Too Hard on the D's?
It's been brought to my attention that my blog sounds a bit to hard on Democrats in Ohio. Given the state of Ohio Democrats, I'm not sure that's really possible...but never let it be said I don't respond well to criticism...a good turnout for a literature drop this weekend (20 people...in June for god's sake), reminded me of a story.
The old metal screen door looked open. Lights were on inside.
Still no answer. I took my hand out of the front pocket of my waterproof jacket to look at my watch…shoved it back into my pocket, and thought for a second out in the cold October rain. Looked around the parking lot for other cars…nope…just mine…my old blue Ford Escort, packed with campaign literature, looking very lonely in the wet parking lot behind a strip mall along the main drag in Euclid, Ohio.
Might as well walk in, door looks open, better than standing here in the rain. The squeaky door slammed behind me as I walked through the narrow back hallway toward the old storefront. “Hello?” I said.
“Yeah,” an old voice crackled from near the front window.
“Anybody home?” I walked into the well lit storefront office space to see an old man sitting in a brown metal folding chair, looking out the rain splattered front window.
“G’morning,” he said.
“Hi…Frank Chukayne?” I asked, walking over to him.
“That’s me,” he answered, turning to look at me from his chair.
“Hi, Tim Russo from the Hyatt Campaign,” I said, reaching out to shake his hand.
Frank smiled. “How ya doin’?” he asked through a meager, unlit cigar butt lodged in the corner of his mouth.
We shook hands. “A bit wet,” I said. “Yourself?”
“Can’t complain…” Frank gave the cigar a chomp.
I launched straight to business, turning back toward the parking lot. “I’m just gonna get the lit from my car.”
“Suit yourself,” Frank said quietly. I rushed out to the car, grabbed a couple boxes, 3,000 pieces each.
“How many people we got comin’?” I said as I threw them onto the floor next to the table across from where Frank was sitting.
“We’ll see,” Frank replied. I ran back out to the car, got two more boxes.
“Anybody call to cancel?” Threw another two boxes on the floor.
“Phone hasn’t rung,” Frank noted.
Another few trips to the car later, and all 20,000 Hyatt for US Senate lit pieces were on the floor, at the Euclid Democratic Party Campaign Office, ready to be delivered as soon as the twenty volunteers showed up.
“Just one more trip…,” I said, “…brought donuts.”
“Things are lookin’ up,” Frank smiled. I put the three dozen donuts out on the table amongst the array of campaign literature from every campaign in the area, little stacks of leaflets in all shapes, colors, and sizes, for every race up and down the ballot for the November, 1994, election.
“Right,” I said as I clapped my hands, took off my wet waterproof jacket, and grabbed a cup of coffee. I sat down and looked at my watch again. “People should be showing up in no time.”
Frank just sat in his brown metal folding chair, looking out the fogged up window into the rain, cars racing by along the busy main street, throwing up spray. About 70 years old, Frank looked every bit the old Slovenian blue collar Cleveland Democrat. The white dress shirt well past its prime, brown polyester dress pants, dress shoes, thick forearms belying years spent in a steel mill or a factory, the slight build, the thin grey hair slicked back with a bit of brylcream, the Buddy Holly horn rimmed glasses. And the thin, stubby, Garcia y Vega cigar.
“Want a donut?” I asked.
“No thanks,” Frank said, “my wife would never forgive me.”
I took a sip of the coffee. The quiet of the empty office just then began to occur to me, so I nervously filled it with chit chat.
“How’s the campaign goin’ here in Euclid?”
Frank smiled again, his cigar crawling back and forth from one corner of his mouth to the other. “Not bad…” His tone was half sarcastic, half knowing resignation. Frank was the Democratic Party’s ward leader in the city of Euclid, the party’s most senior person within the Cleveland suburb. He ran the little storefront office every election, and had come in this Saturday to open the office for the canvass I’d organized. He knew just how bad the 1994 campaign was going.
“How’s the Hyatt campaign?” Frank asked politely.
“Not bad, either,” I lied through my teeth. I looked at my watch again. “We’ll see how many people turn up today.”
November, 1994, was the year that the Republicans swept to a national landslide victory, taking both houses of Congress, making Newt Gingrich speaker. In Ohio that year, the landslide would be particularly disastrous, Democrats losing every statewide campaign plus a few congressional seats, including the US Senate seat Democrats were fighting to hold onto, the race for which I was a paid local coordinator, whose 20,000 lit pieces were sitting in the Euclid campaign office waiting to be sent out. Frank and I couldn’t possibly know how bad it would finally become, but we sure felt it coming that morning.
“How many pieces you got there?” Frank asked.
“Twenty thousand,” I answered. Frank nodded. I looked at my watch again.
The afternoon dragged on and on and on. The rain kept falling. Frank and I sat there waiting. And waiting. I’d spent the entire week calling volunteers, setting up the lit drop. I thought I had twenty signed up. A half hour passed. None of them showed.
“Think I’ll give it another hour,” I said.
“Suit yourself,” Frank replied.
And there we sat, one young, excitable, eager campaign staffer, feeling like a damn fool, and an old timer chomping on a cigar, who could have said ‘I told you so’ but mercifully did not.
