Except for the spring of 1991, I have never attended an ice cream social. That year I went to thirteen, without ever tasting ice cream. I was running for the Ann Arbor Board of Education, and it was part of the job.
So were the receptions where food and adult beverages abounded, but I couldn’t eat because people wanted to talk to me, and I couldn’t drink because, well, I couldn’t be seen drinking.
That didn’t stop my campaign manager, Doug Shapiro, who is now a judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals, from using alcohol to motivate me to make “money calls.” I had to do this almost every night, and it was hell. I can be shy about requesting payment for work I’ve already done, so you can imagine how enthusiastic I was about sitting at his kitchen table with a list of names and phone numbers, calling people I often scarcely knew to ask them to give me money.
Doug would put a frosty-cold beer on that table, just out of my reach. I couldn’t drink it until I raised a prescribed amount of money or made a prescribed number of calls. It incentivized efficiency, since the longer it sat there, the warmer it got.
I spent so much time begging for money that I could have been a college president. The loot went for mailings, cards to hand to people or hang on their doorknobs when I went door to door, and pencils and bumper stickers and T-shirts (my three-year-old granddaughter had one that said “Vote for My Grandpa”). At one point, when we were going over the books, I asked Doug, “Am I missing something, or are we basically running an income transfer operation?” I forget his exact answer, but it was affirmative.
That was one of many lessons that have informed my take on politics ever since. As my mother used to say, “You don’t know nothin’ till you find it out.” Having covered the school board for a year and a half when I was at the Ann Arbor News, I figured I could do the job at least as well as anyone I had reported on.
I waded into the process with a naivete that, in retrospect, was astonishing for a forty-four-year-old who fancied himself worldly. As soon as I secured a place on the ballot, I found myself surrounded by a cadre of veteran political operatives who saw me as an instrument for advancing their agendas. There were times when I felt as if I were the least important person in the campaign. I went where I was told to go, schmoozed who I was told to schmooze, and was told, by one operative, that a campaign could be run perfectly well without a candidate. Another, one of my earliest and most energetic boosters, called me about two weeks before the election to say she was going to withdraw her support unless I promised to make getting rid of the superintendent my first order of business. I was shaken to my shoes, but I made no such promise, and somehow she stayed the course.
The only time I had to myself was when I took a shower. I had a full-time job at the U, but my lunch hour was often spent meeting with Doug and my campaign treasurer; my evenings were filled with receptions, forums, and ice cream socials; and Saturdays I went door to door, wearing a suit and tie even in stifling heat. I had campaign obligations even before work: one day I met a bunch of teachers in their break room at an elementary school. After I delivered my set piece, one grizzled veteran with a whiskey voice told me, “I’ve heard enough about what you’ll do for the kids. What will you do for us?”
One of my most vivid memories is the League of Women Voters forum at the library. An audience member asked us to say whether we thought students should be protected from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. I felt a surge of something like joy. At last, I thought, an easy question. I didn’t have to think about which supporters would be alienated by my answer, which was a clear and unequivocal “yes, absolutely.”
To my amazement, most of my competitors demurred, ducked, and waffled. The punch line is that the day before the election the News published a letter attacking me as unfit for office due to my homophobic views.
It turned out to be a season of losses. My mother started losing her mind during the campaign, and I was laid off from my job a couple of weeks after I lost the election.
I learned of my defeat on Doug’s car radio as he was driving me from our “victory dinner” to a “victory party.” By then, all I could feel was gratitude that God had seen fit to spare me.
There were nine candidates that year: two to fill a vacated seat and seven for three full terms. The three top finishers, and the winner of the two-person race, were well-financed conservatives running as a slate. Since all their donations were pooled, I did enjoy one distinction: thanks largely to Doug, I raised more money than any other single candidate.