On Tuesday, May 15th, I will be voting in Pennsylvania’s primary election. The race that is gaining most of my attention is to determine which Democrats will be nominated in the York County Commissioner’s race. Doug Kilgore, Doug Hoke, and Ned Grove are all running for the slot. Two of them will be nominated.
While trying to decide which two candidates I will vote for, I have, obviously, spent time considering their views on County issues, their experience, and how well I feel that they would represent York County. I also, however, am taking time to consider how much hope each candidate would inspire in me if he were a general election candidate.
Hope is an important thing to have when you’re a Democrat in a Republican county. And, providing hope isn’t just the job of presidential candidates like Barack Obama. Indeed, it can – and must – be done just as well, if not better, by local candidates, at the local level.
I live in a heavily Republican area. My congressional district has not elected a Democrat since 1964. Lynn Swann and Rick Santorum both won York County, even as they lost decisively statewide. Every countywide elected position – save for Commissioner Doug Kilgore’s lone seat on the York County Commission – is held by a Republican.
In short, I am painfully aware of the fact that, the day after the 2007 elections, I will most likely be very unhappy about the York County results. That’s the way it has been every year since I became involved in politics. And, following year after year of defeat, you can start to feel more than a little depressed. Sometimes, the worst part of my year is those weeks following the election, when I have to confront the fact that all of my dreams have smashed headfirst into the brick wall of reality.
But, the thing is, no matter how often my dreams are dashed, no matter how often I see good candidates, who’d make great elected officials, go down in flames, I always seem to find myself capable of dreaming again. After a few months have gone by, after I’ve had a chance to rest, and think, and reconcile myself with what happened last November, I always find myself once again willing to hope. I find myself returning to the thought that Democrats have won in heavily Republican areas before. I find myself returning to the idea that maybe, just maybe, it’ll happen in York County this year.
Keeping that hope alive is important. It’s what keeps me going door to door in every election. It’s what drives my impulse to stay up to date on politics. It’s what keeps me from getting discouraged and quitting after a bad day of phone banking, after a day of insults and taunts by local Republicans, after a day of slanted coverage by the local media.
Hope, however, is not something that can always arise naturally. It can be easy for those who are new to politics to become discouraged the first time they see a local candidate, who they worked so hard for, lose with only 30% of the vote. And, no matter how capable we are of overcoming the depression of "yet another bad election," even the most hardened of us can feel the impact of past defeats building up, to the point where, sometimes, we just can’t seem to take it anymore.
This is when local politics becomes all the more important. This is when you need a candidate at the local level who can inspire, who drive you back into politics, who can make you feel hope again.
I say that you need a candidate at the local level not to diminish attempts by national Democratic figures such as Barack Obama or John Edwards, but, rather, because it is the local candidates who go door to door in your neighborhood, who shake hands at your local fairs, and who speak at your local Democratic Party dinners, who are in the best position to do this. Most of us who live outside of early primary states will not get very many opportunities – if any at all – to see a Democratic presidential candidate speak in person. We will likely have no chance at all to shake hands with that candidate, or sit down with them and have a discussion on politics, the Democratic Party, and why it’s important to stay involved.
Local candidates, however, are in exactly that position. And, they can make you feel hope, even when they lose an election. Which is why Howard Dean, and his 50 state plan, and the idea of challenging every Republican, in every district, are all the more important. Especially for those of us who live in "red" areas.
When I think of local candidates who made me feel hope, Phil Avillo, the 2006 Democratic congressional candidate in my area, immediately springs to mind. Avillo was the first Democrat to run in Pennsylvania’s 19th congressional district since 2000.
On Election Day, Dr. Avillo received only about 33% of the vote. And, yes, that was depressing. But, in the greater scheme of things, I no longer think that matters. Because, Phil Avillo did something more important. He went out, and he conveyed the Democratic message to the general public. He attended party dinners, and gave "hell raiser" speeches to the activists. That he lost, ultimately, doesn’t matter because even by losing, he gave us so much... For the first time, we felt like our Congressman was being held accountable. For the first time, we had someone talking to us at the local level, someone who shared our feelings about the Iraq War, and about the way this country has been governed. For the first time, it felt good to be a Democrat in York County again, no matter how much, in the back of your mind, you knew we were probably going to lose locally.
Those feelings – that hope that Phil made all of us feel – stayed with me, long after his loss in 2006. Remembering how I felt has helped me to get over the mess that is local politics, and commit myself to working for change in 2007. Those feelings continue to remind me why it is that I’m a Democrat, why I’m going to continue being a Democrat, and why, as long as I’m here, I want to work to elect Democrats in York County.
Challenging every Republican, everywhere, is not just important in congressional races, though. There are Republicans who deserve to be challenged at even more local levels. And, in those local races, Democratic candidates – especially if you’re willing to work for them, and to get to know them, and their message – are just as capable of inspiring.
Bill Panebaker, a local forklift operator, ran inspiring, "bread and butter" campaigns for State Representative in 2006, and in 2002. Jack Sommer, one of the first local candidates I ever worked for when he ran for County Commissioner in 2003, was a constant reminder of the competence in government that I – and other Democrats – consistently seek. Commissioner Kilgore, with his increased knowledge of county affairs, and his open advocacy of promoting the Democratic viewpoint in York County, seems more and more like someone whom can inspire hope in me.
I admit that, following the local elections this year, I will probably feel depressed again. But, in the meantime, I want candidates who can make me feel hope, who can make remember why I’m involved with politics, who can make me fall in love with the Democratic Party all over again.
Some of that can happen in the presidential race. And, as I have said before, I do believe that we need a Democratic president who can inspire, and who can put together a coherent, national narrative on what it means to be liberal, and what it means to be a Democrat.
At the end of the day, however, it’s your local candidates – your friends, your neighbors, your relatives, who open themselves up to you by running for office – who are in the best position to inspire local party activists.
Which local candidates are inspiring you this year?