Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Your correspondent on the campaign trail.

How I got involved.
This story begins several months ago, when some friends and neighbors invited me to a cocktail party to introduce Daniel Squadron, then a candidate in the Democratic primary for the New York State Senate in my district. I was impressed by him, and volunteered to work on his campaign, which involved some hours of making phone calls to prospective voters, and passing out literature the prescribed 100 feet from my polling place on election day. (I was relieved of this duty long enough to break for breakfast when a lovely woman bearing Squadron literature approached me and said, "Hi, I'm Daniel's mom.")

The result of this campaign was that Daniel defeated a thirty year incumbent, a personable but ineffective fellow who had been ousted as minority leader of the Senate several years before. Victory in the primary virtually assured Daniel of election to the Senate, as the district is heavily Democratic. Consequently, there was little to do for Daniel in the run-up to the general election.

However, there was a bigger picture to consider. For many years, the Republicans have held the majority in the New York Senate. After recent elections, this majority had shrunk to a two vote margin. The Democrats controlled the Governorship and the Assembly (the lower legislative house), so a shift in power in the Senate would give one party a majority in both houses of the Legislature, as well as the Executive, for the first time in many years. Consequently, Daniel contacted people like me who had worked on his primary campaign and invited us to apply for positions as Squadron Fellows, to be sent to places where there were competitive races for Senate seats and where Democrats stood a good chance of taking seats previously held by the GOP, or where Democratic incumbents were in competitive races.

I was assigned to work on the campaign of incumbent Senator William Stachowski, whose district includes the southern portion of the City of Buffalo and several suburban communities to the south of the City. Stachowski, a 27 year Senate veteran who stood to chair the Finance Committee should the Democrats get control, was facing a strong challenge from Dennis Delano, a former police detective with no political experience who, despite refusing to debate or give press conferences, was polling ahead of Stachowski going into the final stretch.

Saturday, November 1 (E-Day minus three).
There were four of us assigned to work on campaigns in the Buffalo area. My companion on the Stachowski campaign was Frances, a St. Louis native and Lower East Side resident, as well as a playwright and novelist. Joining us in the rental car heading west on Saturday, November 1 were Matt, a Vassar alumnus with a degree in classics and considering law school, and Seth, a Chicago native with a freshly minted Columbia baccalaureate in urban studies. Matt and Seth were assigned to the campaign of Joe Mesi, a former heavyweight boxer who was contending for a seat held by a Republican who was retiring.

We arrived at our hotel on Niagara Falls Boulevard in the Town of Amherst early in the afternoon, and contacted our respective campaign headquarters. Mesi's HQ was practically next door to the hotel, but Stachowski's was some miles south, so his volunteer coordinator had to come get Frances and me. Shortly after we arrived at the HQ, we were given a packet of literature, a list of addresses and a map of a neighborhood in Cheektowaga ("Land of the Flowering Crabapple Trees"), as well as keys to a rental car, and were directed to go knock on doors. We spent several hours canvassing a tidy suburban area of small brick or cinder block houses. The people who came to their doors were by and large cordial, though some complained of the volume of literature they'd received in the mail. After finishing our canvass, we returned to campaign HQ and dropped off the results, then were driven back to our hotel.

Sunday, November 2 (E-Day minus two).
On Sunday the Jets were to play the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium, in Stachowski's district. We gathered at HQ in the morning and were sent out to "do visibility"; that is, to stand by the main road leading to the Stadium holding signs to be seen by those driving or walking to the game. Here I am with my sign (photo by fellow campaign worker Victor):

Shortly before the game, we were taken to the local UAW headquarters, where we were fed chicken wings (natch) and pizza while, along with many other campaign workers, we watched the game on a big screen TV. Frances and I resisted the temptation to cheer for the Jets, who won the game. While we were there, the Senator came in, and one of his workers took our picture with him. I did my best deer-in-the-headlights impression.

After the game, Frances and I were to be sent out to do more door-knocking, but I felt like the bug I thought I had shaken off a day before our departure was trying to reassert itself, so I begged off and went to do phone canvassing at Mesi's HQ instead.

Monday, November 3 (E-Day minus one).
Monday we did more door-to-door canvassing, and had several interesting conversations, including one with a woman in her 90s who had been deported with her family from her native Poland at the end of World War II, and survived imprisonment in a Gulag camp in Siberia. She was very emphatic about what the right to vote meant to her. Back at the HQ, troops of volunteers and some paid canvassers would periodically arrive to get their assignments. Here is campaign worker Sarah rallying the troops before sending them out.


Tuesday, November 4 (E-Day!).

