Beyond Vassar

Conventional Wisdom: A Conversation with Sima Sarrafan '86

By Thomas Hopkins

What’s a major-party presidential nominating convention really like in person? To find out, we contacted Sima Sarrafan ’86, a pledged delegate from Washington State for Senator Obama (her former law school classmate) at this year’s DNC. Sima graciously answered a few questions for us over email.

VQ: What was Denver like?

SS: It was amazing and a bit surreal. The level of energy is hard to describe. It was just bursting with enthusiasm and each day surpassed the day before. There were celebrities everywhere — senators, congressmen, and news personalities. But the real stars were the nominees and those supporting them, and the attention of everyone was on the speakers. Each person was electrifying and inspiring. And when I’d get back to my hotel room at the end of the night, I was stunned by how comparatively flat it all looked on television. It’s a great medium, but it just can’t capture the energy on the floor.

VQ: And the Pepsi Center?

SS: It was like a carnival for political junkies. It was set up like most stadiums, with an outer track around it. For those with stadium passes, they were limited to that outer perimeter, but that pass at least got them in the building. Then there were other levels of passes, for the higher stadium and box seating. But the best pass was the floor pass that we had as delegates, because being right on the floor was spectacular. There was a constant stream of people — from famous journalists to former presidents. The press was everywhere and the energy from the other delegates and the speakers was simply amazing.

VQ: What were your official delegate duties?

SS: The only official duties are to be present on the floor when the convention is in session and to vote. Most delegates, however, became involved because they believed strongly in their candidate and the platform and wanted to help Senator Obama get elected. So in many respects our most important work as delegates began after the convention — by educating our communities about Senator Obama’s positions on the issues, holding fundraisers and rallies, going door-to-door to get the vote out, serving as poll watchers, and helping with voter protection efforts.

VQ: Did you vote in the roll call? Or did Washington come after Senator Clinton’s motion to nominate Senator Obama by acclamation?

SS: Before the public roll call, we did a paper roll call for our delegation, whereby we each voted by signing a ballot. I was on the tally committee. We had a process in place — one Obama delegate and one Clinton delegate assigned to each cluster of delegates — to ensure that everyone felt comfortable casting their ballot. But the actual on-camera roll call was suspended before it reached Washington State because of the vote by acclamation. That took away our TV moment but was very exciting and more unifying.

VQ: How do you feel your Vassar education prepared you for being a convention delegate?

SS: Vassar is a special place where right trumps wrong, where merit is rewarded, and where debate and rigorous argument are welcomed. It was perhaps a taste of utopia, but its effect has been that I look for what is possible and see few obstacles that can’t be overcome.

VQ: Any plans to run for office yourself?

SS: No, I’m not sure I have the stomach to run for public office, although I’m committed to the idea of public service. If we could elevate our politics and national discourse to a place where we could, as Senator Obama has said, disagree without being disagreeable — and challenge each other on the issues without questioning the patriotism of our opponents or degenerating into personal attacks — I believe we’d have many more people running for public office and engaged in public life. 

— Thomas Hopkins

Were you a delegate at the RNC, DNC, or any other convention this year? Let the VQ know: email us at