Sunday, November 11, 2012

Power Politics in the Grassroots

When I was 17 years old, I got my first taste of “power politics.” In December 1966, my cousin David was running for Aleph Godol (President) of the Southern Region of BBYO (the B’nai Brith Youth Organization). Now, you may not think that Jewish youth organizations engage in power politics. You would be wrong. This was a cutthroat election, featuring David from Savannah in this corner and Goliath (-er Scott) from Atlanta in the other. Scott was Goliath because there were more attendees from the Atlanta Council at the Regional Convention, and thereby more voters. In modern political parlance, he had a larger base.

The official AZA Aleph Godol pin is at the bottom
Joel, a friend from Atlanta, and I agreed to become David’s campaign managers. No politicos ever took the role more seriously than we did. We began to formulate our strategy for overcoming the seeming voting edge that Scott held. We knew that the secrets to victory would lie in solidifying David’s base among the southeast Georgia and South Carolina contingents, appealing to the kids from Macon and Columbus to join our coalition, and getting some Atlanta kids to switch allegiance for the “greater good” of Southern Region. (We actually talked like that in those days. We considered ourselves budding James Carvilles or (heaven forbid) Karl Roves.)

We took the roster of all convention attendees and began working our way down the list, checking off those we knew were in David’s camp and crossing out all of those we knew we could never win over because they fell into one of these categories: Scott’s many cousins, his friends, friends of cousins, friends of cousins’ friends, or just plain Atlanta chauvinists. We looked at the numbers and felt a slight optimism. The counts of checks and cross-outs were close enough to give us hope. Plus David was a particularly nice guy known for his strong sense of responsibility and leadership abilities. So we sketched out a meticulous plan for winning over the names not yet committed. We were ruthless. We looked among our check marks for girlfriends or boyfriends of the non-committed and met with them one-on-one to ask for their help in cajoling votes from their beloveds. (Is using even implied sex for votes dirty politics? Not in our minds.) We met personally with other non-committed voters and probably made some outrageous promises. We got assurances of votes and added to our check marks. The night before the election, our counts of check marks and cross-outs were extremely close. This was going to be one tight race.

Joel and I didn’t sleep for two entire days and nights; we just campaigned and counted. We were walking zombies by election day, sort of like Diane Sawyer during ABC’s election night coverage last week. We both anticipated and dreaded the actual voting process. Had we gotten to every potential David voter? Could our vote count have been flawed in any way? Had we overreached?  We would know in just a matter of hours. Then we could sleep, either in joy or in frustration.

Now, it is probably pretty obvious why I am telling this story. As I watched the vote returns come in last Tuesday night and heard David Axelrod and David Plouffe discuss the Democratic strategy for winning votes in the nine toss-up states, I was drawn back to my truly grassroots political experience. Candidates make speeches and shake hands and even kiss babies. They get to approve those incessant messages. Political strategists stay in the background, pulling strings and tying ropes, if necessary. It’s a dirty job but so much fun if it works.

In 1968, I was one of the managers of the Humphrey-Muskie campaign on the Yale campus and was covering the Democratic Party side of the election for the Yale Daily NEWS. I even got to ride in the press bus when Edmund Muskie came to New Haven on a campaign swing and stood behind him when he made a speech to a large crowd of union workers who had taken a few minutes away from their jobs building a new Knights of Columbus tower not far from downtown. It was thrilling being one of those smiling faces you always see behind a candidate on television. No one suggested I should be impartial. I guess I would have fit in pretty well with today’s “reporters” on MSNBC or Fox News.

On election night, I pulled an all-nighter with my friend Bob Shapiro at our small campaign headquarters, watching the vote totals come in and hoping beyond hope for a miraculous Humphrey finish. After all, our man had been climbing steadily in the polls during the final week of the campaign, until he was almost dead even with Richard Nixon when the actual voting began. The miracles didn’t happen, of course, and when we finally got to bed, our sleep was pretty restless. If you remember 1968, you know it was a pretty tumultuous and scary year. It didn’t end well for those of us who considered ourselves idealists. Most of all, it didn’t turn out well for Hubert Humphrey, who deserved better from history than he has received.

But the Humphrey-Nixon campaign came nearly two years after the David-Scott battle for leadership in Southeastern BBYO. And, luckily, that campaign had a happier ending. The voting took place, the counting began, and a winner emerged—my cousin David was elected by a margin of perhaps two votes, almost exactly the result we were predicting. (We never got the official count, but that’s what we heard. And it’s the story I’m telling.) We had helped pull off a small upset. We were political geniuses!

David went on to get a Ph.D. in political science, taught college for a number of years in New Jersey, Washington, DC, and even London, England. Then he moved onto political activist roles in New York and Washington. I’d like to think I played a part in his early political development. After my disappointment in the 1968 Presidential campaign, I stayed true to my Democratic Party allegiance, though I didn't do too much campaigning until 2004, when a college floor-mate, Howard Dean, made his aborted run for the Presidency. I have stayed behind the scenes—voting, making small financial contributions, writing some letters, and shouting at television ads and speeches. And I was smiling last Tuesday night, particularly because I could actually watch the election returns on television since our power had just been restored after eight days of blackout  following Hurricane Sandy.    

In his victory speech, President Obama explained the value of politics to his supporters as he thanked them. He also connected politics idealistically with service. In my experience, politics also connects with long sleepless nights, lots of cajoling, and often bitter endings. But when your candidate wins, and when your efforts are a part of that win, it’s pretty magical. Some rabbits got pulled out of a hat last Tuesday. And my love-hate relationship with politics got renewed on the love side this time. But I plan to keep antacids close by because the next campaign is already starting.   

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