It was the thrilling-est busywork of Adam Parkhomenko’s young life. Hillary Clinton, still in the Senate, would meet some well-wisher. She’d grab his business card and deliver it to her Friends of Hillary PAC, specifically to Parkhomenko, with “three sentences of notes” about the possible ally/voter/donor.
“She wanted us to save all that information,” says Parkhomenko, breaking between meetings for coffee in downtown D.C. “She wanted to follow up with them. I’d get that all the time. President Clinton did the same thing. They’d hear from people who wanted to be in our world, and they’d take the names. They’d call, they’d ask ‘How’s the database doing?’ Eventually that got shortened. ‘How’s the DBS?’ ”
Talking about data entry makes Parkhomenko wistful. This summer will mark the 10th year of his campaign to elect President Hillary Clinton, a campaign that began when he was in high school. For four of those years, Clinton was secretary of state, barred from the grubby world of politics, Jefferson-Jackson dinners, and databases. The expert prepper lost precious time to prep.
Enter the Ready for Hillary PAC, founded in January, ramping up its activities “in the next two weeks.” It’s a shadow campaign set up at least two years before Clinton will actually decide whether or not to run for president. It’ll raise money, sell merchandise, and build lists until the actual Clinton campaign bursts to life. And then it will change its name to “Ready PAC,” raise money, sell merchandise, and build lists, etc.
“I’ve always looked at Hillary as a brand,” says Parkhomenko, who at age 27 will be the executive director of Ready for Hillary PAC. “That’s been especially true in the last couple of years. It’s a brand I believe in. It’s a brand I want to protect. It’s a brand I want to build.”
There have been presidential draft campaigns long before they were caucuses or primaries or, obviously, PACs. But Clinton’s advantage is so deep and broad that the super PAC looks downright gaudy. By miles, she’s the most popular Democrat in America. In Iowa, whose anti–Iraq War caucus-goers hobbled her 2008 campaign, Clinton leads the field by at least 39 points. In New Hampshire she’s up by 50. In trial heats, in their own home states, she slaughters the strongest Republican candidates.
So Democratic donors are holding out for Hillary. Mother Jones reporter Andrew Kroll has coined a term—the Hillary Clinton Cash Freeze—for the glacier of big money that Andrew Cuomo or Martin O’Malley can’t crack. There is no new Obama, a star who can hack away at the Democratic coalition and take black voters and college kids and people who marched against the Iraq War. The 2016 Democratic nomination process might be the most boring since 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt waltzed into the convention.
But Clinton die-hards are superstitious. “She hasn’t been able to build lists since 2008,” says Allida Black, the 61-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt scholar who co-founded the group. On election night 2012, as President Obama was declaring victory, Black was trading emails with Parkomenko about the possible PAC. (The two of them had worked for the 2008 campaign, then collaborated on VoteBoth, an online effort to put Clinton on Obama’s ticket.) “Just when I was sending my email, swoosh, I got his email!” says Black. “Of course the polls look good, but you need to be ready. Somebody who’s got more money than God could come in and self-finance. Who knows what could happen?”
Ready for Hillary is built to minimize the risk. In 2005, anyone who wanted to defend the Clinton brand (or anyone who wanted to be President Clinton’s ambassador to Barbados) could donate to her PAC. By 2007, they could donate to her campaign. Black and Parkhomenko promise something else—a group that’s both “grassroots” and able to raise endless money, protecting the brand from the inevitable scammers. Last week they brought on the 2008 campaign’s national finance director, Matt Felan. They’d previously locked in a donation from Ann Lewis, a Friends of Hillary veteran.
“We’re going to show people that super PACs can operate in a different way,” says Black. “Every donation over $250, we’re going to make public. You’re going to know exactly who our donors are. Adam and I would never, never do anything that would taint Hillary.”
If it works, it’s a friendly hack of the super PAC model. Born of the Roberts court’s campaign finance decisions, the super PAC was both perfected and self-parodied by the Republican campaigns of 2012. The model presidential super PAC was Restore Our Future, the nonsensically-named “Death Star” run by friends of Mitt Romney. The wealthiest donors cut seven-figure or eight-figure checks to the PAC, expecting them to dive-bomb Romney’s opponents with no tact or sympathy. It was easy to keep the PAC and the campaign separate, because it was so hard to find Republicans passionate about Mitt Romney.
That is harder for the Hillary die-hards. They really do adore her, and their love is tempered by eight or 12 or 16 years of disappointment. “It’s painful,” says Black. “That’s not because I miss campaigning. In 2008 they sent me to 14 states in 18 months. I’d leave on Thursday, work all weekend, come back on the red eye, go back to work. But being with the PAC will mean that I don’t see her.”
Black leans over the table—she wants to emphasize this. She gave the Clintons a $25.32 donation when she was in school and that was the sum of her spending money. She was at the Democratic National Committee meeting, protesting, when the Michigan and Florida delegates were assigned in a way that helped Obama. Some of her fellow travelers were so angry that they jumped to the McCain campaign, or fed the rumors that the “inadequate black man” was born in Kenya. Black kept faith. And she can’t even tell Clinton about it.
“There is a kryptonite firewall between the PAC and the candidate,” she says. “I want her to win so badly, I’m willing to say I’m not going see her for four years. I’m not even seeing her now when I could, legally. I just wrote a book about Eleanor Roosevelt, okay? I so badly wanted to sign a copy and give it to her in person. We’re talking a bucket list experience, you know? But I wouldn’t do it.”
It used to be so much easier. Grueling, sure, but with so much positive affirmation. Parkhomenko’s own Clinton crusade started when he coded VoteHillary.org. In the innocent Internet days of 2003, a one-page website draft campaign was enough to get steady attention from the Associated Press and the Washington Post. Parkhomenko marched to Iowa to schlep Hillary buttons outside the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. That was the work that got Parkhomenko into Friends of Hillary, then into the failed 2008 campaign, the failed VoteBoth campaign, his own failed campaign for Virginia delegate in 2009 (he became a police reservist instead), and now this.
He’s changed his mind about one minor point. In 2003, he told the Post that Hillary could only win if she ran that year. Parkhomenko had an obvious personal stake in the theory, but he really gamed it out. “If a Democrat wins in 2004, Parkhomenko says, Hillary won’t run against him in 2008,” reported Mark Liebovich. “By 2012, she will be 65 years old. So 2004, he says, is Hillary’s time.”
I sent that quote to Parkhomenko and asked whether he had been young and naive, or whether he’d be right. He quickly emailed me back.
“Everyone today knows that 2016 is Hillary’s time.”
If she’s inaugurated in 2017, Clinton will be 69 years old. After the shouts of “Benghazi!,” it’s the only dagger Republicans have thrown at her. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (age 71) boasted that the GOP’s farm team was young and vigorous, while the Democrats’ next primary would be a “rerun of the Golden Girls.”
Black loves that joke. “The Golden Girls are loyal,” she says. “They are wicked funny. They’re smart, they’re successful, they get knocked down, and pick themselves up off the floor. And don’t you see those young men knocking at their door? And look at Betty White! She’s an icon for 20-year-olds. I’d welcome the label of a Golden Girl.”