Wednesday, October 15, 2008


The quickest way to lose your cynicism about politics and politicians is to work on a political campaign.

In one of Michael Moore's books, he lays out the way almost anybody can get elected to public office. Find 10 people who'll dedicate a few months to one cause. That's all it takes. Like most things Michael Moore writes about, he's almost exactly right.

I've spent the last five weeks working for a local candidate in the Canadian Federal election that ended last night. My candidate and I don't agree on everything. She's way to the right of me on some issues, a little to the left on others. But when I met her I thought she was a good person, a decent person, somebody who cared about the issues.

She ran in my riding last time around and lost by a few thousand votes. According to the press and the pundits, she didn't have much chance of winning this time out. Her main opponent was formidable and the constituents didn't like her party leader or share his political views.

But she had ten people to start with.

The first thing you learn about a campaign is that there's no money, too much to do and nowhere near enough time. That concept of National parties with election war chests and trained strategists is pretty much a myth for most local campaigns. Ours was considered a "swing-riding", one that could change the complexion of the nation. But even that doesn't cut much ice when money and expertise has to be focused on the leader, national ad campaigns and fleets of buses and jets.

So somebody cadges an office and finds the money to put in a half dozen phones. Chairs and tables are scrounged from second hand stores by somebody else. Somebody's uncle kicks in a computer. Somebody can get a deal with a guy who prints signs.

A changeable board goes up in the office announcing "35 days to Victory...34...33...".

Slowly the machine grinds into gear.

Somebody has some skills with media. Somebody else studied political science. Flyers get printed. Signs get printed. A far too long list of things that should've been done yesterday gets printed. Your opponent takes out his first newspaper ad and you realize you don't have a fucking hope in hell.

"Days to Victory 29...28...27..."

But you can't quit. You're starting to like these other nine people. They care. They're decent. And they have a goal. You can't let them and your candidate down.

So you find yourself on commuter platforms long before dawn, tucking pamphlets into the hands of sleepy commuters, thrilled when you notice one of them reading what you wrote when the train pulls out.

You spend your days in a ditch, your shoulders aching as you hammer in signs, honked at by truckers less supportive than merely enjoying your suffering.

The next day you go back and put the signs back up after the wind, some kids or a disgruntled malcontent has knocked them down. You'll also do that the next day and the day after that. After a couple of weeks you wish somebody would outlaw political campaign signs as a blight on the landscape simply so you don't have to put them up anymore.

You grab dinner while watching the party stars and talking heads on television. Your leader is screwing up. Luckily so's the other guy. Ernest reporters point out that Quebec doesn't like this about you. Big Cities don't like that. Young women and immigrants can't stand you. The polls are stagnant. And then some idiot party heavyweight says something stupid and makes things worse.

"Days to Victory...21...20...19..."

In the evenings you knock on doors, silently cursing your candidate for taking so damn long being nice to somebody who clearly won't vote for her because they're a young immigrant woman from a big city. Dogs try to kill you. So do Moms when the doorbell you just rang wakes the baby. And you realize that even if you made these rounds at midnight you'd be interrupting somebody's dinner or the half dressed couple you finally got somebody to take Junior to the movies.

Everything you do seems to annoy somebody. You wonder if the entire country is made up of people who really don't want things to change because they enjoy being cranky.

You also wonder if the largest growth industry in the country is Polling. Every day there are 4 or 5 more, all of them telling you that no matter what you're doing it isn't making a damn bit of difference.

The leader rolls through town, but doesn't have time for your campaign. You're not gaining traction. Even the local high school paper doesn't want to do an interview.

"Days to Victory...15...14...13..."

The ten of you are living on cold pizza and bad coffee. You need to find volunteers for an advance poll and surprise yourself by getting two of them. Then you're splitting that pizza 13 ways. Then you're ordering two and three. There are faces in the office you've never met and the next day they've brought a friend.

On the television the talking heads drone on about all your party's shortcomings. Everybody still hates you but now they're also growing suspicious that you're hiding something that would make them hate you even more.

