The importance of local campaigns: making ideas into a reality

Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 2:22pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

I am an idealist who is obsessed with reality. I understand that this statement makes no sense. Let me elaborate. Ever since I was little, I’ve been intensely concerned with fairness. Maybe it’s because I’m a Libra (if you’re into that sort of thing), but every rule imposed upon me was met with a defiant “that’s not fair.” When I got a Nintendo DS at age 10 and my brother got one that same year at age 8, I could not wrap my head around what I perceived to be complete inequality. I was also that annoying friend who reminded everyone about the clear, gaping flaws in every proposed social plan. As much as I, too, wanted to go to a concert unsupervised in NYC, I was quick to point out that the likelihood of any parent allowing a group of 15-year-olds to return home on the Metro North past 12 a.m. was slim to none. These facets of my personality have always conflicted. 

My concern over values and principles coupled with my pragmatic nature have oddly enough led me to love politics. I have a deep appreciation for candidates’ expressed principles. Many people are disillusioned by how messy and sometimes corrupt politics can be, and I understand that. Still, I am inspired most by passionate, caring politicians who have a set of ideals they strive towards. These ideals are then grounded in policy and then, action: real, tangible changes. The ability to transform lofty beliefs into concrete laws that affect peoples’ lives continues to draw me to this field. While the goal of politics is often clouded by theatrics, its true purpose is founded on standing up for what’s right and giving a voice to the unheard. 

Before COVID-19 took over our lives, I began researching local campaigns to work on over the summer. With the assistance of my best friend’s mom, I contacted Mimi Rocah’s campaign. Rocah was a first-time politician running for Westchester County District Attorney in a primary race against the Democratic incumbent. Her values aligned with mine, and she also outlined detailed plans on her website as to how she planned to carry out these ideals. Idealistic yet practical. My kind of candidate. A couple proposed policies immediately stood out to me. She described an intent to create a “Restorative Justice Approach” to the DA’s office. “We must seek alternatives to the punitive approach that has led to mass incarceration, high rates of recidivism, and a vicious cycle for offenders with no way out,” Rocah’s website states. Rocah also rolled out a detailed four-point plan to address gun violence, as well as a thorough commitment to improving resources and training regarding prosecution of sex crimes. Her progressive policies pinned hopes on a more socially just future, yet they were still realistically achievable. This dichotomy spoke to me.  

The opportunity alone to intern on a campaign was rooted in privilege. I had a connection to get me in contact with the campaign and did not need to earn money this summer. My parents were happy to support my passion and let me explore my options. I am a white girl who attends an elite university and lives in an affluent suburb; I am deeply aware of how these aspects of my life made this experience possible. 

Once quarantine began, it became clear that I would not be able to take part in the campaign office culture that I had been looking forward to. Still, the beginning brought about the typical excitement of starting a new job. Waking up early for my first Zoom meeting, I nervously raked through my closet trying to decipher the unclear dress code associated with a virtual internship (turns out a sweatshirt will suffice). Many aspects of the internship complimented my initial intrigue with the world of politics. The most memorable part was a Zoom fundraiser I was able to attend in which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed Rocah. Being able to hear from a politician I respect and admire reinforced my desire to pursue this field. The experience was unique and unparalleled. 

Let’s be real, though. Being an intern sucks, especially during the pandemic. Don't get me wrong, I value how fortunate I am to have had this opportunity. I went into the experience with the intention of learning as much as I could and attempting to determine if I really wanted to continue pursuing a career in this field. With quarantine making it impossible to go into the campaign office, my experience was hindered in many unexpected ways. The anticipated office environment was nearly impossible to achieve over Zoom, and the schedule was constantly changing with little notice. I worked on some typical intern tasks like inputting data and coordinating lawn sign deliveries, but the most consistent part of my day was phone banking. I worked the phones from 5:00 to 7:30 every night. I must admit, this was not my thing. I’m just bad at talking on the phone. I can barely remember to text people back, as I often read texts and then sorta answer in my head but don’t actually respond. As you can imagine, my ability to talk on the phone is especially poor. 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. was particularly bad as people were always eating dinner and would make sure to point out how rude it was for me to call during dinner, as if I was making a concerted effort to ruin their evening. Despite my passionate support for the candidate, just anticipating the constant rejection made me anxious throughout the entire day. 

After a month of nightly rejection, I was over it. At 5 p.m. every day I would rack my brain for excuses not to phone bank (Tuesday night Michigan Daily meetings always came in clutch). The reality of working on a campaign was not what I had anticipated, and COVID-19 only exacerbated my disdain. 

And then, I began to see headlines about how George Floyd was murdered at the hands of the Minneapolis city police. I first saw the video of Floyd’s death on Twitter and amidst my grief and horror, I was taken back to a similar video from 2014: Eric Garner’s death. They couldn’t breathe. Nothing had changed. Unfortunately, it often takes devastating events like this one to put things into perspective. 

In the days that followed, social media became an indispensable resource to get information about protests and updates. As I constantly refreshed my Instagram feed, I would see more and more threads explaining ways to educate yourself about Black history, police brutality and how to help and contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. I recognized how imperative these educational posts were and the importance of voicing support as not only an ally, but also as someone committed to anti-racism. Still, I wasn't sure how my own voice fit into the equation. It’s one thing to repost information, but it’s another to prove the ways in which you intend to be an active participant in a movement. 

