Y ou might think that the most embarrassing moment for me during my month-long run for co-chair of the Democratic Town Committee New Haven’s Ward 2 was being mistaken for a Republican.
On election day, several passers-by assumed that because Super Tuesday was the big news story that day, there was some sort of Republican primary happening in Connecticut as well.
Not that others were necessarily any clearer on the concept. One of my favorite responses during a phone-bank event designed to get out the vote for ward elections throughout the city went like this:
“What? There’s a committee?! And it does what?! And there’s an election Tuesday?!”
But that man listened as I explained, as did dozens of others. A slew of new faces have now entered public service in their neighborhoods thanks to honest community connections such as that one.
I had been looking to involve myself more deeply in my neighborhood for a while, so when Alderman Frank Douglass, whom I’d helped in his own successful run for office last fall, asked if I would be interested in running for co-chair with another of the supporters from his campaign, Jane Kinity, I jumped at the chance. It wasn’t hard to notice that a grass-roots movement, fueled by a variety of local activists including the Yale labor unions and college volunteers, was changing the New Haven political landscape.
Personally, I found the job description of Ward Co-Chair very appealing, starting with the “co-” part. It’s about shared decisions and committee-forming and community-building and insightful
debates. The Co-Chairs assemble a committee of 50 people for their ward. They maintain the voter lists, are active in the registration of new voters, and help those who need to vote with absentee ballots. They gather to endorse Democratic candidates for Alderman, Mayor and other positions. (Next week, all the ward Co-Chairs will vote on which of four candidates will lead them as citywide Democratic Town Committee chairperson.) Those are the official duties, but it’s also a position where you can help the alderman and other local leaders and groups with block watches, clean-ups, job programs and other community-building projects.
Just as this new crop of idealistic fellow co-chairs, organizers and impassioned voters reminds me of community-based political movements of the 1960s, the process of getting out the vote reminded me of my favorite ‘60s pop culture theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who coined this hallowed phrase: “The medium is the message.”
To gain a position for which the duties are all based around voter registration, voter empowerment and the picking of the actual candidates who’ll be voted upon, I needed to engage directly with voters about the importance of voting now, for me.
There was a lovely purity to that. It took the winner/loser mentality out of the exercise. I could concentrate on the community and how best to engage it.
So Jane and I and a group that came to number dozens of loyal volunteers spent five weeks knocking on doors, meeting hundreds of our neighbors.
At 6 a.m. on Tuesday, March 6, I found myself standing outside a local elementary school with my running mate Jane Kinity. We stayed there until 8 p.m., shaking hands and passing out cards with
our names on them. I also got to kick around a soccer ball with a 9-year-old, help police in their efforts to track down a criminal on the lam and explain to an entire class of 1st graders what we were doing in the back of their school.
The election activity obviously surprised those who weren’t ever home when we knocked. That didn’t faze me. What really turned my face red (besides the sun and chilly winds from standing outdoors for 14 hours) was arriving at the polls at 6 a.m., being the very first in line to vote, and realizing I’d left my photo ID at home. I called home, but my passport wasn’t in its usual place.
During the first lengthy lull in the voting (“lull” being a relative term for an election in which ten voters per hour can be considered a strong turn-out), I rushed home to rustle through my desk and bureau drawers.
The campaign workers had transformed my home into a political war-room. Entire walls of my living room and study had been plastered with voter lists, schedules of how to bring voters to the polls, and upbeat messages about why it was important to bring in as many votes as possible.
It reminded me of what I consider the proudest moment of the campaign. Two weeks before election day, when volunteers gathered as they did every night at dinnertime to go knock on doors, one of our campaign organizers arrived with the news that the incumbent multi-term co-chair who’d also recently served as interim Alderman in the ward, had officially withdrawn as a candidate. We took this in. Then, without anybody for a moment suggesting we could take a night off due to this bombshell, we went out and knocked on doors for the next two hours, as usual. And we didn’t break stride for the next two weeks.
This wasn’t about winning; we were fairly confident that we could do that. This was about sharing the joy of voting, about bringing out to community in order to celebrate the community.
It was about sharing a beautiful day in March.
Written by Christopher Arnott. To learn more about Tuesday’s Ward election results, click here.