As November nears and elections creep closer, political candidates are crawling out onto the campaign trail and meeting with potential voters in hopes of securing legislative positions this Fall. In New York City, politicians are speaking in schools, public centers, and at popular events to advertise their name. In the suburbs surrounding New York City, these politicians are most visible in busy public spaces, particularly at train stations. Before this year, I was never so aware of this sudden sprouting of campaign madness as I am now. Every morning, without fail, I receive a handful of flyers advertising candidates running for legislative and judicial government positions on the local and state levels. Every evening, the seats on the MetroNorth train are littered with these same flyers, forgotten by the passengers who never really wanted them from the get-go.
It’s a stark contrast to the political atmosphere I remember at Cornell University. At Cornell, politics are not absent from student conversations, but they typically focus on national and internal affairs. In addition, while national or state politicians sometimes speak at lectures on campus, my impression of these politicans generally came from what I saw of them in newspapers, magazines, and on the internet. Of course, other students’ opinions also shaped my perceptions of political figures, too. However, I don’t remember being especially concerned with local politics. I can name the current mayor of Ithaca, but only because he was a Cornell student not too long ago and everyone was excited about his connection to our campus.
My obliviousness to Ithaca’s local political scene may not be representative of the experiences most other Cornell students had, but it’s still an interesting change. I wonder why I didn’t feel more of that presence from local politicians campaigning before elections when I was as Ithaca like how I now feel the (almost intruding) presence of local politicians closer to New York City. Is that type of canvassing simply not a popular campaign tool up there? Or was I divorced from the local political scene because I was absorbed entirely by the events of the Cornell community? Or was that local politicians assumed that their time would be better spent pitching their ideas to townies (residents of Ithaca), who were more likely than I to show up to the voting booth on election day?
In any case, I’m unsure of what affect it would have had on my experience at Cornell if more local politicians came to campus and made a concerted effort of campaigning to students. I’m sure it would draw the ire of many students, much the dismay of the politicians themselves. Quarter-carders–students who distribute flyers for on-campus events in public spaces like Ho Plaza–already get a bad rep, and students running for student council positions are usually given the cold shoulder. Again, it would not surprise me if one explanation for why I didn’t see more local representatives at Cornell was that they knew most students don’t have the time to bother listening.
However, the other day, I passed by two middle-aged women who were handing out flyers to every commuter walking into the MetroNorth White Plains station. One was running for an open county council position; the other was running for Senate. I took their flyers, went upstairs to the train track, and learned that my train was running 10 minutes late. Suddenly, I got the idea to go back downstairs and ask the women about how they got to where they are now. Specifically, I wanted to now how they started out in politics. How does one even begin a career in that area? When does one even come to the point where “I want to be a politician” is a viable career dream?
And I did. For roughly ten minutes, I talked to one of those women and she told me about how she began her career in public service. She drew a lot of her support from organizations and communities she joined in college, and she pointed out that the other volunteers who were handing out her flyers that day were either from her church, her current workplace, or her old sorority. She didn’t know it then, but her activities at school and after school were helping her build the contacts and coalition she needed to pursue a political position.
So sometimes having the politicians come to you isn’t so burdensome or annoying. When you have the time, it can be nice to talk with them and have them answer some of your questions. Even ignoring their political ambitions and history, they are still people with unique experiences and perspectives on our communities. Talking with that women answered a question I was very curious about and also simultaneously reinforced the value of activities I am currently pursuing while in university. I may not vote for her, and I may not pursue politics as a career, but I learned something today that I didn’t know before and I learned it because that woman took the time out of her day to be available during mine.
That should be worth a minute or two on the way to class, don’t you think?