Our idle chit chat continued, my utter embarrassment keeping me quiet, listening to Frank, who started to tell a few stories. Frank had been the ward leader in Euclid for decades, involved in Euclid politics almost since he arrived in Euclid as a kid on a train in the Depression. We’ve all heard the romanticized stories of people in the Depression hopping onto boxcars and hopping off where they might find a job. Frank was one of those people.
“You were a hobo?!” I laughed.
“You could say that,” Frank replied.
“So how’d you get involved in politics?” I asked. “I mean, you just jump off a train and show up in Euclid in the middle of the Great Depression…”
“Well,” Frank smiled, “that’s an interesting story.” On return after fighting in the second world war, settling into a neighborhood, starting his family, Frank decided to run for precinct committee.
Precinct committee in the American system of government is the very first level of elected government at the grassroots. The precinct committee is the body responsible for organizing and implementing any election that will occur in the precinct, a tiny geographical area, usually no more than a thousand or two thousand people in each.. To insure partisan balance, they are made up in equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans; in Ohio, one each per precinct. Therefore in each precinct, there is an election within each party for a precinct committee person from that party for every precinct, who then recruits the people to hand out the ballots, manage the lists, count the ballots on election day…and hopefully be the backbone of the campaign at the grassroots.
But mostly, they don’t…well…do much, really. They get old. They get lazy. They save their effort for election day and their basic statutory duties of organizing the polling places, their involvement in party politics limited to monthly or yearly meetings, if that. For the most part, they are names on a list that someone from a campaign, like me, would call to ask for help who would almost always decline; either too old, or too busy, or too uninterested to bother, especially if the cause seems lost anyway.
I didn’t bother to ask Frank if he’d made any decision along these lines, and if so, why. I just let the silence in the cold empty storefront speak for itself. Frank was happy to come into the office and open the door on a wet rainy Saturday morning. In 1994, the tectonic plate-shifting of national politics clearly evident, he wasn’t about to do much more.
Which left it to me to get my own volunteers from my own list to deliver the leaflets for my candidate Which I tried to do. Got twenty people to commit. Had my list with me, even. That was before the weather failed to cooperate, as it almost always does. Combined with the apathy and resignation taking hold throughout the country, it was inevitable Frank and I would be sitting alone in the Euclid office, surrounded by undelivered lit.
So story telling about post-war runs for precinct committee was the order of this cold, wet day.
“Wasn’t there already someone holding the seat?” I asked.
“There sure was,” Frank said. “An old woman had held it for years. Years. And people couldn’t stand her.”
“She never did anything in the neighborhood. Never went to any of the party functions, never campaigned for the ticket, always expected people to work for her on election day, but never did anything else.” Frank got a bit excited all of a sudden. “So I started my campaign.”
I looked at the thousands of pieces of lit on the floor for a second, spending a final, short, and resigned amount of anxiety on them, and grabbed another cup of coffee.
“How’d you do it?” I said, now intrigued. Unseating an incumbent, be it a precinct committee person or a country’s president, is rare and difficult.
“Well, first I counted all the houses that were in the precinct…”
“O.K…” I sat back down with my fresh brew.
“And figured out how many houses I could visit in a day…”
“Divided the total houses in the precinct by the number I could visit in a day, and figured out how long it would take me to visit all the houses.”
This all seemed pretty standard. “Right, right…”
Then Frank got a glimmer in his eye. “Next, I took a map,” he said, “and looked at where her house was on the map of the precinct.”
“O…K...,” I said. I leaned over in my chair.
“And I drew a line from her house, to the house farthest away from hers on the map.” Frank was getting into it now.
So was I. “Yeah…”
“And started knocking on doors at that house.”
“The one furthest away from hers?”
I paused, thinking it through. “And you just kept knocking on doors every day?”
“Every day,” he said, “getting closer and closer to her house.”
I got it finally. “Ah hahhhhhh…,” I smiled, leaning back in my chair.
“Until the day before the election…,” Frank chuckled.
“When you knocked on her door,” I said.
“The day before the election?”
“That’s right.” Frank smiled again.
I fell back in my chair. “She must have shit her pants…”
“She had no idea what was happening,” Frank said with a triumphant chomp on his cigar. “She was so out of touch with the neighborhood, she hadn’t heard a thing.”
Frank started laughing like a little kid. “She opened the door, and I was there with my campaign leaflet.”
“Oh my god…”
“And I said, ‘Hi, I’m Frank Chukayne, candidate for Democratic precinct committeeman,” Frank said through another chuckle.
“What did she say?”
Frank leaned over in his chair, his face next to mine. “She said, ‘You can’t run for precinct committee! I’m the precinct committeewoman in this precinct!”
“What’d you say?”
“‘Not for long, you ain’t!’”
We both burst into laughter. “You must have kicked her ass,” I said.
“Got 80%,” Frank said, sitting back in his chair, hands in his pockets, cigar chomped over to the other side of his mouth again.
“She never knew what hit ‘er,” I said.
“Never saw it coming,” Frank said…never saw it coming.
Frank and I never got out the 20,000 pieces of lit, but his story about a precinct committee election in post-war Ohio got out to someone who needed to hear it during a tough election.