High-schooler to help choose presidential candidate
Valley resident Neal elected as Obama delegate for Democratic National Convention.
By Noah Brenner, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
May 28, 2008
Although he has never cast a ballot in a general election, Jackson Hole Community School senior Willie Neal, 18, will be one of 18 delegates from Wyoming at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this August.
There he will help pick the Democrat who will be on the presidential ballot in November.
If Neal has his way, the Democrats’ choice will be Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Neal supported Obama for months, serving as a valley precinct captain and calling fellow Democrats to encourage their support before the Teton County Democratic Convention in early March.
“I feel very inspired by what he has been able to do,” Neal said in an interview before the state convention. “He has brought me into the movement as young voter and invited me into the Democratic process, and he has done it with thousands of youth all over the country. It makes you feel like you have the power to alter what happens in the world.”
At that county convention, Neal took his first step toward becoming a national delegate. Although he couldn’t attend because it was held on the same weekend as the Junior National Championship Nordic ski race in Anchorage, Alaska, Neal was nominated to be a delegate to the state convention by Arne Jorgensen and gained a seat as one of 27 Obama delegates.
At first he was nervous about his chances at the state convention, but Neal soon became busy finishing up his school work, continuing to train for Nordic skiing and founding a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating unnecessary car idling. The son of Drs. Bill and Mary Neal, Neal has committed to attend Middlebury College in Vermont but the eight-time state cross-country skiing champion deferred admission for a year to concentrate on Nordic racing.
As the state convention approached, the nerves returned, and Neal began thinking about how he could garner votes as one of more than 100 people vying for a chance to go to the national convention.
Some candidates had already begun to send letters asking for support, but Neal didn’t find them convincing. Instead, figuring it cost about 50 cents to send a letter, he set a 50-cent promotional limit for each of the approximately 600 delegates and alternates. On Friday, Neal, who refuses to use plastic grocery bags, stumbled out of the store hugging more than 30 bags of miniature candy bars and 100 pens. He personalized them with stickers including his name and photo, which he designed and printed on the computer.
“Someone said it was a bribe, but I call it an efficient use of resources,” Neal said, laughing.
Saturday he woke up at 6 a.m., did a short strength workout (he tries to do something physical before a big day) and went to the Snow King Center to pass out candy, pens and stickers, put up signs, and ask voters for support.
“I think people are really interested in sending a young person to the convention,” he said. “Whether it is me or another person, it is important to send youth to the convention.”
Though he had never voted in an official election, Neal was running his first campaign.
At 8:30 a.m., Neal met with Gov. Dave Freudenthal in a back room at the convention center. Neal had scheduled the meeting months in advance to convince the governor, who is a superdelegate to the national convention, to back Obama. Freudenthal professed his support for Obama in April, so Neal, who said he may have political aspirations of his own in the future, used the opportunity to ask Freudenthal about being a Democratic governor in a Republican state and energy issues.
With the vote nearing, Neal was not overly confident, but he was satisfied.
“Overall, I feel good,” he said. “I’m a little nervous but the response has been really positive.”
One of those impressed by Neal was Teton County delegate Larry Rieser, who proudly sported an “I support Willie Neal” sticker on his chest.
“He has just accomplished so much,” Rieser said. “He is intelligent and very active in all kinds of things. I just admire him a great deal.”
Rieser was not the only one.
Though Neal wasn’t able to support Trauner in the last election, the Wilson Democrat proudly displayed a sticker declaring his support for Neal throughout a 10-minute stump speech.
Shortly after 1:30 p.m., when the votes were tallied, Neal’s name was among four called to represent Obama as district delegates.
“I am ecstatic,” Neal said upon winning. “I think the candy was important; it’s a face to put with a name, and I just tried to get around and talk to people.”
Just as he had hoped, Neal was swept into the national convention as part of a delegate youth movement statewide. Among Obama-backers, he was joined by 18-year-old Layha Spoonhunter of Ethete and University of Wyoming student Rey Fuentes.
“I think that was very, very significant to see three of the delegates from the younger generation,” Teton County Democratic Party Chairman Larry Hamilton said. “I think that is a testimonial to the type of impact Obama had on the younger generation, getting them to want to get out and vote and be involved at a national level that is unprecedented since the ’60s.”
Hamilton said he thinks the infusion of youth bodes well for the future of the Democratic Party in Wyoming and he hopes to feed that with more political events aimed at young people this summer.
“I think that is also representative of the younger generation wanting to see America go in a different direction,” he said. “Rather than looking at a sunset, they are looking at a sunrise in America.”
Now that he has gotten his ticket punched for the convention, Neal and the other young people chosen will have to figure out how to pay for it. Hamilton estimated that the trip – between transportation, lodging and food – could cost in upwards of $2,000. Though Neal said afterwards he wasn’t sure how he would pay for it, he did not seem worried.