November 2, 2010

SPARE A THOUGHT FOR OUR RIVALS:

Perhaps this is easier to do when you expect to win big, but it would seem a healthy thing for Republicans today to think kindly of our Democratic fellow citizens who face a just brutal night of returns.

I worked on the NJ gubernatorial in 1985, when a brash young political star took on incumbent governor Tom Kean. Peter Shapiro had been elected to the state Assembly at the age of 23, just a couple years out of Harvard. He campaigned door-to-door and beat the candidate of the party organization. In the Assembly he helped pass a bill reforming Essex County government and creating the position of County Executive, which he then ran for and won, again upsetting the Democratic machine. His reforms quickly made him a guy to watch out for.

In the gubernatorial primary he beat the black mayor of Newark, the Senate majority leader and several others for the "right" to take on Governor Kean, who polling revealed was one of the most popular Republicans in state history, running about even with the newly re-elected Ronald Reagan. So there was never a realistic chance of Peter winning, but a statewide campaign was an ideal learning opportunity and proving ground and was expected to leave him well-positioned for his next run. Supposed to until he lost with under 30%, carriyng less than a handful of towns, among them Roosevelt, which had been created by the New Deal.

I'd graduated from college in 1983, had no idea what to do with my life, but liked politics, and accidentally ended up helping out in the primary. Essex County cops drove Peter during the week, but the campaign had me drive him on weekends and serve as theoretical security. There was hardly any press office and no advance team, so they had me travel with him during the week too and do both those jobs. But, in reality, I was there because I was a conservative Republican with no stake in the game, so Peter and his wife trusted me to run interference between him and the campaign staff. Everybody but everybody has stuff they think the candidate absolutely has to do and you really need a buffer so he isn't the one sayting "no" and alienating staff, supporters, contributors, party leaders, elected officials, etc. I was happy to say "no" for him.

So I got to go along for the ride--and some of the drive--and it was a blast. Every American should work on at least one political campaign. Sure, there's a lot that's annoying about it and even some that's appalling, but in general it is enormously edifying. People genuinely care about issues, feel like the country will best served if their guy prevails, and pour their hearts and souls into the process.

The problem was, despite all that commitment that we saw on display every day and despite Peter's tireless efforts, he was a dead man walking from day one. Now, I liked him and wouldn't have worked for him if I hadn't thought he'd make a good governor, in the extraordinarily unlikely event he won. But I had no illusions. There was not a single day when I thought he had a chance. And it was only gradually that I realized that there was only a very tiny group of us who had taken this knowledge in and dealt with it. Even some seasoned professionals on the staff were going about their work with a kind of spooky certitude that it was anyone's race to win.

It was truly painful to watch then, as Election Day approached, when each of them had their epiphany and had to reckon with the notion that we were not just going to lose but going to get stomped. Someone who had been perfectly pleasant and optimistic the day before would suddenly be surrounded by a black cloud of anger and be impossible to deal with. But the moment would pass and a day later they'd be back to themselves, sadder but wiser.

And, when it came, Election Night was an enormous release for the staff. We sat in a hotel room drinking and celebrating what had been a good, though doomed, campaign while the "rally" in a ballroom below took on the tone of a funeral, as it indeed pretty much marked the burial of Peter's political career. By the time we got downstairs the poor party faithful who were gathered looked like they'd been gut-punched. And any politico who could make an excuse fled the joint, lest the stench of failure stick to him.

At any rate, every election produces gatherings and rooms just like that. They're filled with people who fought the good fight and thought--for some period of time or another--that surely their side would prevail. Only to have the voters render a verdict that they can't help but feel is an unjust rejection.

So even as we celebrate what promises to be a very happy night for the GOP, maybe we can also celebrate the wonders and mysteries of a political system that brings out so much of the best of us even in losing efforts.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 2, 2010 6:47 AM
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