The Story of Andrew Yang’s First Public Presidential Rally
This essay is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of a book I was writing about my time building Andrew Yang’s 2020 campaign from Zero to Movement. Read more here.
“Okay, let’s do a run-through and make sure we have everything,” Katie says, standing commander style in the living room amongst Muhan, Yang, and me.
“Check-in sheets?” she says.
“Check,” I say.
“Business cards? Flyers? Camera? Music Playlist?”
“Check. Check. Check. Check!”
“Okay, great. This should be fun. Let’s go.”
The four of us pile into Yang’s mother’s 90’s Subaru and are on our way to Philadelphia for our first public event. The meet and greet is hosted in what I described in an advertisement for the event as “a very cool warehouse.” The drive is reminiscent of our campaign’s launch — we are full of hope with starry eyes, wondering what will come of our near future. About 50 people have RSVP’d, but we have 93 interested on Facebook, so anything is possible.
When we pull off the highway, it becomes clear that we’ve made a grave mistake. The streets are barren and rough. Buildings are boarded up. Trash is strewn about, and there’s a big train line running right through the district — which is always trouble.
“Uhm,” Yang says, pursing his lips, “Are we in the right place?”
“Warehouse on Watts. This is Watts street. It should be right up ahead, that brick building,” Navigator Muhan says, pointing at a brick building. The first level of the building is wrapped in black tar, with splotches of graffiti, discolored steel doors, and the far too iconic set of dueling green dumpsters next to the entrance, all located in an alley of crumbling asphalt. The second-floor windows have bedsheets taped across them. Not alarming one bit.
Muhan looks up again from his phone, “Confirmed. We have arrived.”
The venue is a mess, to say the least. We’re given a small section of the first floor, which is blocked off with musty black curtains and cheap foldable tables that are stood up tall as makeshift barriers. The ceiling is low, everything is painted black, and one wall is a floor-to-ceiling mirror which gives the room an uncomfortable vibe. Plus, there’s a hanging disco ball.
Katie, Muhan, and I race to make the venue presentable — Muhan is setting up music and a projector, Katie is organizing the merchandise table, and I’m making a panicked phone call in the alley because I forgot to order the pizza.
“What toppings should I get?” I shout to Muhan through the warehouse’s now open delivery door. I wait for a brief moment until I hear a faint “Buffalo chicken!” echoing from within the very cool warehouse.
“And we’ll add two buffalo chicken,” I say on the phone.
When attendees of our event trickle in slowly, they join a lonesome Yang who is bored and milling about the free buttons we’ve left at the sign-in tables. We’ve not yet figured out that Yang should be revealed to the crowd after everyone arrives, so for the time being, Yang makes small talk with a handful of college kids, most of whom are old Venture for America fellows. Then the trickle stops. And that’s it. About 15 people ultimately show up, one of which is a one-eyed fellow running for local office who counter-campaigns the other attendees the whole event. Of course, I am unsure what to do with myself and take 200 photos with my gargantuan Nikon telephoto lens. However, I use the mirror to make it look like we have twice as many attendees.
Yang, who has a tremendous ability to show up as a performer no matter the circumstances, puts on a dazzling performance despite the venue’s stage lights blazing right into his face the whole time, “And that, Philadelphia, is why we need to build a new type of economy! One that puts people first! And don’t forget to pre-order The War on Normal People!”
“You know,” Yang says, taking the optimistic route home to New York City, “I met some really cool people tonight. Like that guy who was an American Sniper. Did you all talk to him? I couldn’t believe the stories that guy was sharing!”
“Oh, yes! He was a phenomenal archetype of persons in the system who retain perspective!” Muhan says empathically, with four leftover pizzas in his lap.
“That guy was charged up when he heard your message,” I say to Yang. “It’s exactly what we’ve all been saying. All we have to do is get the message out there, and people will catch on.”
That night, after returning from our big trip to Philadelphia, I take a moment before bed to record a journal entry titled, “we could win.”
When we told Zach Graumann about the Philadelphia event, he was mystified at what he was hearing. In his slightly southern draw, riddled with confusion, he said, “Y’all, what on earth? You’re all not freakin’ out about this?” I’m not sure if he was more worried about the event or how nonchalant Yang, Muhan, Katie, and I were about how it went.
Muhan, Katie, and I have been preparing for Zach Graumann mentally for weeks. Zach is a corporate guy, Director of Philanthropy at UBS, which is an investment bank with a cool trillion dollars in assets. Zach was in this corporate job until he quit and sent a two hundred word manifesto to the entire bank staff saying something to the effect of #YangForPresident bitches. That impressed our team, to say the least. Joining a crazy campaign like this automatically makes someone a bit of a neurotic change-maker, but I thought that move placed Zach without a doubt in the true believer category, even though he wears suits.
It’s hard to introduce Zach without acknowledging his image. Zach’s slightly shorter than me, about 6'2" it seems, and he resembles nothing short of a picture-perfect blonde businessman. And I mean that literally, Google “blonde businessman,” and you’ll see a Zach Graumann doppelganger with meticulously combed hair, sharp blue eyes, a clean-cut long face, paired with a trim blue suit.
Zach grew up between Buffalo, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut, as an overly enthusiastic Buffalo Bills fan. For college, he went to Duke University, where he studied political science and sang Acapella. He’s been a ‘suit’ with a pretty voice ever since. I’m not sure where the southern twang comes from.
All things considered, these are the traits you’d want in a Campaign Manager for your longshot political campaign — buttoned up on the outside, radical mover on the inside.
Zach’s first week in the office has pushed our apartment office from chaotic to a total shit show. When Katie is working, five of us are competing for four seats, which means someone is always on the floor. Often, it’s me, but only because I like lying down full prone while I mischedule meetings. Yang likes to joke when we get a real office, we’ll roll out a sliver of carpet for me to lay on. The office is also now residence to three mammoth boxes of books, 500 Yang branded goodie bags we overzealously wasted our money on when we fell in love with the logo, and four boxes of merchandise. Plus, Muhan still lives here and simply has no interest in making it look like a home.
It was only a few days after Philadelphia when Zach laid his very own eyes on one of our fundraisers. We raised about zero dollars, and he was beyond himself. Zach and I were standing at the check-in table, which had been the scene of a bloody data capture meltdown. We were both arms crossed, frowning as we suffered through flashbacks of crashing web pages, frozen laptops, cached data clearing out people’s information, and no backup paper sheets for print out. This is when I hear him muttering to himself, “This is unacceptable. This is so unacceptable. We have to fix everything immediately.”