GLENDALE RESIDENT JASON RAE has been a member of the Democratic National Committee since when he was 17 — the youngest person ever elected to the DNC. Since then, he’s moved on to become the secretary of the DNC and found the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, where he works as president and CEO.
Milwaukee Magazine sat down with Rae, 33, to discuss his political history, the party’s Milwaukee convention and what he does in his limited free time.
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You’ve attended Democratic Party meetings in your youth in Barron County in northwestern Wisconsin, and you were the youngest person to ever be elected to the Democratic National Committee. What is your first memory of being interested in politics?
As I look back, it just kind of always felt as though I had a calling to be engaged in the political process. I remember my former state representative from northern Wisconsin invited me to go to a committee meeting for Tom Barrett’s 2002 campaign for governor in the Democratic primary and thinking that was really awesome. I just have always felt it’s where I needed to be and my way to help create a better community for all people by being engaged in the political process.
Was your interest something that you stumbled upon yourself?
My parents always voted, but I joke that they cared much more about the Packers than they did about politics, so it wasn’t something that was brought up in our household on a regular basis. We didn’t debate the issues. I do remember sometime in elementary school having to do research and write a biography on someone and I chose John F. Kennedy. There was an intrinsic, natural draw, in a sense, to being engaged in politics.
What was it like when you found out that Milwaukee was going to host the convention?
It was a really exhilarating moment. When the decision was made by the chair to bring the convention here to Milwaukee, as a party officer who happens to live in the city, I was really thrilled for us to be able to spotlight Milwaukee. I think it’s one of those places that we know is great and is a wonderful place, but it requires folks to come here and see it — and when they do, they fall in love. So I was just thrilled for us to be able to shine the spotlight on Milwaukee to be able to talk about our community and show the world just who we are.
As the committee’s secretary, how has it been adapting to the convention being potentially virtual as well as in your home state?
It’s been a unique experience. I was one who was on-the-go all the time, in D.C. on a regular basis and around the country, whether for events with other LGBT chambers, or political things. It’s been really different now but it’s also been a really great opportunity to connect with even more folks on a regular basis and continue to build meaningful relationships that will help move us forward. For example, in the LGBT chamber space, there are 51 LGBT chambers across the country and we now gather every other week for an hour on Zoom to just talk about what’s going on, share best practices and have a conversation. It’s really helped build deep relationships that have helped me continue to move our organization forward. The same on the political front — it’s allowed people to continue to talk and build relationships and get to know one another. I miss being out there, but it has really provided some unique opportunities.
Has the inconclusiveness of not knowing what the DNC is going to look like been a little difficult?
It’s been a really interesting time as we have had to shift and evaluate and examine. As an officer, first and foremost, I know that our priority has to be on the health and safety of our convention participants and we’ll continue to monitor that. At the end of the day, this is not going to be the 50,000 person event that we have wanted, but the chair and the vice president have shown their commitment to holding this convention here. I’m still excited for Milwaukee. I know that this is the first of, what I think are going to be, many conventions and events that are brought to town. I think this opens the door for other organizations to think that, if we can pull off hosting the DNC, we can pull off their major convention. I think that this is going to be just the beginning of a really great opportunity to put Milwaukee on the map.
Why do you think Wisconsin is such an important part for the important state for the Democratic Party right now?
I don’t see how we can win the White House without Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a purple state. The road to the White House runs right through the Midwest. There are certainly other states in play that can help us do that, but Wisconsin is a true battleground state. And while the choice of a convention does not dictate how those electoral votes will go in the fall, it does show what parties value, and it’s showing that the Democratic Party knows that we need to have a presence here, that we need to be engaged and we need to fight for Wisconsin. I think it just reiterates the party’s commitment to our state and fighting to make sure that we go blue in November.
With your role with the LGBT Chamber of Commerce has there been a heightened sense of urgency with COVID-19?
In the last couple months, the real focus has been on how we are supporting small businesses in particular who are concerned around their own future and whether they would have the resources to weather this storm. We really put an emphasis on making sure that our business members have the tools and resources to come out of this still standing. I will say we were also quite shocked, in a good way, with the Supreme Court decision last Monday, talking about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and expanding the definition of sex to include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Wisconsin had already been protecting based on sexual orientation since 1982, but to know that our transgender community could not be fired for who they are was a great success. what it has done for the Chamber is it’s also reinforced why our work is so warranted. That is only one piece of the journey to full equality. We still need those protections in housing, public accommodations, among other things. Now in particular, our work is even more important as we strive to build a stronger pro-fairness business community.
