Micah Mahjoubian: Politics, religion and technology

Micah Mahjoubian: Politics, religion and technology

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Micah Mahjoubian’s website for his company, Soapbox Solutions, a political management firm specializing in campaign operations, provides a glimpse of what goes into an election. Services range from political strategy and fundraising, web building, literature and graphic work to event scheduling, financial accounting, IT services and those annoying automatic robocalls. As Philly gears up for another election, PGN spoke to one man who works behind the scenes for the men and women who want to garner our votes.

PGN: Where are you originally from? MM: Both of my parents were from Philly, but I was born in Chichester.

PGN: What did your parents do? MM: My mother was a homemaker and my father was self-employed. I classify him as a hustler, but in a good sense. He didn’t have a high-school diploma and my mother just finished high school, but they worked really hard to provide for the family. He worked mostly as a laborer but, in addition to that, he also did everything from selling Christmas trees to baseball cards and opening up a little five-and-dime. He’d sell Pogs, Beanie Babies, whatever was the trend.

PGN: Any siblings? MM: Yes, a younger brother. He’s a photographer. He’s actually photographing a judicial candidate for me next week.

PGN: What are the Chiaddicts? MM: Like a lot of people, growing up I was in the misfit category — nerds and theater people. When I was in college and came back for summers, I met a lot of people who felt the same and we started a group. I was really into computers and IT stuff, so I developed an early Facebook kind of page called “Chiaddicts” where we could post pictures and announcements. It’s nice to have a group of friends who are outside of the political realm. I’m close to my immediate family, but my father was estranged from his family: He didn’t think they’d be good influences, so I didn’t know that side at all. My friends are my extended family, so I wanted to do traditional things with them as well. We do a big dinner on the day after Thanksgiving called TurkeyFest and it has grown from eight people the first year to over 100 last year.

PGN: What was a favorite subject in school? MM: Definitely social studies. I loved mixing politics and culture. In high school, I was in the close-up program, which took kids to Washington, D.C., to see politics at work close-up. It was an amazing experience not just for the political insight: Since we were paired with kids from other schools across the country, I got to meet kids that a little suburban boy might not have otherwise been introduced to — kids from Utah, Alabama, Boston ... all over the place. It was fun learning about cultural differences, like how someone else pronounced water, or that some people called soft drinks pop instead of soda. I liked it so much I did it four years in a row, and then worked for close-up while I attended American University in D.C. It was one of the most rewarding jobs I ever had.

PGN: Wasn’t there a big scandal at AU? MM: That was right before I got there. The university president, Richard Berendzen, resigned after being charged with making a series of obscene phone calls. The funny thing was that though he was no longer president, he still taught a wildly popular astronomy class. He was know for being interesting and engaging. I actually took the class myself.

PGN: How did you get started in politics? MM: Well, I went to school thinking I would study international relations. But it was 1992 and Bill Clinton was running for president. Living in D.C., it was hard not to get involved. He was young and charismatic and I got swept up in the campaign, much like young people recently got swept up in the Barack Obama campaign and like people from my parents’ generation got excited by the Kennedy campaign. When I was ready to graduate, I reached out to my Delaware County Democratic chairperson to see if I could get a job doing youth-organizing for Clinton’s reelection and he said sure, but that he had a better idea and got me a job as a campaign manager for a local candidate. We didn’t win, but we got 48 percent of the vote in a 75-percent Republican area, so it went pretty well and it got me noticed. That led to managing other campaigns.

PGN: What are some of the things that go into managing a campaign? MM: Kind of like I lovingly spoke of my father being a hustler, I sometimes think of myself in the same vein. I put myself out there and tailor to the needs of each candidate, whether they need more help fundraising or getting name recognition. I get to use my love of technology to enhance a campaign, especially utilizing all the social media these days.

PGN: So you’re a gadget guy? MM: Oh, yeah. It was fun when Mayor Street was in office. He loves to be on the cutting edge. I’m sure you remember when he famously waited in line at the Apple Store to be one of the first to get the iPhone. Whenever he got a new toy, the first thing he’d do was bring it to me to help him set it up and teach him to use it. It was funny: Even though he had a love for technology, he still used it like he was a grandfather. He’d move the mouse and accidentally change something and call me over. We really bonded over it.

PGN: What was your biggest blunder as a campaign manager? MM: I don’t know; campaigns are a series of mistakes one after another. It’s about realizing that something’s not working and immediately trying something else. You try to develop relationships with as many people as possible, and you realize that when you move in one direction and it helps you in one area, it might detract in another. You just try to achieve balance.

PGN: We have three openly gay candidates for City Council: What advice would you give to someone just starting out? MM: There are actually four gay candidates: three Democratic and one Republican. I’m asked this a lot and I’d say, before you consider running, spend several years working in the community, doing substantive work, volunteering time and working with groups like Liberty City or another political organization. Then branch out, expand outside the gay community building coalitions in other communities, even in communities that may not always be friendly to us. For example, the labor movement is big and they are responsible for a lot of the decisions made in this city. The black clergy is hugely influential in Philadelphia politics, but a lot of times our candidates don’t have conversations with them and that’s a mistake.

PGN: Mayor Street is one who certainly made a transition: He went from being a Seventh-Day Adventist and not very gay-friendly to officiating at your commitment ceremony. How did that come about? MM: In addition to his campaigns, I worked for him as deputy director of external affairs. Over time, we’d become friends beyond the working relationship. He had a computer in every room of his house and I’d to help him with technical things. He was also a fitness buff, so on Sunday mornings at 6 a.m., he’d go for a walk anywhere from 12 to 26 miles. A lot of times, I’d join him and we’d just talk about life on an eight-hour walk. I told him about my wedding, at brunch after one of those walks, and asked if he would honor us by officiating. Considering the politics, I thought he’d think about it, but he said yes immediately. He doesn’t know it, but since I didn’t grow up with an extended family, he was like the grandfather I never had.

