Pa.'s youngest delegate brings passion to DNC

Alaysha Claiborne, 18, of York, is Pa.'s youngest delegate at the Democratic National Convention. She has been campaigning for President Obama since 2008. (Matthew Katz / Staff)
Alaysha Claiborne, 18, of York, is Pa.'s youngest delegate at the Democratic National Convention. She has been campaigning for President Obama since 2008. (Matthew Katz / Staff)

Pa.'s youngest delegate wins hearts and spotlight in Charlotte.

Posted: September 08, 2012

CHARLOTTE - When Pennsylvania's youngest Democratic delegate spotted Julián Castro, the 37-year-old San Antonio mayor and convention keynote speaker, she burst through a couple of handlers, touched his arm, and said: "You are awesome!"

Earlier, 18-year-old Alaysha Claiborne had wrapped her arms around civil rights hero U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.). "Thank you," she told him.

"You're welcome," Lewis replied.

Part Puerto Rican and part African American, this freshman at Temple University quickly became the heart, soul, and inspiration of Pennsylvania Democrats here this week, injecting an energy that has allowed veteran politicos to experience the convention through her young eyes.

"I forgot what it was like to have that kind of enthusiasm," gushed delegate Pamela Janvey of Bensalem, who has been in politics for four decades. "She has made this such a joy for me."

So impressed was Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) that he shared with Claiborne the honor of announcing Pennsylvania's 242 delegate votes for President Obama at Wednesday night's roll call.

Before he introduced her, Casey said he wanted to make sure he spelled her name correctly. He wrote it down - but got it wrong. So Claiborne took the paper and wrote it out in big, "loopy" letters, Casey said.

Now the senator has her autograph - and he's keeping it. "It's iconic," he said.

Claiborne spent the summer of 2008 knocking on doors for Obama in York, where she grew up. She lobbied her friends to join her and eventually the teenage "Barack Stars," as they called themselves, got together to talk about issues, make posters, and eat Claiborne's grandmother's cupcakes.

She remembers crying when Obama was elected and again when he was inaugurated.

Claiborne founded her high school's Gay Straight Alliance and joined the Planned Parenthood Federation of America's youth advisory council. She became a Planned Parenthood peer educator, running teen talks and condom demonstrations, and won a $1,000 college scholarship from the National Organization for Women.

Claiborne was still 17 when she ran for delegate this year - so she couldn't legally collect her own signatures to get on the ballot. Other Obama volunteers helped out, passing petitions at black churches.

Once elected, Claiborne raised $1,000 to pay for her convention trip by hosting a "celebrity scoop" at the Rita's Water Ice where she worked, featuring her town's mayor and her aunt, a Special Olympian.

By Thursday, she was offering to give up her seat in the Charlotte arena so others could hear Obama's speech.

"I said, 'No, you won't,' " Janvey said.

Claiborne said she appreciates how Obama has "connected to the community, how he's honest, how he has integrity." She also likes his policies - particularly his efforts to ease the burden of student loans. (She just took out a $20,000 loan to pay Temple tuition.)

Claiborne attached herself to various older delegates this week. She went to a Latino caucus with former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Nelson Diaz. Then she hung out with City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.

"The reason I'm here is, I'm a true believer in diversity," Claiborne said. "I'm glad to meet so many people who feel the same way."

Not that she doesn't have suggestions.

"Sometimes I wish," Claiborne said, "that as Democrats we could defend Obama, our thoughts and ideas, and our polices, more loudly and more aggressively. We have backbone, but we need to display it more."

Claiborne got a dose of that tough talk at a meeting of young Democrats Thursday, where attendees were urged to push back against older comrades.

One panelist, Patrick Murphy, the Iraq war veteran and former congressman from Bucks County, told of his efforts to eliminate the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military.

Murphy remembered receiving a letter from a company commander in Afghanistan who had just broken up with his boyfriend, but was forbidden from talking about it with anyone in his unit. The letter said: "I'm holding my 9mm weapon and thinking of blowing my brains out, and the only thing that's giving me hope is that there's this guy Patrick Murphy fighting for me."

Claiborne wiped away tears. She wasn't the only one.

Would this daughter of two Navy veterans follow in Murphy's footsteps and pursue public office?

Walking through the streets of Charlotte on Thursday, Claiborne stopped at an intersection where environmental activists were carrying out a sit-in, surrounded by police.

"I don't want to get caught in this," she said, "in case I want to be a politician."


Contact Matt Katz at

609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com, or

follow on Twitter @mattkatz00.

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