I began this series writing about election losses because each was a very narrow loss that left me wondering after the fact if I might have done more, spent the last 100 days in some more intentional manner. It’s only natural now to turn to the years I voted in an election victory. Since the year lines up with the 96 days remaining until the election, let’s start with the first presidential election I was of voting age.
In the 100 days leading up to the 1996 election, I was between schools and trying to make a life in the city as an adult for the first time. My girlfriend and I had met at College in Wisconsin. We moved in together in Minneapolis having left school separately for opposite reasons: she left in part because of the anxiety associated with excelling in her classes; I left because I’d lost focus on my classes and was instead writing zines, experimenting with websites, hosting a radio show, and hanging out with friends in coffeeshops.
Before we could rent an apartment, I needed to prove I had an income. A temp agency placed me in the mailroom of a giant law firm downtown. It was a three-man operation. The boss and I started at 8 a.m. A third man who did courier runs started at 9. The work was trivial. We sorted and delivered letters, faxes and packages to desks on three high floors of an airy glass office tower appointed in dark cherry wood. The boss played classic rock FM at low volume on a boombox as we sorted mail. It was far enough from the entrance that law partners and VIP clients couldn’t hear it as they passed by. The morning DJs’ off-color jokes made me uncomfortable, and I came to feel that my boss believed or said in private everything his obnoxious DJs said over the air. It’s possible he just liked music, or hated silence. I never confronted him about it. Somehow the three of us kept busy enough that they left me with nothing of their own outside lives, interests, or politics by the time I left.
My girlfriend found work at a drop-in daycare in a luxury shopping district at the end of our bus line. I imagine that its target customer was a mother with disposable income who wanted to have a few hours away from their child to shop, treat themselves at the spa, meet a friend for lunch or drinks. But my girlfriend came home with stories of the same children there day after day. Some of their parents worked at shops in the mall, and it was the most convenient, if not the cheapest, childcare option. Other parents used it because it was open late, allowing them to stay late at the office. She often came home drained by the children, recounting tense moments with parents during pickup or drop-off, but she also smiled when she talked of her favorite charges.
I brought home concert tickets I’d picked up for free at a record store downtown. A night of punk and ska bands a college friend had played often. We’d have at least one fun outing to look forward to, even if I quit my job the next day. I quit my job the next day.
My girlfriend’s parents had us over most Sunday nights. They were generous in all kinds of ways, making meals, taking us to classic or second-run movies, picking us up and driving us home. Her mother was a teacher and active in expanding access to early childhood education. My parents were (and are) also long-time supporters of Democrats and progressive policies. So, if there were conversations about politics that fall, they were not disagreements. And our conversations were most likely not about the presidential race, but the U.S. Senate.
Paul Wellstone was up for reëlection in 1996. He had by then served a full six-year term and proved that progressive values were winning values, energizing college students, poor people, and people of color from across the state.
I have no memories of talking about Bill Clinton, being excited about Bill Clinton, though I remember filling in the bubble next to his name on my first presidential ballot. He had been president while I was in my last year of high school, and throughout those first years in college. There was talk that Hillary might run one day too, and I remember thinking that sounded more like monarchy than democracy. Though I would come to respect her on her own terms when she finally earned the nomination a lifetime later.
I don’t remember waiting up to hear who would be president on election night. I was looking for a new job at that point and more worried about what would happen if I didn’t find one. I do remember being excited that I had cast my vote for Wellstone that day. It would be my only chance to vote for him.
Six years later, I stepped in to a computer lab at Temple University in Philadelphia. My journalism professor had a habit of taking a generous cigarette break halfway through our two-hour lecture. I opened up nytimes.com and was excited to see Paul Wellstone’s face — he was rarely in the national press. But my heart sank when I read why he was there. He and his wife and daughter had died when their small plane crashed in Northern Minnesota. I may never have been more homesick for Minnesota than I was at that moment.