When Politics Was Local

I have to admit that I was a bit confused when I opened my absentee ballot this morning. As I scanned the list of candidates from both sides of the aisle on both sides of the ballot, contrary to what I have been told repeatedly these last several weeks, “Democracy” was not among them. Democracy was not on the ballot.

Of course, I quickly realized my mistake. “Democracy” was not an actual candidate, the 2022 midterm election was a “referendum on democracy,” so I turned my attention to the referendum questions. No state referenda this year. Strange. Maine loves state referenda.

Anyway, I guess it makes sense that a referendum on democracy would be a local question. After all, that’s where democracy lives, in wards and precincts and towns and cities and counties all across the country, from sea to shining sea. Here we go. Five questions on the ballot:

    1. clarify the definition of “subdivision”
    2. regulations on the installation of solar energy system
    3. allow the Select Board to change Town fees on their own (hell, no)
    4. something about erosion; and of course,
    5. limits on the number of marijuana licenses that can be issued.

Marijuana is our town’s fastest growing business (as previously discussed, pun always intended). Apparently, our small town which has one bank, one Dunkin’, a couple of gas stations (directly across the street from each other), no grocery store, and no liquor store (although you can buy beer at the gas stations), now has 30 licensed marijuana establishments (recreational or medicinal).  A ratio of 30 marijuana establishments to 1 Dunkin’ – that doesn’t sound right.

Democracy in action, I guess. But alas, no referendum on democracy.

Growing up – Red Sox, religion, and politics

I grew up in Boston in the 60s and 70s. (There were a few things going on in town in those days that kind of defined the image of the city for some. You can look it up.) My awareness and interest in politics began to develop about the same time as my interest in the Red Sox – 1967.

It was said at the time that there were only three things that really mattered in Boston:

Red Sox, religion, and politics.

There was one team. It’s true that the Celtics and Bruins were inarguably more successful teams at the time, but that didn’t matter. You lived and died with the Red Sox.

There was one religion with which you lived, died, and if all went well, could look forward to eternal life.

And politics? Well…

There was one mayor of Boston from 1967 until I was off in graduate school in Minnesota. Coincidentally, the man who would become the next mayor in 1984 was one of two Boston City Councilors in the Education Policy class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that I took as a senior in 1980-81.

We had the same two US. Senators over almost all of that same period.

Growing up, as far as I knew there were only two Republicans in the state at any given time: whoever happened to be governor at the time and one of those two senators (who really gave me a warped view of who belonged to the GOP, by the way). I did meet another republican in Massachusetts about a decade ago who somehow also became Senator, but that story is part of next week’s post.

The one democrat who was governor during my formative years ended up running for president in 1988. Again coincidentally, I would occasionally run into him over by Harvard in 1980-81 while commuting on the subway.

To be totally honest, there was this other guy who kind of accidentally became a one-term governor from 1979-1983. He claimed to be a democrat, but so did just about everyone else in Massachusetts. He was known for pulling a radioactive pellet out of his pocket at events to demonstrate the safety of nuclear energy – or maybe it was nuclear war, I don’t really remember. I never ran into him anywhere near Harvard. Anyway, the National Governors Association doesn’t even include him on their list of former Massachusetts governors.

There were conservative democrats, liberal democrats, and really liberal democrats (insert your own Harvard reference here), and we even had our own radical priest who was covered in Newsweek.

But even with one party, there was politics, and it was passionate, and you learned to love it from an early age.

All Politics is Local

Election season in Boston in the 1960s was very much like one of the early scenes in Back to the Future. Sound trucks would drive through the neighborhood reminding you to vote for so and so for state representative.

Sometimes it would be the candidate himself waving from a convertible while an aide blasted the message on a bullhorn. We stopped playing wiffle ball (summer) or touch football (fall) and stepped to the side of the street waiting for them to toss out political swag as they drove by.

A small black, plastic comb with the candidate’s name on the shaft was always a popular item. The candidates might have been sending a deeper message there about hair and the 1960s or perhaps the combs were just overstocked and really inexpensive because fewer people were using them. Didn’t much matter to us as we dove for the comb.

The excitement reached a new level when Fred MacDonald, a high school history teacher and colleague of my father, was the candidate.

Diving for combs became trips to the storefront office for a button and bumper sticker.

That led to passing out flyers door-to-door and then joining the crowd waving signs at busy intersections.

And there was always the big rally the night before the election.

