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An Elector Showing Up for the Losing Team

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BIll Clinton, an elector from Westchester County, with Melissa Skarz, from Queens County, right behind him. | COURTESY: RANDI WEINGARTEN
Bill Clinton, an elector from Westchester County, with Melissa Skarz, from Queens County, right behind him. | COURTESY: RANDI WEINGARTEN

December 19 was the day the Electoral College voted for the next president of the United States. Chosen as an elector in New York State, I spent the day in Albany as part of the Hillary Clinton team.

It was in October when I was having dinner with a friend in the East Village that my phone rang with a call from the leader of Hillary for America New York.

“We are building a slate of electors for the Electoral College and want to know if you would like to be an elector,” was the pleasantly surprising news. We shared a giggle over the scale of her ask, and I told her I would be honored and privileged. When she swore me to secrecy, I rolled my eyes. “Of course,” I replied; I had just been asked to be one of 538 people in America to select Hillary as our next president. With two US senators and 27 House members, New York gets 29 electors, and I would be one of them.

Amidst a bittersweet moment wrapping Campaign 2016, a bright flash of trans visibility

Once Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy in early 2015, I committed to spending as much time and money as possible to insure she was elected. The campaign started asking me to take on simple things, which I did with glee, and then asked me to represent it as a surrogate. After getting good reports about me, they asked me to do more. In time, they liked me, then loved me, and then made me part of the campaign family. I protested that they were overreacting, and they loved my “humility.”

I was invited to events. I went to the Brooklyn CNN debate between Hillary and Senator Bernie Sanders. I went to small gatherings. And then, I was selected as a New York delegate for Hillary at the July Democratic Convention in Philadelphia.

An elector's name plate in the New York State Senate chambers on December 19. | COURTESY: MELISSA SKLARZ
An elector's name plate in the New York State Senate chambers on December 19. | COURTESY: MELISSA SKLARZ

As a trans New Yorker and Democrat, I have been involved in politics and advocacy for almost 20 years. I started being mentored by Tom Duane, Kevin Finnegan, Maura Keaney, Chris Quinn, and Dr. Barbara Warren. I have been involved in many groups –– from the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats to the Stonewall Democrats to the Pride Agenda, as well as community-based non-profits.

And now this. I was going to pick a president.

But then the unexpected happened. Hillary Clinton did not win. She was not going to be president. That still-shocking and disappointing conclusion settles over my life like unpleasant morning dew, everyday. Whenever I hope it is just a bad dream, another crazy tweet rolls out or a new unqualified Cabinet pick is named.

But I have been taught that half of life is just showing up. And I promised the team, the campaign, and the Democratic Party I would do my job, in spite of great sadness and intense disappointment. And so, I would not be picking a president, but I would be showing up to support my candidate.

Our New York elector slate was an esteemed group, led by former President Bill Clinton and Governor Andrew Cuomo and including the mayors of New York, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, as well as the state comptroller and attorney general and Democratic leaders in the State Senate and Assembly. Our delegation also included labor leaders, immigration advocates, gay and lesbian people, Anastasia Somoza, the disability rights leader and friend of Hillary’s, and a smattering of other advocates, myself included.

The convening of the electors is completely choreographed, with nothing left to chance. We were treated like VIPs in the State Senate, a place that knows how to treat VIPs. Each of us was allowed to bring along a guest, and I chose Dan Tietz, the chief special services officer at the city’s Human Resources Administration, who is a dear friend and know politics and politicians.

Over breakfast in the Senate War Room, everyone was looking around to see who was there and who was not, sharing small talk, snapping selfies and real photos –– all the basics of any gathering. In time, President Clinton and Governor Cuomo arrived and the room gravitated to hover within their orbits. Watching Bill Clinton work the room was something; charismatic, he knew the key players by name. To those of us he didn’t know, he was polite and friendly.

After another hour, as we got down to the real business of the day, I received a piece of paper telling me that beyond casting my vote, I’d have another part –– of one line –– in the ceremony. At its conclusion, after Chris Quinn motioning to adjourn, I was to second the motion. Starting with prayers, songs, and pledges, we moved on to the rules, then the nominations, and then the voting, all elaborately charted, with each of us knowing full well that Hillary and her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, would get all 29 votes.

I, meanwhile, decided to improvise with my last word. I like to think I’m reasonably canny and have a sense of the moment. If Hillary were to be president, the moment would be hers. But this wasn’t happening. In an assemblage of political people, it was a bittersweet moment for the losing team. The moment was ours.

And so I decided to amend my one line from, “Thank you, Mr. President [Governor Cuomo, elected to lead the convening]. I second the motion that the 2016 Electoral College of the Great State of New York be adjourned” to “Thank you, Mr. President. On behalf of all transgender New Yorkers, I second the motion...”

What’s the worst that could happen? They couldn’t fire me.

A transgender activist's ad-lib on a line assigned in the formal ceremony.  | COURTESY: MELISSA SKLARZ
A transgender activist's ad-lib on a line assigned in the formal ceremony. | COURTESY: MELISSA SKLARZ

And so, at the end of the formal proceedings that lasted a mere 25 minutes, Chris made her motion and I seconded it in my chosen style. There was murmuring and some heads turned. Somehow people got that I went off script. With a sheepish grin, I looked around –– to smiles, heads nodding, thumbs up, and even a little grin and nod from the governor. What is the point of representing a tiny minority if you don’t give your community a shout-out from your seat at the table?

Afterward, I was the belle of the ball, or at least I was in my head. Many of my fellow electors came over to offer their praise. Trans people –– 75,000 of us in New York –– have struggled to gain visibility and be taken seriously by the rest of the state. I was thrilled to win for all of us this significant moment of public recognition. Surely, my fellow electors couldn’t have been all that surprised.

President Barack Obama’s last day in the White House is January 20. I don’t know what happens after that. I was an expert up until November 8. Now I am not. I still have my interests and my concerns and my career, and remain focused on the drive for visibility that my seconding motion signified.

But what will America look like and what will I do? I believe in the progressive roadmap Hillary Clinton laid out for America, and for many of the American majority who agreed with me and her, the next four years will be difficult. I expect that my trans community will suffer under the new president, so lacking in any basic human empathy.

But I know I did my best. I gave until I could not give more. But I will get up and give more tomorrow and expect to be at the Women’s March on Washington on January 21. I hope and expect to see all of you there with us. Our lives and values need to be seen and heard, and again I will do my part.

Melissa Sklarz is a longtime political activist and currently the director of development for Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF).

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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