October is here. Foliage blazes and leaf peepers invade. All over the state chicken pie suppers abound – they are so good - and they put their unique culinary signature on our cozy autumn evenings. Many Vermonters can be seen stacking cordwood in strategic places around the house.
There’s a peculiar being however, who appears on the October streets of our towns and villages on even numbered years. Beware. It’s an election year and local legislative candidates are everywhere – usually wearing a large identifying button, often homemade and with the necessary red, white and blue.
Along with buttons and brochures candidates can also be recognized by an anxious look behind an uncertain smile.
Sometimes the candidate is stopped and offered a courteous “hello” or “good luck”. When this happens morale soars and election seems all but certain.
At other times a candidate may be shunned. The experience stings and morale tanks. That’s it. The election is lost. The people have spoken.
I know because I’ve been a candidate myself, and it’s a thrilling experience, with all the highs and lows. Nothing quite equals it in our Vermont democracy.
For memories that are richly full and overflowing, I strongly recommend running for the legislature. It’s a challenge that’s both sweet and sour – utterly unique and unforgettable. And a beginner’s innocence may very well charm the voters. In his extraordinary study of American democracy, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville provided this counsel to a local candidate when he wrote that “Even want of polish is not always displeasing”.
One day during my first campaign, I went to the town of Milton. It’s a pleasant place, full of hard-working people and no affectations. I thought I’d knock on doors and introduce myself. I was innocent and clumsy as well.
After climbing the porch steps of a small, plain but well kept home, I knocked on the door. A moment later an elderly gentleman appeared and stared at me with a frown. I probably got out a nervous hello but I don’t remember. “Yesterday,” he growled, “my septic overflowed; this morning there was a skunk under the porch; and now there’s a politician at my door! Huh!”
I held my ground and was glad I did. I didn’t know it right away, but he was putting me on – and over the years he became a dear friend. Thinking of him always brings a lump to my throat.
I was chased by the occasional dog and bitten by one. I always wondered if the unfriendly dogs belonged to the opposition!
A local legislative candidate often lacks money but never well-intentioned words of wisdom. Some of the best advice I ever received was “Don’t run if you are afraid to lose.” I wasn’t. But perhaps my all-time favorite piece of advice was this: “It’s OK to campaign in a bar. Just don’t trip on the way out the door.” I didn’t.