Published January 14, 2015
It's "The Real World" meets "The West Wing."
In a city where Democrats enjoy a 5-1 advantage, a passel of young Bush-backers from the Deep South and the Great Plains has relocated to Manhattan to help prepare for an event no one has ever seen in these parts: this summer's Republican National Convention (search).
But this is not a reality show; it's reality.
"New York is a total 180," says Keith Hensley, a convention staffer who arrived here in September from Georgetown, Texas. Back home, there's a lot more open space and "the buildings aren't like this," he says, holding his hands an inch apart, as if he's about to clap.
There's a lot to absorb in a short period of time, from navigating a tangle of subway lines and strange neighborhoods, to Thai food and transvestites.
And then there's the local lingo: It's easy to stumble over the pronunciation of Houston Street (search), which divides the upscale SoHo neighborhood from the laid-back Village. The name is pronounced "HOW-stun," not like the city in the president's home state.
The staff of about 50 will triple by this summer, when thousands of volunteers will join it for the four-day convention that begins Aug. 30.
Some commute back to spouses and homes in Washington. Others are single and thrilled with the chance to soak up all that Gotham has to offer. In true city style, these transplants live stacked on top of one another, in two high-rise apartment buildings within walking distance of convention headquarters at Madison Square Garden.
"When I came here, I was like, 'If I'm going to do New York, I'm going to do New York," says Hensley, 23, who works as an assistant to the convention's chief operating officer.
That means hitting the art museums, getting lost in Central Park, browsing rare book stores in Greenwich Village, Broadway shows on a Wednesday night and Thai food three times a week — delivered, of course.
Staffers are also encountering new experiences like miso soup and the occasional catcall from a man dressed as a woman on colorful Bleecker Street.
"Nothing shocks me as much as it did when I first got here," Hensley says. "Now it's just like, well, that's New York."
Living here also means entertaining out-of-town guests, finding a church to attend on Sundays and calming nervous relatives about the city's negative reputation.
"I definitely haven't been afraid walking around by myself or anything, and it seems like it's a lot cleaner than most people probably would initially think of New York," said Elizabeth Hogan, 27, of Shreveport (search), La.
Hensley says his father was stunned when he told him of his plans.
"The first thing he said to me? I don't think you can print that," Hensley said. Dad came around, though, when he learned that his middle child would be working for the Republicans.
Staffers usually work 12-hour days, sometimes longer. The staff, which also includes some New Yorkers, handles everything from hotel assignments to the event's program. Essentially their task is to put on a four-day meeting for 50,000 people, which also means planning a series of events and parties throughout the city, outside the official convention.
Denise Dick, 32, who commutes from her home in Washington, says she and her husband try to spend some weekends in New York.
"It's just such a unique opportunity to really get to know New York and to feel like you're a part of the lifestyle of New York, versus just coming here for a vacation," said Dick, who is from Hillsboro, Ohio.
Hensley has also found that New Yorkers' stereotypical gruff exterior can be chipped away, with prodding.
"People in New York love to talk — as long as you instigate the talking," he says.
The city comes with its own cultural conundrums. One staffer was told that New Yorkers tip their apartment doormen, but missed the essential explanation that once a year at the holidays is sufficient. For weeks he slipped them a tip each time he entered or left the building, and couldn't figure out how city-dwellers afforded this custom.
The staffers' rent at two luxury executive buildings, with fitness centers and rooftop decks, is paid by the New York City Host Committee, the fund-raising arm for the event.
And what do New Yorkers say when staffers describe what they do for a living?
"So you must be rich," one woman growled at Hensley.
"And I said, 'No, no, you are sadly mistaken,"' he said, laughing. "And she gave me this look, like she didn't like me, and I was like, you know, I'm still the same guy, I just believe in something."
The convention workers say they get a wide range of reactions. A familiar one: "What a bold move to do it in the city," Hogan said. "But I haven't had any major snarls or glares."
One unmarried staffer described how a woman chatted him up at a bar, only to flounce away in a huff after he revealed that he was working for the president.
This is the first Republican Convention ever in New York, a state that has not backed a GOP presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984. But the city has elected two successive Republican mayors, Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.
Convention CEO and Alabama native Bill Harris, a self-described "country boy in the big city," acknowledges that most of the convention plans and business deals are being made with Democrats.
"Maybe it hadn't happened in the past and maybe it won't happen in the future, but I do think that right now, the city and the party agendas coincide, for different reasons maybe," he said recently. "New York in my mind is desirous of a spectacular national event, on a grand scale, and obviously our party is desirous of a spectacular convention on a grand scale."
The Republican staffers are adapting well to their new habitat, and in some cases, have begun doing very "New York" things like dressing in black, grumbling at tourists and getting asked for directions.
"It feels like home," Hensley said.
Some are even threatening to stay.