You wonder where this stuff comes from. You know for certain your candidate isn't the Anti-Christ. The couple of party stars who've deigned to drop by don't strike you as rabid or psychotic either.

And then you notice that the people you're handing pamphlets to outside the Supermarket are actually turning civil and thanking you for annoying them.

You go to a big rally attended by your leader and see all the people who are supposed to hate and mistrust him cheering and waving placards.

You go to an all candidates debate and are struck by how intelligent and decent all the people you're campaigning against actually are. Both the ones that supposedly hate you and the ones you supposedly detest. You want the media to just shut the fuck up so people could hear all their messages clearly and make up their own minds.

Silently, you begin to acknowledge that even if your candidate loses -- every single one of the other guys would do just about as good a job. They're not demons. They're not morons. They're decent dedicated people too. And they care just as much about their country and their neighbors as you do.

"Days to Victory...10...9...8..."

You can't put your finger on the exact moment it happened, but something has changed. It might be you and it might be everybody else. Your candidate refuses to contemplate victory, reminding you to always believe you're still 3 points behind.

But there are more people dropping by to help out. Folks whose door you knocked on turn up with cheques that keep the phones working and buy an extra topping for the pizzas.

And you notice you don't watch TV or read newspapers anymore, realizing that the pundits, even the ones on your side, haven't got the first fricken clue of what they're talking about. They're just parasites feeding on every potential gaffe, insult and unfortunate turn of phrase, constantly trying to wind things up and create a cause celebre. They don't want what's right for their country. They just want something new to yap and theorize about.

You also begin to appreciate the voters you're chasing. They're people with lives and real concerns who don't trade in hypotheticals and who ask tough questions. You admit you don't have all the answers. And in an odd way, that honesty is what they want to hear.

"Days to Victory...3...2...1..."

After weeks on shaping the message and controlling the spin as best you can, the BIG day arrives and you finally walk into the Polling station to scrutinize the vote. There you meet a team of Elections Canada workers so precise and careful you feel embarrassed to even pretend you might find fault with their performance.

And then the doors open and you feel suddenly, utterly helpless.

Because the people walking through those doors don't look at all like the special interest groups and demographics the media has mapped out as your "must-win" base. And now what happens is completely up to them. Your weeks of hard work and sacrifice are at the mercy of either their intelligence or complete lack of it.

But some things in the room make you smile. The same guy turns up to vote twice, until the Returning officers realize he's twins. A blind guy asks for a braille ballot (who knew they had such a thing). The kid who's clerking gets embarrassed as darkness falls when his mom brings him a pizza because he's working through supper.

Unable to talk politics anymore, you and the reps of the other parties talk about movies and hockey and all the things you and your neighbors talk about. Because they're not the enemy. They're decent people who care -- who also happen to be your neighbors.

And then the voting stops. It's over. And a realization grows that losing is a possibility and how much that's going to hurt.

My candidate won last night. Against all odds and the conventional wisdom. To be honest, she won by a larger margin than any of the polls, the pundits or the most optimistic of her campaign workers ever dared to predict.

Amid the celebration, we all stopped to watch one of our opponents, Stephane Dion, acknowledge his party's defeat. And not one of us didn't feel the hurt you knew he was biting back with all the strength and character he had left.

Because we all knew how easily his pain could have been ours. We saw a decent man who cares having to endure a failure that touches every part of what you are and hoped you could be to your country.

Will my candidate be good for Canada? I hope so.

But all I know for sure is that she's decent and caring. In a party that's supposed to hate the Arts, the Arts are her passion. In a party vilified as unfeeling, she brings a career of rehabilitating injured workers. Right now, I know her priority isn't getting to Ottawa but finally being able to help plan her daughter's wedding.

As I drove home tonight, the pundits were already buzzing about who lost and why, where the future pitfalls lay and who needed to do what to gain power.

As usual they're full of shit. You only need somebody decent and ten more people to help.

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