Tuesday morning, election day, saw us up well before dawn, as we were to open polls at 6:00 A.M. Arriving at HQ, we got the glad news that Obama carried Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, by a margin of something like 15-6. Frances and I were sent to a school in Lackawanna, where we checked the machines and made sure everything was ready for the voters, then stood outside to give "palm cards" (lists of candidates, including Senator Stachowski, on the Democratic line for various offices in that district) to voters as they approached the polling place. It proved to be a beautiful fall morning, with temperatures already in the low 60s. Despite the many candidates for various offices (see signs in photo below), we were the only campaign workers at this polling place. If you're wondering why no Obama signs, it's because there was little Obama campaign activity in New York (and virtually no McCain activity, though a woman drove into the lot in a Jaguar with a McCain-Palin bumper sticker) as New York State was considered a shoo-in for Obama.

After the morning rush of voters, we returned to HQ, where we were redeployed to a firehouse in West Seneca to catch the noontime crowd. Here there were workers from other campaigns handing out literature to voters as they approached the polls, including one from Stachowski's opponent, Delano. However, everyone was very cordial. Frances got into a friendly conversation with the sister of a man who was running as an independent (although he also had, but downplayed, the Republican nomination) for the U.S. Congressional seat held by the popular Democrat Brian Higgins, whose campaign HQ we shared. Earlier, when I had been handing out palm cards in Lackawanna that listed Higgins along with Stachowski and the Assembly candidate in that district, Mark Schroeder, several people asked me, "Who's running against Higgins?" I could only shrug.

We broke for a late lunch and to see what was going on at HQ before going out on our final assignments. We heard one report of a worker being harassed at a poll site; a local lawyer who was volunteering his services to the campaign was dispatched to the scene. He returned soon to report that the matter had been resolved. Later, Frances and I were assigned to go to different polling places to hand out palm cards to latecomers (the polls closed at 9:00 P.M.), and to get the final numbers from the voting machines after the polls closed. I went back to the school in Lackawanna. Standing in the parking lot--there were few voters after 8:30--I kept checking my BlackBerry for early returns in the Presidential race. I was sorry to see Kentucky called for McCain early. I expected him to win there, but hoped it would at least be close, and that the Democrats might have a shot at unseating Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. Vermont, God bless it, was the first state called for Obama.

After the polls closed, I went inside to get the vote counts for the State Senate race. This was a bit complicated, as there were something like nine or ten party lines on the ballot, and Stachowski was on several of them: Democrat, of course, and Working Families; but also, as I recall, he had the Conservative line. Delano had the Republican and at least one other line; then, there were a few minor parties that had their own candidates. So, I had to listen carefully and write quickly as the poll workers read the numbers from the backs of the machines. I was gratified to see that Stachowski had done well in the three election districts that voted at the school.

As soon as I had the numbers written down and double-checked against the counters on the machines, Frances arrived to give me a ride back to HQ. We delivered our numbers, then tucked into a buffet of pasta, meatballs, Italian sausage, and salad (Frances, a vegetarian, limited herself to pasta and salad), provided by the campaign. After inhaling my dinner, I joined others clustered around a computer showing results coming in for the Senate race. Stachowski held an early lead of about 52-48. I kept checking my BlackBerry for presidential results, and was thrilled to see Pennsylvania called for Obama early. With Stachowski's lead holding steady, the computer was switched to CNN in time to catch Ohio called for Obama. At this point, I knew it was in the bag.

At about 10:00, Matt and Seth showed up to take Frances and me back to the hotel. They asked if we minded going to the Mesi party for one drink, and we agreed. Things were not going well for Mesi, but they wanted a chance to say goodbye to some people they had worked with. We arrived at the party, at a bar and restaurant in Tonawanda, at about 10:30. While we had our beers, the election results on the TV above the bar showed Mesi falling further behind his Republican rival, while Stachowski's four point lead held steady. More and more states were being called for Obama.

We got back to the hotel in time to see McCain's gracious concession speech in our rooms, after which we gathered in the lobby and toasted Obama's and Stachowski's victories with a bottle of prosecco Frances had bought at a liquor store near Stachowski's HQ. Then we retired to our rooms to watch Obama's victory speech.

Epilogue: the Falls; a gratifying result.
Since some of my traveling companions had never seen Niagara Falls, the next morning we rose early, checked out, and drove there, arriving just after daybreak. The parking lots near the Visitor Center weren't open yet, so we parked a block from the Park entrance and walked to the eastern edge of the American Falls. Then we walked across the bridge to Goat Island and traversed it to the lip of the more spectacular Horseshoe Falls, which extend to the Canadian side. Here are Frances, Matt, and Seth holding our hurriedly made "Squadron FAllows" sign, with a Niagara rainbow in the background.

We learned that morning that the labors of the Squadron Fellows had not been in vain: thanks to victories in Suffolk County (eastern Long Island) and Queens, as well as Stachowski's successful defense of his seat, the Democrats had gained control of the New York Senate. We were proud to have played a part, however small, in this historic transition.

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