A new photo then began to circulate. Former President Barack Obama had written out his own thoughts on the movement and posted them onto his Instagram account. One slide in particular struck me: 

“It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are elected positions … Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes,” he said.   

Who am I to deny Obama? But really, his words made me take a step back and reassess my dreaded internship. The helplessness I felt every time I checked Instagram was replaced by a determination to engage with voters with renewed passion. Instead of dejectedly hanging up everytime a voter told me they didn’t care about the primary, I began to speak up and explain to them why they should care. Obama said it best, but most people don’t give a shit about local politics. They’re not glamorous or incredibly controversial, but local races are the embodiment of reality, of immediate and tangible change in our communities. These officials are the people who create and enforce laws that will actually impact you and others, whether you like it or not. It is a district attorney who decided to charge Derek Chauvin for pinning George Floyd down for eight minutes and 46 seconds until he could no longer breathe. It is also a district attorney who has yet to charge the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor eight times while she was asleep in her bed. 

These local elections may seem minorly consequential. Afterall, Rocah was facing another Democrat, fighting for a seat in which no Republican would realistically win. According to Lohud, “Republicans are outnumbered more than 2-to-1 (in Westchester County.) The last time a Republican won a countywide race in the county was in 2013.” Still, Rocah’s opponent was endorsed by the Conservative Party in 2016, and was recently accused of ignoring accusations of police misconduct. She wasn’t flipping a seat, but varying positions on issues like this are highly impactful. 

This race was occurring in Westchester County, N.Y., which is a fairly diverse county. Throughout my internship, my boss would mention different towns or cities within Westchester County and the specific issues associated with each. I am directionally challenged and did not grow up in this area, so the town names getting thrown around meant nearly nothing to me. In between Zoom meetings, I began researching Westchester County’s demographics to get a better sense of what was going on. I found out that 63 percent of the county is white, 15 percent is Black, 12 percent is Hispanic and 6 percent is Asian. My town, however, is around 1 percent Black. I live less than 15 minutes aways from towns like Mount Vernon, where 67 percent of the population is Black. Yes. Those numbers should upset you. There are structural, systemic reasons as to why Westchester’s makeup looks like that. What should also upset you is that these allegations of police misconduct that were never fully investigated occurred in Mount Vernon, not my overwhelmingly white town. 

In Westchester County, African Americans make up 14 percent of the overall population, but 59 percent of those sentenced to prison. This is not an issue somewhere else. It is an issue in my hometown, county and state. Chances are it’s happening by you too. I urge you to look up this statistic in your area and can almost guarantee that you will be disappointed that the place you call home directly contributes to systemic racism and mass incarceration. 

Had I not interned on this campaign, I would have never known these statistics. I think of Westchester as a Blue area, somewhere where police misconduct would never occur, let alone be swept under the rug. If you had told me that there are tapes recorded 15 minutes away from me in which a detective allegedly “would make racist statements, physically abuse black suspects, pocket money found during vehicles searches and conspire with certain informants to let them deal drugs to boost the narcotic unit's arrest numbers,” I probably would not have believed you. If I gained nothing from this internship but phone skills, I would have been disappointed. However, I also got an invaluable wake up call. Racism invades every area of this country, even the most fiercely liberal. It is nobody's fault but my own that I was unaware of these issues. It is our responsibility to acknowledge the racism in our own areas and to combat it in any way that we can. 

I am not trying to convince you to vote for Mimi Rocah (spoiler alert: she won the Democratic nomination), but I am trying to convince you to care about local politics, as these races can make tangible differences that can lead to much-needed societal change. In many places, mayors are the leaders in the fight against climate change, school boards decide on how your tax dollars get spent to fund education and local prosecutors have a huge say in who goes to prison and who does not. As important as it may be to vote in national elections (and get Trump out of office), local elections often have a greater impact on issues that directly affect us. 

Protests stir emotion and call attention to the systemic inequality that many of us have subconsciously contributed to through microaggressions, ignorance and flat-out racism, but elections are a test of where our values really lie. These loud cries are reaching politicians, as many have begun speaking out about their intentions to correct hundreds of years of inequality, but then it is up to that official to transform those ideals into a reality. For example, Rocah introduced policies of her own following George Floyd’s death, which include independent investigations of police-involved fatalities, zero tolerance of police brutality, alternative first-responder programs and better de-escalation training for police, just to name a few. Every local election has a critical impact on how our communities function and prioritize change. 

My internship was a drop in the bucket. In exploring my passion, I was able to persuade some people to vote for Rocah and was increasingly able to do so as she rolled out policies regarding police brutality, but there are so many other impactful races out there. And progress is being made. According to Time Magazine, “the progressive non-profit Rock The Vote registered 150,000 new voters in the first two weeks of June, the highest tally of any two-week period in the 2020 election cycle.” Our mindset as a country needs to change, and that can start by engaging in democracy. 

Working on this campaign was a realistic way to achieve an idealistic change. I began my summer selfishly trying to figure out a possible career path, but I now see the impacts local offices can have on our lives and the criminal justice system as a whole. Voting is a good first step, but we must also be aware of the issues in our own areas. In case you didn’t catch on yet, the bottom line is this: Vote, but do your research before you head to the polls. Do not turn a blind eye to the inequalities occurring in your own neighborhood. Vote for politicians who both agree that there are problems, but also have concrete solutions to these problems. It is just as important to then hold these elected officials accountable. As much as their ideas speak to your own set of values, it means nothing if they don’t do the work to make their ideas into a reality. Election Day is four months away. Start researching now.