Ever wondered what it feels like to run for election? In this intimate, first person account, one aspiring public office holder explores the personal side of politics.
FALLS VILLAGE– It’s Friday afternoon, a week and a few days before the municipal elections, and my printer is belching out fliers for my campaign.I plan to hand them out at the town dump, I mean, the transfer station, tomorrow morning. That’s the traditional election hot spot in this town – the second smallest town in Connecticut, population 1,050. Candidates congregate at the dump on Saturdays before Election Day to hand out campaign literature and donuts, kiss babies, and rub shoulders with voters. This is my first shot at elected office. I’m running for the Region 1 Board of Education, a six-member board comprised of one representative from each town in the regional school district. The district covers a 250-square mile area in the rural northwest corner of the state. The Region 1 board oversees a $12 million budget and is the biggest employer in the area. I know I’m the best candidate to represent my town, but the idea of asking people to vote for me makes me nauseous. Doing it at the town dump is unimaginable. I’d rather clean up PCBs from the Housatonic River with my tongue than ask someone to vote for me.Not normally shy, I discovered that I do indeed have a bashful side at a “Meet the Candidates” event at the Hunt Library last week. A few dozen people showed up and milled around. I said hello to a few of them and then sort of stood around, not knowing what to do. Thank goodness, a few people came up to me and asked me why I was running. Half way through my explanation, they interrupted me to say it was okay, I didn’t have to finish my spiel because they were going to vote for me, anyway. I managed to slink out after 45 minutes. Seventy-five fliers should be more than enough for the dump, I figure. With a color border and a color photo, they cost me about $100 to produce. My husband and my son took a bunch of photos of me, but in all of them I looked like Miss Viola Swamp, the infamously scary elementary school substitute teacher. I finally had to take the photo myself in my converted garage office, holding the camera at arm’s length. I wonder if anyone will notice the posters of Palestinian martyrs on the wall in the background, evidence of my alternate life as an activist.I also wonder how many people in a town of 1,050, including children, take their garbage to the dump on Saturdays? The only time I’ve ever been there was several years ago to cover a hot race for first selectman, when I was reporting for the Waterbury Republican American newspaper, known as the WAR by its former reporters. In an interesting wrinkle, I covered the board to which I’m now seeking election during my 11 years as a WAR correspondent. That’s why I think I’m the best candidate for the job – I know more about how they work than most people, because I’ve been watching them for so long. But I also hear from the network of snitches I developed during my WAR years that some board members are none too thrilled about the possibility of my being elected. During my time as a correspondent, I observed the work of two superintendents, three principals, seven board chairman, and a shifting cast of board members. I wrote hundreds of stories about academics, administrators, board members, budgets, contracts, events, Freedom of Information issues, negotiations, students, teachers and more.The Freedom of Information stories usually involved complaints I filed against the board, along with the former superintendent. That means a few of the people who ended up as respondents in my complaints are still on the board! But I don’t hold it against them. I figure, hey, this is a new start.Just to give you an idea of the situation: One of the stories I did about the former superintendent involved how he used his computer during work hours. It sparked a yearlong investigation and Freedom of Information complaint, resulting in the superintendent’s decision to retire– after the board declined to extend his contract, or give him a raise for the remaining year of his deal. The superintendent did, however, walk away with a huge bundle of taxpayer money he’d managed to snag, I mean, negotiate as severance pay due to what I thought were the misplaced sympathies of some board members. Despite everything I revealed about his computer habits and other issues, they were still reluctant to let him go for reasons that still escape me. I’ve heard that my opponent– an incumbent who was politically appointed to fill an unexpired term– is somewhat offended that I am running against her. That’s odd. I thought political contests were a sign of a healthy democracy.To be honest, I’ve become a bit ambivalent about it myself. I decided to run for the board when I left the WAR because, during all of my years covering the board, I seldom heard board members consistently ask the vital question– how does this promote or enhance the opportunities for learning for our students?– when deliberating an issue. I think that’s the central concern and the one I plan to focus on if I win. But I’m not a go-along-to-get-along kind of person. My experience as a reporter taught me the important questions to ask and the need to ask them. If I win, I plan to work cooperatively with my board colleagues, but I know – and I know they know – I will question everything that isn’t clear and I won’t rubber stamp anything. So there is an initial tension there, no doubt about it.And then, again, there’s this business of asking people to vote for me. I know my opponent has been doing it, because several people have called to tell me she’s asked them to vote for her. I figure I have to try. A friend calls on Saturday morning and reminds me that the Planning & Zoning Commission is holding a public informational meeting at Kellogg School gym at 9:30 a.m. I decide to go and hand out fliers there, and then I’ll go to the dump.There’s a good crowd at the meeting, including my opponent. When I come into the gym, she’s talking to a tall blonde woman standing next to her. Is it my imagination, or does the tall blonde woman gives me a hostile look as I walk by? That would be weird, I think, since I don’t even know her. I think about introducing myself and handing her a flier, then I reconsider and decide, nah. The meeting goes on for more than two hours. Afterwards, people stand around talking in small groups that shift and re-form. I greet a couple I seldom see– friends who live in New York and have a weekend home here. We catch up on how we’re doing and how our kids are doing. I hand M. a flier. She’s surprised and happy that I’m running and wishes me well.“But we don’t vote here anymore,” M. said.I hand a flier to another woman in the group and one to my friend Pat, who said she hadn’t seen it yet. Pat’s running unopposed for first selectman. When everyone leaves the gym, Pat and I head off toward the coffee shop. By the time we finish breakfast and talking to each other (not to mention the stream of people who come and go) it’s after 1 p.m. and– darn it!– the dump is closed. It’s a genuine “oh, well” moment. After all, I still have 72 fliers and another Saturday before Election Day.