What would you say are the biggest issues at stake for you?
For so long so many of worlds have been very siloed, but it’s really felt like in the past year, since the convention was announced in Milwaukee, I see all parts of my world really intersecting — talking around how do we get LGBT businesses opportunities with the convention, getting people to see all the different sides that I had kept. I wanted to keep politics out of things and it’s fascinating seeing the intersection of all of my identities getting to come together. The biggest thing is just making sure that at the end of the day that we turn people out to vote, and that we win this election, the only thing that matters right now is winning in November.
Are you worried about the DNC being mostly virtual affecting any of that momentum?
I’m not concerned at all about that. I think at the end of the day, we’ve seen the commitment for the convention, but also just the commitment from the DNC and from the Biden campaign. They understand what’s at stake, and they’ve invested heavily in building a ground game here in the state. It’s not just the convention, but it’s the organizing on the ground that has to take place. That hasn’t stopped. In this virtual time we’ve continued to organize, we’ve continued to build relationships and we’ve continued to set the plans in place to win in November.
Can you just speak a little bit on the work you’ve done with youth political involvement and why that’s so important?
When I think of youth political involvement, I think about when I first got elected to the DNC back in 2004 when I was 17, and I did it because I wanted to talk about young people being at the table. I think it’s really important that campaigns are putting forth policies and talking about issues that impact young voters, and when the party itself is making decisions that there are young voters at the table. It’s something that I fought for a long time. When I first got elected to the DNC in 2004, of the about 450 or so there were about six out of the 450 that were defined as youth — youth is considered in the DNC as under 36 — so six people out of 450 under the age of 36. I thought there needed to be more so we set out and I helped create the DNC Youth Council as a way to really talk, not only about how is the DNC engaging with young people, but helping state parties and county party campaigns make sure that they are being inclusive. We worked to get young people elected as delegates to the national convention. We worked to get more young people to run and be elected as DNC committee members. When the DNC is discussing the rules of the nominating process, we make sure that young people are there. This is something that I have continued to fight for and will always fight for to make sure that the generations that are coming behind me have access to the table and are actually invited and encouraged to join.
Is that changing?
I absolutely think it’s changing. I think we’re seeing more young people getting involved on a greater basis. I’m excited to see that passion and energy for so many young leaders who are stepping forward and who are not only running for a party position like the DNC, but are running for office, whether it’s on a local level, which is so important, or running for higher office as well. I think we are really seeing some generational changes.
And you look at Milwaukee, for example, at the Milwaukee County Board chair and Milwaukee County executive and the Common Council president, they’re all young leaders who are really ready to move our community forward in an exciting, energetic way. I’m really looking forward to that. I have loved being able to see, as I have traveled the country in my role as secretary, the number of amazing young leaders who are stepping up making such a positive difference in our communities.
What is your favorite part of Milwaukee?
There’s great restaurants, great culture, great entertainment, but it’s the people.The people in Milwaukee are hardworking, genuine, and are giving of their time and talents. I don’t think I could be where I am both politically or professionally if it weren’t for people being willing to take phone calls, being willing to mentor to share advice, to provide input. It’s a community where people want to help one another. And the community that I love being a part of.
What would you say is your ultimate career goal?
I don’t know anymore. I used to have it all mapped out thinking with Point A to Point B to Point C — it was all linear. What I’ve learned in politics is to take each moment that you’re given and to pour your heart into whatever position you have, and not to fixate on what may be next. You can’t predict what the political tide may bring. So you just have to do good in the roles that you have, and really make an impact while you can. It’s been the honor of my lifetime to serve as a national party officer, and I’m going to continue doing everything I can to help people across the country help build transparency of the party to help elect Democrats up and down the balance. But what happens? You know, 10, 15, 20 years, we’ll see.
How do you balance all of this? Are you exhausted?
It’s a whirlwind, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. There is so much at stake in this that I just know that it needs to get done and I need to do my part. I’m a person who always thrives on being busy. So for me, this is how it works. I like to go and I like to go hard. I love what I do.
I know you probably don’t have a lot of it. But what do you do in your free time?
When I have free time, before all this, I loved to travel. My husband and I love to travel and go into new places. I set a goal a couple years ago to visit all 50 states. I hit that a couple years ago. I love getting out and seeing different places and getting to meet new folks. Now that I’m stuck at home I’ve been trying to get back into reading for pleasure and not just work.
What have you been reading?
I just finished a Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I used to primarily focus on nonfiction – you know, presidential government nonfiction – but I’m trying to expand my horizons now.