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It was an omen. The Friday before election day, Halloween afternoon, he appeared, as if out of thin air. He had piles of black dreadlocks and was wearing a dress and a heavy coat. The combination gave him the look of a strange woman in a fairy tale, out in the chilly weather gathering wood for the fire. He was standing at the rotary, across the street from the newspaper, which is a classic place for candidates to stand and hold signs to raise their visibility.
His sign read: “Free Energy. And plenty of fish” on one side and “Scannell for U.S. Congress” on the other side. I drove past twice to see if I was reading that mystical message correctly.
Years ago Steve Scannell gained a bit of folk-hero status with an act of civil disobedience. Back then the town was in the middle of trying to get the state to hand over control of the island’s ponds. It had been tradition every spring and fall to open the ponds to the ocean, something legend has it was taught to the first white settlers on the island by the natives. The idea was to let certain fish in and out of the ponds, to keep the mosquito population low, and to “clean” them with an influx of salt water.
In the 1980s, for a reason I can only remember as the usual overzealous state interference with the local way of doing things, it became illegal to open the ponds without permission. Scannell took a shovel and time and time again went to work cutting a path between Sesachacha and Hummock ponds and the Atlantic Ocean, a job usually done with a big front-end loader.
The aim was to get arrested, which he usually did, and to draw attention to the issue of local control of the ponds. Whether he was directly responsible for any of the changes that followed, depends on who you ask. In any case, I had not seen him around in a few years and there he was at the rotary, indulging us all with a bit of street theater.
Like a lot of small towns, running for public office on Nantucket means standing at places like the traffic rotary, and the post office, and the dump, holding a sign much like Scannell’s sign. There are debates, meet-and-greets, newspaper interviews, press releases, fundraising, brochures, hands to shake, and many phone calls to voters – sometimes those computer-generated ones known as robo-calls. These days there is even something called an e-mail blast.
But without the signs and the volunteers who hold them, you might as well forget it. I am not sure why that is, but it seems to be true. Maybe people just need to see that you want their vote bad enough to stand out in the cold, or to ask your friends to do the same.
There is an old story about former Speaker of the House Tim O’Neill – who famously said all politics is local – asking his neighbor if she voted for him. She tells him she did not. He reminds her that he grew up next door. She’s known him all her life. As a boy he shoveled the snow off her sidewalk. Why didn’t he have her vote, of all people?
Her response is, “You didn’t knock on my door and ask me to vote for you.” Maybe for us, the dump and the rotary take the place of knocking on doors.
At 7 a.m. on election-day morning, the sidewalk across the street from the island’s one polling place was lined with signs. A guy I was chatting with offered the opinion that signs only matter in their absence.
“If you have signs they don’t really get you any more votes,” he said. “But if you don’t have signs you lose votes.” It was campaign wisdom you can’t find on MSNBC.
The guy was holding a McCain-Palin sign. I was holding a Madden for State Representative sign. I had wandered over to him with a box of donuts as a bipartisan offering, on a day when we needed both Democrats and Republicans to toss at least one vote to an Independent.
Maurice Gibbs was also holding a McCain sign. He told me that during his long and distinguished Navy service he had once met McCain’s father, who was an admiral. No amount of arguing about the issues can change the mind of a man who once served with a candidate’s father.
He decided it would be OK for me to stick a yard sign for my candidate into the ground near where he was standing. I took the donuts and walked down to the folks holding Democrat signs to see if I could get the same deal.
Later in the day I found myself standing next to Viola Howard. She is Cape Verdean. She was holding an Obama-Biden sign, and was very happy to have voted for a black man for President of the United States. She always figured that maybe her grandchildren would be able to do that, but never imagined that day would come for her.
The day had the feeling that we would all be telling somebody about this election years from now. A bunch of kids who had just voted for the first time were having their pictures taken in front of some people holding Obama signs.
The first vote I ever cast was for Jimmy Carter. He promised he would never lie to us, which after Nixon seemed like a good deal. He became the most honorable ex-president in history, worrying less about his legacy and library and more about building houses for poor people. Somehow I cannot see Bill Clinton or George W. doing that any time soon.
A childhood friend of mine, who once upon a time was one of the older kids in the neighborhood, called me on Monday night. He tried to remember his first vote, but could not quite remember the candidate. “I do remember that it was the Three-A’s election,” he said. “Acid, Amnesty and Abortion.”
During the 2004 election, a friend of mine who is involved in national politics ran into his own triplet problem when campaigning for John Kerry in South Carolina: Guns, God and Gays. This year did not seem to have it catchy and derisive alliteration. Maybe McCain’s people cold not find anything that rhymes with socialism.
On the Madden campaign, we had been making the argument for months that party affiliation is less important than the candidate himself. It was, of course, an argument whose roots were in the fact that Tim Madden, a life long Independent whose view on the issues lean heavily Democrat, had missed the deadline to change his party affiliation before tossing his hat into the ring.
Still, it is an argument that makes sense. Run for selectman and nobody cares if you are a Democrat or Republican. All they care about is whether they think you deserve a shot at running the town.
I have always thought that sort of local politics, where we vote for people we actually know, is the purest form of democracy. The same can be said for the one person/one vote style of Town Meeting, which, sadly, is in danger of being drained of all meaning right before our eyes through apathy.
But move your political ambitions up a notch and it is a different ballgame. Madden ran a write-in campaign to try to grab the Democratic nomination during the primary and fell just short. The loss meant that he would run in the general election as an Independent, what is sometimes called an un-enrolled candidate.
Voter common sense gets tangled up in party affiliations. That is especially true when your opponent takes every chance to publicly and loudly declare himself “a true Democrat.”
Handicapping this race was simple, and based on the odd geography of the district: two islands and part of one town on the Cape. Be the big winner on Nantucket, break even on Martha’s Vineyard, keep your fingers crossed in Falmouth.
When election day rolls around, all you can do is hope you have reached out to enough people. Tim started his day on the Vineyard, then took the boat to Falmouth, and in the early evening arrived home.
By the time the two of us stood alone in the dark, holding signs under a streetlight and trying to convince just a few more voters to fill in the circle next to his name, there was the strange feeling of knowing the die has been cast and all you can do now is go home and wait.
I was napping on the couch when the numbers began rolling in. If only a few of the many race horses I have bet on over the years had run their races as well, I would have a pocket full of cash. Just shy of 5,000 Nantucket votes, third place in Falmouth but not by much, and the town-by-town splits on the Vineyard played out perfectly.
Just before 11 p.m. it was clear Tim had won. We chatted on the phone for a few minutes. I hung up and cracked open one of those half-bottles of champagne and shared a glass with my wife.
On the television president-elect Barak Obama was making his acceptance speech. I thought about how wildly happy people like my grandmother had felt when JFK was elected. An Irish Catholic in the White House seemed like validation of your citizenship.
“Steerage to the White House in two generations.” I heard that over and over as a kid, and it gives me some small inkling of how much this new president will mean to African-Americans.
Earlier in the day I spoke with Geno Geng, just back from riding around in his tricked-out van and shooting video in Ohio and Florida. He told me about a midnight rally he had been to a few days ago.
“It as the strangest thing,” he said. “It was one in the morning, the crowd was huge, and it was filled with black people and white people, old and young, all kinds of people. And everybody was just so happy to be there.”
The talking heads on MSNBC were yammering about the need for Obama to “govern form the center” and generally trying to put a damper on the evening. It did not seem to be working. I though about the midnight rally Geno had seen. I thought for a very brief moment about Steve Scannell holding that crazy sign. Some very good omens, indeed.
– John Stanton