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Last month, some 1,300 local political diehards converged on the University of the District of Columbia’s campus for a quadrennial rite of party-activist geekery: the vote to select delegates for the upcoming Democratic National Convention.
There wasn’t much uncertainty as to whom the delegates would support for president. But just who would get to represent the District’s Democrats was another question. Washington gets to send 44 delegates in total, but just 15 of them are chosen by ordinary caucus-goers—the rest are either well-established party heavies, or are selected by Democratic insiders.
Which isn’t to say that the day’s candidate’s were nobodies. D.C. Councilman Jack Evans was running. So was his colleague Marion Barry, the former four-term mayor. There had even been a bit of controversy in advance: Political strategist Chuck Thies had just written a scathing column arguing that picking Barry—whose last convention visit became infamous—would embarrass the city.
Inside and outside the school’s auditorium, candidates made last-ditch effort to grab voters. On stage, they made minute-long speeches, though no one really paid attention—not even when Barry took twice the time allotted for his own pitch, which stressed his four decades of work on behalf of D.C.’s Democrats. He and Evans, both veterans of numerous Democratic conventions, were running as part of the D.C. For Obama slate. They bused in supporters to boost their chances.
And it worked. Barry and Evans both made the cut. The former mayor picked up 138 votes, more than anyone he was running against—except for one guy, who somehow managed to wrangle nearly 50 more votes than he. Afterwards, Barry bragged to a reporter that he was a “political genius.”
Which may be true. But if it is, what does that make Gregory Cendana, the 25-year-old Adams Morgan resident who beat him?
Let’s start with what Gregory Cendana isn’t. The man who beat Barry is not a native Washingtonian. He only moved to D.C. in 2008. Since then, he hasn’t become part of the Democratic establishment, either. He’s not black, and he’s not white—he’s Filipino. He’s not straight (he is single, though).
Cendana was born in Guam into a military family. It was practically a tradition: His father was born in Japan while his grandfather was in the service. He grew up in Sacramento, Calif., spending his early years on Mather Air Force Base before his parents split up. The influence of both of his parents was strong, since they stayed in the same town and remained close. (So close, in fact, that they recently got back together.)
“I say that I come from an immigrant and union household,” Cendana tells me over lunch at Blackfinn American Saloon, near his downtown office in the AFL-CIO building. These days, he works as the executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, an AFL-CIO affiliate that works to connect the Asian-American community with union resources. His taste for fancy suits, of course, may set him apart from the standard union organizer. His accessories include an office badge and a pinky ring. At lunch, he orders a grilled chicken salad, with salmon instead of chicken (“I’m a pescetarian”) and thanks the server who warns him about a $2 upcharge for the fish.
So how’d this seafood-eating Californian come to outpoll the mayor for life, the man who just won another D.C. Council nomination with over 70 percent of the vote?
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Cendana says political success wasn’t in the cards during his early years. “In high school, my high school counselor told me it wasn’t worth my time to apply to UCLA. She told me I should take the assistant manager position at Togo’s and skip college,” he says. But a job at a sandwich shop wasn’t the end goal for Cendana. He was going to college. “That wasn’t an option. But I was frustrated that instead of supporting and nurturing me, she was telling me not to go for it.”
After attending UCLA on a scholarship, Cendana says, he went back to his high school guidance counselor with a few choice words. “After I graduated, I went back and told my counselors that I would appreciate it if they wouldn’t tell students not to apply,” he says. “Because if I would have listened, I never would have gotten this degree, and wouldn’t have graduated with honors.”
These days, “impact” and “intentionality” are frequent words in Cendana’s vocabulary. His background is in progressive movement building, and his comfort with organizing landed him the role of president of the United States Student Association, which brought him from L.A. to D.C. in 2008 for a year-long term. After that, he began working at his current gig. On the side, he started getting involved in local LGBT organizing with an organization Asian/Pacific American Queers United For Action.
Cendana says he quickly picked up on the delicate relationship between longtime residents and newcomers by getting to know the queer Asian community. “It helped me realize that there were people who were here before I came here, and will be here after a lot of people leave,” he says, rushing to get the words out. “It made me value being a resident a lot more.”
And like many people who have that realization, Cendana decided that getting involved in District politics would be a way to embrace his new home. “One thing I learned when I moved to D.C. was that people were very disconnected,” he says.
The process for winning a delegate spot would test the geographic know-how of even a longtime local. For delegate-nomination purposes, the city is broken into two geographically distinct, somewhat unlikely “Congressional Districts.”
District One encompasses Wards 1, 2, 6, and 8; it’s how Cendana, a Ward 1 resident, ended up competing for votes with the likes of Barry and Evans. Thirty-nine other names also graced the Congressional District One ballot. Voters were able to select four women and four men. (Voters from District Two—which represents Wards 3, 4, 5, and 7—got to pick four women and three men.)
Cendana may not have begun the day with name recognition, so he adopted a strategy based on what he does have: organizing expertise.
Barry, in fact, might recognize the machinery of Cendana’s little campaign. First, he set up his operation like a big-time political effort. A group of 20 volunteers organized events, knocked on doors, set up a website, spammed reporters with press releases, and tapped their personal networks. By caucus day they had locked up institutional support from LGBT advocates and labor organizations. They also showed up in person to hound the ordinary Democrats who turned out to vote, showing up in blue Cendana shirts bearing baked goods for attendees.
“I had people tell us, ‘Y’all are everywhere,’” Cendana says with a laugh. “We even did a flash mob dance to a Destiny’s Child remix.”
Cendana also capitalized on some personal voter education. He says he picked up votes from people across the congressional district, including Ward 8, by explaining that they didn’t have to solely vote for Barry. “People didn’t even know how many people they could vote for,” he says.
Democratic State Committee executive director Bill O’Field notes that the ballot does instruct voters to select multiple candidates, but he says that many of them just don’t make it to the bottom of the ballot. “Voters might have one person they want to vote for, when they can vote for several,” he says. “In [the] primary, you might see people who vote only for the presidential candidate.” If no one else makes an impact, voters could easily stop at the names they know and recognize. Which may be why David Meadows, the only other man on Barry and Evans’ slate, didn’t get enough votes to go to the convention.
Cendana, of course, benefitted from his anonymity as well as his ubiquity: Barry and Evans’ long careers inevitably mean they’ve made enemies along the way. Few people knew much about Cendana other than that his campaign looked awfully professional.
The veterans, for their part, are quick to spin away the results that show them trailing a unknown. “We all ended up as winners,” Evans says, praising Cendana’s tenacity. (In fact, three members of the Evans-Barry slate didn’t make it.) “He did a great job. You’ve got to applaud somebody who’s able to do that. We really worked hard to get our voters out, and so did he.”
“A lot of people voted for Barry,” Cendana says, “But they also voted for me.”
For Cendana, the campaign and caucus cemented what he already knew about how to make an impact: “People responded well. Organizing works.”