perm_identity Now that the voting is over

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 162 ~ November, 2010

Many will be relieved, either happy or down, with most indifferent, as the results of the mid-term elections across the country will now be official, in most cases. For me, I’m simply happy my mailbox will no longer be stuffed with campaign literature. It’s amazing how bad, in terms of being effective, most campaign literature is, how truly caught up in a parochial mindset most candidates and political consultants become mired. As in many things, “less is more” is usually a good lesson to follow, but rarely the case when it comes to political candidates.

I come from a pretty non-political family, perhaps because both my parents were born and raised in Ontario, meeting at the University of Toronto, and then moving to New York City after they got married. My father always claimed he was

Independent but after he became a U.S. citizen, I don’t know of a case where he ever voted Republican. He voted for Adlai Stevenson the first time he ever participated in a Presidential election. As for my mother, she proudly remained a Canadian citizen until she was in her seventies and was much more interested in baseball than politics, though she was a commonsense liberal by temperament.

The first conscious political realization I ever had was when my family moved from Queens to New Jersey, from the city to the suburbs. It was in the middle of my second grade year and all of a sudden I was grouped with a majority of classmates who were spouting jingoes in favor of Richard Nixon and sneering at anything to do with John F. Kennedy. I wasn’t taken aback, and didn’t particularly feel isolated, but I do remember looking upon my fellow classmates with the bemused sense of an anthropologist studying the natives.

My father’s mother, who lived in a factory town outside of Toronto, took me aside while she was visiting us and told me she was for Nixon because he had brown eyes like me. I was the first grandchild, the oldest of four, and the only kid who didn’t have blue eyes like my mother’s side of the family. I’m not sure whether my father’s mother was more pro-Nixon or against my mother and her parents, but JFK’s victory didn’t seem to have much affect on her at home north of the border.

I’m still somewhat amazed at the intensity of partisan politics among others, even to the extreme that friendships can, and have, ended based on supporting different respective candidates. I was talking with a friend of mine who lives outside Chicago in a Republican stronghold. He has a sign for the Democratic candidate for Senator on his lawn, a transgression some of his neighbors find quite offensive. One guy who lives across the street was walking his dog, but on this particular day he crossed over to the sidewalk in front of my friend’s house and strolled back and forth with his dog. My friend was outside and the neighbor said,

“I hope my dog pisses on your sign.” My friend didn’t know what to say. I weighed in and told my friend, what I have learned from running political campaigns, and that quite simply is “Signs don’t vote.”

I remember a primary campaign for Borough Council in a nearby town in New Jersey a number of years ago where the lawns in the town seemed to be sprouting signs for one pair of candidates on almost every block. One of the opposing candidates was visibly upset, losing his temper and screaming about how he and his running mate needed signs to counter the existing signs. Money was tight, it was too great an expense, there were no funds for signs. “How can we win?” the candidate yelled. “They have signs everywhere.” Friends and supporters tried to calm him down. It was no use. The candidate was quite despondent during the final days of the campaign. And then election day arrived and he won rather handily. Signs were the last thing on his mind. In the flush of victory, I don’t think he ever realized campaign signs on lawns were no match for the heavy vote that came from the high rise buildings.

Nobody likes to talk about the ethnic or racial vote, but it is a reality. I’ve met enough scumbags from all denominations and backgrounds to prevent me from ever completely identifying with any particular candidate because of his or her particular heritage, or gender, for that matter. A friend of mine from Jersey City, who worked in days gone by as part of the Democratic machine, took great pride in collecting absentee ballots from recently registered voters in nursing homes and hospitals, many of whom were in comas or suffering from dementia. He proclaimed he was part of the get out the vote effort, the effort that makes our democratic republic what it is, and has always been, a land of one person, one vote, where applicable.

Of course, my Jersey City friend longed for the early pre-World War Two days when he could just go through the neighborhoods and say, “Vote the Shamrock” and be assured that the Irish-Catholic slate would once again wipe out any hated Protestant contenders or other ethnic candidates. Those were the days, my friend told me, where they played on the vanity of a funeral director and got him to run in the primary three years in a row, even though he was Italian. The reason was simple, the funeral director had a lot of money. The insiders who cheered him on never expected him to win, or even come close, but they considered it a highly successful campaign because they got paid.

Who knows where the line is between legend becoming reality, or vice versa? Once a candidate in Hudson County was courageously challenging the machine for a City Council seat. He campaign tirelessly on the slogan “Time for Change” and like many candidates, he was far removed from the actuality of the ground game on the street. Finally, the big day came, and the candidate voted in his building, which was such a large apartment complex that it was actually an election district unto itself. Eleven of the candidates relatives, plus his wife, lived in the building.

One can imagine his surprise when the results came in from the election district which comprised his building and he didn’t receive one vote. I’m not sure if he suspected his relatives betrayed him, or even gave much thought to the matter, but I’m sure he felt rather disoriented since he was pretty confident he had voted for himself. But the poll workers and election officials had the final tally, and there it was, the insurgent candidate had indeed been shutout, the records clearly showing he did not receive one vote. It must have been a rather interesting conversation that night between the candidate and his wife, but then again, maybe not, after all, what was there to say?

Perhaps the one thing which has always puzzled me the most is I know so many individuals who would actually be responsible, qualified elected officials but could never run because of what might come up in background checks. Nothing serious, not in the sense of major ongoing crimes, but maybe a drunk driving conviction at the age of 18, or shoplifting as an adolescent, or having child out of wedlock, or declaring bankruptcy, or any of a number of other things which could easily be condemned with the right approach and emphasis, painting the respective person as guilty until proven innocent, which is next to impossible after the initial onslaught. In fact, as I look about at some of the current members of Congress, I can’t imagine how so many feckless individuals have escaped the transgressions that so many decent people have in their backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the key to any successful negative campaign is to get the charge out there. Keep it simple. One always has the advantage when the opponent needs a couple paragraphs to counter an attack. Attention spans are always limited, especially since most are preoccupied with the tasks and challenges of day-to-day living, so short and sweet is always the most effective negative approach.

In the final analysis, campaigning is no different today than it was in the days of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson duking it out during the Presidential election of 1800, thought it was revolutionary in representing the first peaceful transfer of power in the young Republic’s history. Of course, the twenty-four hour news cycle may not have existed, with instantaneous sound bytes zipping electronically throughout the universe, but the negative attacks by candidates against opponents were just as devastating and despicable. So, perhaps, when it comes to the moment of casting a ballot, family influences, self-interest, and maybe even the color of a candidate’s eyes are what finally closes the deal in favor of a particular candidate, only the final results can tell.

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