Illustrations: Sean McCabe
Randy Altschuler ’93 was in Washington, attending the orientation for newly elected members of Congress in 2010, when the heady experience came to an abrupt halt. Back on Long Island, the absentee ballots still were being counted in what turned out to be the closest congressional race of that year. When it was finally over, Altschuler had fallen short.
For the first-time Republican candidate, it was a disappointing end to a long, brutal campaign. It had started with an ugly three-way primary battle in which Altschuler faced a former prosecutor and Christopher Cox ’01 — the son of New York GOP chairman Ed Cox ’68 and a grandson of President Richard Nixon. Cox had the backing of the Tea Party; Altschuler, of the Conservative Party. “Unfortunately,” he says now, “it became a race to the right.” Altschuler won.
Then came the general election. Altschuler, a businessman and former Wall Street banker, used nearly $3 million of his own money to try to defeat four-term Democratic congressman Tim Bishop. When it was over, Altschuler had lost by 593 votes out of about 194,000 cast.
Two years later, Altschuler made another run. Again, he faced Bishop in a rancorous campaign. Again, he lost — this time by a wider margin.
Still, after two disappointments in a row, Altschuler has emerged not more cynical about the political system, but less so. He isn’t planning to launch another political campaign anytime soon, and there were parts of campaigning he detested: “the politics itself — the pettiness, the wasted time, the whole political establishment.” But the experience also put Altschuler — a former member of the Green Party who rarely had voted before his congressional race — in touch with a new culture and a new perspective. “What a special country we have,” he says. “To see so many people involved in the political process, I think that is awesome.”
There are more than half a million elected officials in the United States, the vast majority serving in local government offices. That’s where the main focus will be in next month’s off-year election, when thousands of people will be scrambling to fill seats on school boards, municipal councils, and in some statehouses. PAW interviewed about a dozen alumni with firsthand experience as candidates, including those who were unsuccessful. For some, defeat was a highly visible encounter with failure. Yet at a time when public esteem for politics and the people who practice it is sinking fast, and campaigns can be exhausting and uncivil, few alumni regret trying.
They do not sugarcoat the downsides. The endless slog for campaign cash is “humiliating,” says Ravi Sangisetty ’03, a Louisiana Democrat who estimates he spent 35 hours a week cadging contributions during his unsuccessful 2010 congressional campaign. Private life is nonexistent: “I give out my cellphone number to thousands of people,” says Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld ’07, a former Marshall scholar. Some have seen hyper-partisanship get in the way of their idealistic agendas: “There’s a reason Congress is held in lower regard than head lice and colonoscopies,” says Rep. Derek Kilmer ’96, a former Democratic state representative in Washington who won a seat in Congress in 2012.
“There were times when I would say, ‘This is the worst job interview ever,’” says Nicole Velasco ’08 of her 2012 campaign for a seat in Hawaii’s state legislature. She deliberately had staffed her campaign with her contemporaries, all political rookies, because she wanted to explode the stereotype of young people being politically apathetic. Ultimately, some of those young people probably learned an unwanted lesson: Velasco lost her race by 120 votes under circumstances so suspicious, they gave rise to widespread accusations that her opponent was involved in voter fraud.
Other aspects of the race were disillusioning. At a Reunions panel last spring, Velasco lamented, “I had all these ideas about programs and politics I wanted to introduce, and quite frankly, no one cared.” Her father often campaigned door-to-door with her, partly to counter rumors in her tightly knit community about her cultural heritage (she is Filipina). When she lost, she was crushed, she says. Yet she insists that she “grew along the way” and now is more committed to public service, with a job in the office of the mayor of Honolulu.
Why endure such indignities? Some point to a long-held idea that they could contribute to their communities, while others come to it almost haphazardly; some note that the network they develop through political involvement can help them achieve other personal and professional goals. Sangisetty acknowledged during his campaign that he had been “pretty much apolitical” — he did not even vote in the 2008 presidential election — until, as a law clerk and lawyer, he had to deal with issues related to Hurricane Katrina. “I got a firsthand look at how Washington truly is broken,” he told a local newspaper. “That’s when I wanted to raise the level of debate and talk about the things that really matter to the people of south Louisiana.” Andrew Blumenfeld ’13, appalled by the lack of competition for a school board seat in the suburban Los Angeles district where he grew up, got into the race to make a point and ended up winning; he spent his senior year shuttling back and forth between coasts. Garrett Brown ’09 ran successfully for the city council in Albion, Mich. (pop. 8,500), after volunteering as a Census worker during the first summer after his graduation. Brown, whose family was part of the great migration of Southern blacks to Northern factory towns, found himself in “parts of town that I had driven by but never walked through,” he says. “I learned a little bit more about my town.”