PGN: How did it go? MM: Even though it wasn’t a legally binding ceremony — we still need to work on that — just the act of celebrating a wedding was amazing. A lot of times it was the little things that touched me most. When we went to get our tuxedos, at most shops, the policy is that the groom gets his tux free and the rest pay. We told the store person that there were two grooms, so he should bill us for the extra suit. When we came back for the fitting, the manager said he’d been thinking about it and it didn’t seem fair for a groom to pay for his tuxedo, either one of us, so he paid for the second tux out of his own money. It was such a sweet gesture.

PGN: All right, when I saw the pictures of your wedding, I thought, either this guy is a member of the Dupont family or politics has been very, very good to him. It was spectacular. MM: We actually didn’t spend much. I did theater when I was young, and it was almost a piece of theater. I was lucky that I had a lot of connections that helped me achieve our dream wedding. Our families helped out — each side gave a third of the costs along with us. Which was remarkable, especially since Ryan’s family are cotton farmers from Louisiana and born-again Christians, Southern Baptist, yet they were fully supportive and it was an honor to have them participate in the wedding. Back to Mayor Street, because of the transformation you mentioned, someone did an article about it a week before the wedding. When we pulled up to City Hall in our bus, Michael Marcavage and Repent America were out there with protest signs. We just decided to make it part of the day and posed for pictures in front of them.

PGN: You incorporated so many different traditions into your wedding, like jumping the broom, which dates back to slave days. MM: When Mayor Street agreed to do the ceremony, he asked us what we wanted to do. I searched the Internet and there weren’t really any suggestions for gay wedding traditions so we decided to create our own. He had a few suggestions such as jumping the broom. It seemed appropriate because it originated in slave days when slaves were not allowed to marry legally. We didn’t want to appropriate from anyone else, but to incorporate things that had meaning. It was a poignant moment when he explained the meaning of the tradition. We also chose to sign a Ketubah, even though neither of us is Jewish. It is a contract and, since we weren’t able to get a marriage license, we wanted to have some sort of contract even if it was mostly ceremonial.

PGN: You also read words from Mr. Rogers. MM: [Laughs.] Yes, Mr. Rogers had a huge impact on me both as a child and an adult. He taught me values: kindness, acceptance, understanding, love. He wanted every child to know that they were special, no matter how different they were from other kids. I was a big Mr. Rogers fan. My three favorite show growing up were “Mr. Rogers,” “Cooking” with Julia Child and “The PTL Club” with Jim and Tammy Bakker.

PGN: The last one is interesting since you are an atheist. MM: Yes, I am an atheist but, like a lot of us, I’m not a religion-hating atheist. Just like there are some bad things about organized religion, there are a lot of good things as well, especially the focus on community, which is such an important part of our society. I don’t know what it was about “The PTL Club.” I guess it was Tammy Faye and those eyelashes that drew me in. It was one of those OGTs — obviously gay traits — that surfaced when I was a kid.

PGN: I’m the same way about religion. I look at God like Santa Claus: I don’t believe he really exists, but if you use him to spread love and joy and goodwill, I’m all for it. MM: I use the Santa analogy, too! It’s funny, I was an Eagle Scout, and being an atheist was more of an issue than my being gay. Sex wasn’t something talked about in Scouting, but God was. To become an Eagle Scout, I had to do an interview and they asked each of us to talk about a tenet of the Scout Code. I got “Reverent” and I had to really tap dance around the question so as not to out myself as an atheist.

PGN: You also read a passage from “The Wizard of Oz” in the ceremony. MM: Ryan is a huge “Oz” fan, he’s done research and presented papers on it. We go to Oz conventions, which are like “Star Trek” conventions, but with a weird mixture of stuffy academics, campy gay men and families. By the way, there wasn’t just the one story, there were 40 books written by five or six authors. L. Frank Baum wrote the first 14. I’ve read 17 so far.

PGN: What was a favorite book as a kid? MM: I was into the Roald Dahl books, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach.” I also liked the Judy Blume books, though I was only allowed to read all the “boy” books. I desperately wanted to read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” but the teachers wouldn’t let me take it out of the library.

PGN: Do you collect anything? MM: Lots of things. I have collections of foreign money and political buttons. I used to have a canned-meat collection: I even went to the Letterman show to try to win his canned-meat giveaways, but didn’t get it. I gave up my collection when we moved into our current home.

PGN: You went to Egypt and Israel for your honeymoon. What was Egypt like? MM: Whenever we could, we tried to stray away from the touristy stuff, and we saw how impoverished the country was. People thought we were rich and there was a lot of begging and people trying to make you buy things from them. We actually didn’t have much money. One of the ways we paid for the trip was through one of my father’s ventures. He and a partner have a company where they buy up coins from armored trucks. When the trucks get money from banks and businesses, they sort them and there’s always a reject pile of foreign money, tokens and bent coins. My father purchases those rejects by the ton and separates them into different countries. When he gets enough money, he’ll actually take the coins to the country and exchange them so that he gets the best rates. When we went to Israel, he gave us two suitcases filled with shekels, 40 pounds apiece, and we exchanged them at the Bank of Jerusalem when we arrived. It was cool.

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