I had an embarrassing little secret. Here I was, lecturing a roomful of students on strategies for winning an election. The several young women and men seemingly engaged in the discussion—the ones not texting or looking as though they were auditioning for the next Zombie movie—probably perceived me as a knowledgeable and hands-on expert on the subject. Yes, my books on politics and media were housed in academic libraries throughout the country. Yet, I dared not tell them, I had never actually worked on a political campaign myself. A familiar refrain privately haunted me (you know the cliché—the one mocking teachers who can’t). So when my opportunity to apply for sabbatical was on the horizon, I decided to remedy the situation and seek a position in the political trenches of a run for office.
Volunteering to work on a campaign, of course, is easy. Every aspiring office holder is only too eager to tap free labor and offer a script to read on the phone to the person pulled from feeding the baby. But to gain the kind of credibility I was looking for, I needed access to the inner circle—to the top dogs who merely give the phone bankers an attaboy pat on the back on their way to The War Room.
Naturally, then, I was excited when I was invited to join the team of Eric Schneiderman, who was battling four other candidates in the Democratic primary for New York State Attorney General. When I had interviewed with his Director of Communications, I was given the impression I would be working side-by-side with him. Riding home on the A-Train following the appointment, I eagerly envisioned calling journalists to spin facts and accompanying Eric to media events with words of advice. Instead, I was delegated research projects to complete on my own. Valuable work, for sure. But I was never going to find myself regularly brushing shoulders with the key players as I had hoped. It was time to move on.
Smaller in scale and heavily dependent on volunteers, the Mark Levine for NY State Senate campaign, headquartered at the top of Manhattan, presented the opportunity I was searching for. It wasn’t long before I was able to convince his campaign manager to put me in charge of Internet operations, including social media.
Managing Mark’s Facebook page was not a job but play. My delight in delivering personable yet calculated messages was colored with a hint of sardonic pleasure as I masqueraded as Levine himself. Not once during the race did anyone indicate an awareness of the man behind the curtain.
“Just had a guy at my door for your campaign!” wrote one follower.
“Hope he was convincing!” I quipped as Mark.
“He seemed a little flustered by the fact he didn’t have to convince me at all,” she teased.
Yet even as I gained momentum in establishing myself, the sad reality, I came to realize, was that my contributions were largely tangential to the heart of the campaign. Throughout Levine’s run, I waited for the day the major figures would recognize my creative and analytical abilities and add another name-plated seat to the decision-making table. But that date never came.
Two days after Levine’s (expected) defeat, I reported for duty at twelve-term incumbent State Senator Suzi Oppenheimer’s campaign headquarters in Mamaroneck. The move from Mark’s race in Northern Manhattan to Suzi’s run in Westchester County (the suburban area in which Don Draper once lived with Betty before their divorce) was like falling asleep in a bodega and waking up in Dean & DeLuca.
Assigned the role of Director of Communications, I carved out a space in the same office occupied by Suzi’s campaign managers. Finally, I sighed, I had made it to the estimable War Room, which, as it turned out, was nothing but a white-walled enclosure containing a few folding tables and chairs and a small, plastic wastebasket.
The main responsibility my post required was acting as Oppenheimer’s Chief Spokesperson. Calling upon my inner David Axelrod, I prepared myself to put journalists through the proper spin cycle. But Suzi’s chief-of-staff had other ideas: he belonged to the no-news-is-good-news promotional camp. From his old-school perspective, she had always won easily before so why upset the boat? He made it clear that I should never initiate a tête-à-tête with the press. And if a reporter happened to call me instead, this was the protocol he expected me to follow:
1) Find out what the correspondent wants to know
2) Say I’ll get back to him or her after consulting Suzi
3) Send an email to a select few members at the top of the organization flow chart that summarizes the nature of the reporter’s inquiry
4) Hammer out a written response with the team
5) Email the statement to the journalist while striving to avoid the redundancy of an actual conversation on the phone
The first time I was drawn into the line of fire as a front involved an accusation that the Senator was anti-business. The mudslinging had begun. So the rest of the core group of communicators and I initiated a spirited email discussion, then turned to crafting our rejoinder, which read in part:
Tony Kelso, spokesperson for Senator Oppenheimer’s campaign, provided the following statement:
Senator Suzi Oppenheimer played a key role in killing the most damaging anti-business tax proposed in Westchester this year, the sugar tax. . . . Suzi worked hand-in-hand with . . . the Senate Democrats to kill this tax despite repeated efforts by the Governor to have it included.
Just like that, I was quoted in an online blog for the Journal News, the only local daily in the district. Yet other than cleaning up the punctuation and phrasing in a few places, I hadn’t written a single word of what I said. I felt like a real politician.
On Election Day, my principle job entailed driving from one polling place to another to gather information on voter turnout and any glitches that might have occurred. As I stopped by each aging gymnasium, bulletin-tattered church space, and musty public hall, I was genuinely moved. Yes, corporate lobbyists dominate our politics with big money, while the common man and woman resort to sending written entreaties to their representatives and receiving form letters in return. Yes, our nation accounts for nearly half of the world’s military budget, while much of the populace updates their Facebook status with another pithy reflection on what happened at the restaurant that evening. Yes, the shamelessly rich casino players on Wall Street acquire ever more palatial get-away homes while the rest of us are subjected to compensatory austerity measures. Yet the people—covering every class and hue—still come: the woman with osteoporosis sidling up to the table to sign her name in the roster, the plumber whose clothes signal he has just crushed another cigarette outside the door, the executive anxiously tapping her Blackberry as she waits in line to pencil in a few circles before heading back to the office. In a system so profoundly entrenched and rigged to lift those already in the economic stratosphere still a little bit higher, I can’t help thinking their gesture at the polls is simply a by-yearly exercise granted by the corporate chieftains and billionaires to divert public attention away from the locked rooms where things really get done. Nonetheless, each ballot cast simultaneously serves as a small act of resistance, reminding those priests of the political-corporate alliance that the people aren’t going away and that, someday, somehow, they will mobilize into the only force that can drive the money changers from the temple.
That night, as the returns poured in, it became apparent there would be no decision by sunrise. For me, it felt like Gore versus Bush all over again. Not until thirty-two days later, after legal disputes and a number of ballots were hand counted, was Suzi declared the winner. The final tally: 45,888 to 45,158. Encountering the news online while seated on my couch at home, I sent a congratulatory email to the team and celebrated with another sip of coffee. A few weeks later, I saw Suzi one last time. Saying goodbye with a kiss on the cheek, I knew I couldn’t get any closer to the inner circle than that.