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A Lesson In Campaign Mismanagement

A number of years ago, I mismanaged a Chicago City Council campaign. I was a student and knew as much about managing a campaign as I did—or didn’t—about breeding champion heifers. But I had a little political experience, a lot of eagerness, and a suit.

There were four candidates. Since it was Chicago, three were Democrats:

The Regular Democratic Organization Democrat—what we called the Machine—worked for the county and was genial, balding, and funny. The Independent Democrat was a former US attorney, who was dark and brooding. The Independent Republican was a former model who was soft-spoken, flame-haired, and could speak French, but tried not to in public.

The candidate whose campaign I mismanaged—the Independent Independent—was the Rev. Chuck Geary, a minister and community organizer who had come north from Horse Branch, Kentucky.

There were debates several times a week, in church basements, synagogues, and community centers. Tall, tarnished coffee urns hissed in the back, and people in folding chairs squirmed under bright, buzzing lights. Every few minutes, someone would spring to their feet and shout something like, "Riding the 36 Broadway bus is worse than being taken to the gulag!"

The Regular Democrat lauded the mayor, and boasted that he knew how to pick up trash and plow the snow. The Independent Democrat assailed the mayor and boasted how well he knew Daniel Ellsberg. The Independent Republican said she hardly knew any Republicans, but Lincoln was one, and electing a Republican to the Chicago City Council would be more revolutionary than putting LSD into the drinking water.

My candidate, Reverend Geary, used to shoot tobacco juice into a paper cup and inveigh against bosses and bureaucrats.

Look, it was Chicago. Sometimes, the debate got heated. But there were also lots of laughs, and wary respect between the candidates. Each understood how putting their name on a ballot robbed them of sleep, took them from their families, and made them pin cushions for ridicule. Sometimes candidates and staff would go to an all-night diner, relive the debate, and revise it with profane punch lines. Someday soon the campaign would end; we’d all go back to being neighbors.

I don’t want to sentimentalize that campaign. But I’m glad I got to see how politics could be tough but good-natured, and I wonder about young people in campaigns today who must think that the goal is mutual annihilation.

Comedians are driven do serious things, like call rallies for sanity, while politicians shrink from making spontaneous jokes or personal reflections because they know that they may be roasted for it by satirists.

By the way: my candidate finished last. My fault, not his. We should have just passed out $5 bills.



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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small