The climax of my interest and involvement in Boston politics came in 1979 when a high school and college friend of mine was tapped by Boston City Councilor Larry DiCara to manage his reelection campaign. DiCara, like us, was  from the Dorchester section of Boston and a Boston Latin and Harvard alum. Only about 10 years older than us, he was already a veteran Boston politician.  If you are interested in Boston in the 1970s or politics among changing demographics, I highly recommend his political memoir Turmoil and Transition in Boston.

Larry - 1It was a summer of gathering signatures outside of grocery stores, phone calls, a booze cruise fundraiser on the harbor, and long nights stuffing envelopes in Larry’s downtown Boston apartment-turned-office, which was in the same Beacon Hill building where JFK had an apartment in his early political days. It was a heady time.

(A quick digression. My daughter heard about the same apartment a couple of weeks ago while on an irreverent tour of Boston. It was pointed out as the place where JFK held some of his extramarital meetings. Times change.)

Reality struck, however, in September with a very lackluster finish in the primary election. What followed was an electric six weeks. There were early morning meet-and-greets at subway stations, after which I would hop on the train and attend a couple of classes before returning for afternoon sign waving. There was a Columbus Day afternoon summit with the candidate and more senior campaign advisors (i.e., the adults). Weekend football games and the marching band gave way to walking through neighborhoods passing out flyers.  I became an official campaign “photographer” because I owned a camera. I place “photographer” in quotes because it was made clear that I didn’t actually have to have film in the camera. And it was better that way (see above).

It all culminated over a final frenetic rush to election day: A weekend of the candidate dropping us off to carpet a carefully selected neighborhoods with flyers. Picking us up a few hours later to take us to the next neighborhood. Treating us to a meal at Burger King when it was all done on Sunday. A final Monday morning subway stop, attending a class (maybe two), back to an evening of hanging signs in prime locations at polling places (if you could find the right door), a 12-hour Tuesday standing outside of a middle school holding a sign and greeting voters, directly to an election night party at an historic downtown Boston venue (whose basement bar later gained national fame), waiting for results, a first-place top-of-the-ticket finish, and celebration late into the night.

TedKennedyAnd then it was up bright and early the next morning (well, more foggy and hazy than bright) to head back into Boston to “see & hear” Ted Kennedy announce his candidacy for the 1980 presidential nomination. While waiting in that crowd outside of Faneuil Hall, we started to hear about a hostage-taking that had happened in Iran over the weekend. It was on the news and would eventually have a huge impact on the campaign and election, but I guess we had missed it.

All politics is local.

Coincidentally once again, while coordinating commencement activities at Dudley House the following June, I was back watching Ted Kennedy. This time, just a couple of days after the California primary and the unofficial end of his presidential campaign and dreams, as he and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis watched Caroline Kennedy receive her Harvard degree.

Life goes on.

Threats to Democracy

So, I have been watching this wonderful process play out for a long time, and this is not the first time that an election has been presented as a life-and-death choice – literally.

The democracy and I have lived through political violence and political assassinations and attempted assassinations —many where the assailant and target were not 3,000 miles apart.

I have seen cities burn and die and rise from the ashes to be reborn – sometimes better, sometimes not.

I have seen one president resign in disgrace to avoid impeachment and two others choose disgrace and impeachment over resignation.

I have seen politicians and their spouses who entered public service with nothing or very little become millionaires through nothing more than their NIL. I have seen others who continue to fight the good fight after leaving office. And some who simply return home.

I have seen decades of one-party rule in Washington when compromise was a necessity, and democracy seemed to flourish. And there was no need for me to care about a Senate election in Pennsylvania. Although, coincidentally, no never mind.

And I have seen recent decades where the situation in Washington has degenerated into a continuous two-party struggle not for democracy, but for power, absolute power – where every biennium is a death match.

I have felt that my options were one vision of the future that reads like 1984 and one that reads like a Brave New World. Choose your own dystopia.

I have learned enough about propaganda to be very skeptical and wary of the side (whichever it is at the time) that is screaming the loudest that their opponent is a threat to democracy.

But in the back of my mind, I remember about the boy who cried wolf.  Sometimes there is a wolf.

What can I do?

I’ll cast my absentee ballot.

Because the ballot IS democracy.

All politics is local. And preserving democracy is local – it takes place in every town and city and county from sea to shining sea.

And I’ll push to get another Dunkin’ in town – or maybe that Baskin Robbins that never moved into the other half of the building.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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