meet his son Beau, who was indeed everything everyone ever said about him.

I was pretty sure I would sit out 2016, I was willing to do my part to help out the nominee, but after five consecutive statewide Florida cycles, I was ready for a break. But that changed for me in last July and early August of this year, when it became clear Biden was giving it real thought to a run, I was a Joe Biden guy, and if he was even thinking about running, I wanted to be there. As more and more stories got written, I also grew tired of reading all these quotes from "unnamed" sources saying he should get in. While I get that sometimes people have to talk background, this was one of those instances where I hated the DC way of doing things. It was time someone stood up and just said - Hey Joe, if you run, we are with you. So I did.

My friends - even those who privately wanted him to run, thought I was nuts. Frankly, I didn't think anyone would really care.

Nonetheless I "made news" by telling Jonathan Martin of the New York Times, who had just written a Biden piece that I would be for him running. He wrote a little piece for their campaign blog, which led an old Florida friend, Carol Lee, now of the Wall Street Journal, to ask me if I would join the efforts to draft him into the race. I said sure, honestly not to aware of what that meant. A few hours later, while having a beer with a GOP buddy of mine, State Representative Ray Pilon, her story went live on the WSJ website, and within seconds, my phone literally exploded. Once MSNBC had "confirmed" my news, it got picked up by the Drudge Report and seemingly everyone else. Over the course of two -- OK, maybe three beers, this had turned into a full fledged dumpster fire, and while Ray was totally entertained, I actually wondered what in the world had I done.

That started a chain reaction that plunged me, almost entirely by accident, into a rather unique journey. Funny enough, it almost ended right there for me. The first morning my news blew up, I actually cancelled every single scheduled television interview and stopped returning calls - much to the dismay to the Draft folks. The last thing I wanted to do was do more harm than good. Through a friend, I got a nudge of encouragement. So I did two TV interviews that first day, which turned into three the next, four the day after. In fact, for 15 straight days following Carol's piece, I appeared on some national or regional television show talking about the Vice President. It was all a blur. I even got bumped off Anderson Cooper 360 for Donald Trump, actually twice!

Now first of all, if you haven't ever done remote TV, it isn't exactly the world's easiest medium. To try it at home, sit in a chair and pick out a light switch, maybe 15-20 feet away, and have a conversation with it, without losing eye contact, and while looking natural and relaxed. To complicate the fact that I wasn't totally comfortable being thrust into this role of one of the movement's unofficial spokespeople, I was also still learning to be comfortable in that chair.

After the Vice President's truly remarkable interview with Stephen Colbert, our work on the Draft Biden side went to a new level. It became clear overnight that we were now in the middle of something bigger than all of us, and with it came a heightened sense of responsibility. We all felt it - the man who gave that interview was different than any other politician in modern times, and it now fell on our shoulders to give him every chance to succeed if he chose to run. We all had to up our game.

The more he talked openly about his own process, the more emotionally invested we all became in our mission. I could hardly think of anything else. We just kept leaning forward, arguing with the skeptics, and lining up more supporters. Many days started at 5:30 AM for morning shows and ended well after midnight. Along the road, I kept using the word "surreal" to describe it, though frankly, I am not sure that gave it justice.

For me, with each passing day, I felt a growing sense of obligation to represent him well. While admittedly I was having a blast, I tried to get better at my job, because as the folks on the team knew, I never felt comfortable with, nor did I feel worthy of the role I ended up playing. I was terrified that I would say something that would diminish the Vice President or do something that would fail to honor his public service. I would spend hours rehearsing in quiet by myself, visualizing every question.

My friends would sometimes say that in particularly critical moments of that 10 week journey, they could see the stress on my face. They were right. Here I was making the public case for a man who had been in public life for 42 years, who had endured a very public tragedy for the second time in his life, and whom I had not spoken with in three years. I was just a hack from Florida, one that despite meeting him several times, I doubt the VP could pick me out of a line-up, and pretty sure I was one of the last people on the planet they would have picked for the role I was playing. I definitely felt the weight of that.

But until someone told me to stop, I wasn't going to quit, even as time was starting to run out. In the three days after the debate, I did 18 or 19 TV interviews, and talked to probably another 50 print reporters. Like everyone, I was exhausted, and hopeful he would decide soon. But we had to run through the tape.

Fortunately the Vice President also knew what we all knew, it was time. The plane needed to land.

That last morning, I got a little heads up - a text saying "Turn on a TV." In my gut, I had known since Monday morning where the plane would land. While the selfish part of me that has long dreamed of helping a man like Joe Biden complete his dream of being elected President hoped my gut was wrong, I went ahead and texted "He's not running - find a TV" to a few friends, then turned on my own TV and waited the 5-10 minutes until he walked out into the Rose Garden, ignoring my phone that was in a constant state of motion from the calls, texts and emails from people & press trying to find out what was going on.

He stepped up to the mic and got it right out of the way, then proceeded to give an inspiring speech that represented why so many of us felt so strongly about him as a potential candidate. He laid out a strong justification for running, and talked about things that really bother me these days, namely the fact that in politics today, we've forgotten about friendships and respect. But in the end, we weren't going to be making that case. It was over.

I stood there alone in my living room, watching him remind the American people why he truly is one of the finest examples of public servants that our country has ever seen. I wasn't sad that he was taking a pass - frankly in spite of all my selfish ambition, given that we had reached late October, he made the right decision. As he finished, I collapsed into a chair completely spent, and cried for longer than I want to admit. It wasn't from sadness, rather it was final relief of all that pressure I had put on myself. I know at the end, I personally didn't have anything left.

The silence that follows the end of any campaign is always shocking, and while I have never really gotten used to it, over the years I've grown to using it for reflection. As I wrote on my Facebook page the day after he announced, the whole thing was both physically and emotionally grueling, though because of who Joe Biden is - and for the kind of politics he represents, I woke up every morning excited and ready to do my little part. Looking back on the last two months, nothing seems real. Trust me, the idea that I would end up in that chair, day after day, as one of the guys making the case for someone like the Vice President of the United States of America was as patently absurd to me as it was to many observers.

I am grateful for the friendships I made along the way, guys like Josh Alcorn and Brad Bauman, two people who I met for the first time three weeks after this all started, and whom today are brothers. I am thankful for Sarah Ford, who essentially managed me for two months in spite of the fact we've never actually met, as well as the many others who worked on this that would rather me not name them in this blog!

Three months ago, I accepted an invitation to lead a delegation of young political leaders to Sub-Saharan Africa for about two weeks in late October and early November, a place I've longed to visit since I was a teenager. I've spent most of the last two months wondering how I would actually be able to take this trip if he got in the race, but after spending decades looking at a globe, reading countless books, and imagining visiting there, I was going to go regardless. In the end, as if ordained by providence, this trip which starts on Thursday will be a perfect transition back to my day job. But I leave for Africa full of pride, knowing that for ten weeks of my life, largely by accident, I got to stand in front of millions of Americans and honor Joe Biden. That really was living the dream.

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