It’s that time of year again. Yes, falling leaves, hay rides and fresh-pressed cider are staples of the autumn season, but I’m thinking instead about the sights and sounds that mark the weeks leading up to election day, especially in the even-numbered years when federal offices are being contested.
What does a successful election campaign look like? William McKinley ran a front porch campaign for president in 1896. His campaign manager traveled the country raising money, while McKinley remained on his front porch, with 700,000 people traveling to Canton to listen to his speeches. Imagine that!
When my Uncle Bill’s brother-in-law, Alfred Hausbeck, first ran for the New York State Assembly in 1960, his campaign was marked by strategically-placed billboards and lots of door-to-door visits — and no television ads. He depended heavily on yard signs, as Uncle Bill enlisted my dad (and me as his faithful companion) to plaster the streets of Buffalo with his name.
In 1948, Harry S. Truman traveled more than 31,000 miles, criss-crossing America, shaking over half a million hands, long before the invention of hand sanitizer. I wonder who was responsible for counting all those hands. Yet the self-described advertising junkie Paul Suggett notes what’s changed since Truman: "No candidate would ever put that kind of a commitment [Truman’s example] into the meet-and-greet when advertising can do a far more effective job."
Suggett’s conclusion is likely true on the national level, but here in Ashland County, and across Ohio’s 7th Congressional District, something is happening that makes me wonder if there is indeed a different way. The multi-dimensional campaign being carried out by Ken Harbaugh, candidate for Congress, rooted as it is on Harbaugh’s interactions with the people he hopes to serve, is attempting to answer that question. Yes, he’s on Facebook, sends out numerous emails and has now introduced television ads (one with footage from his storied participation in a demolition derby), but he and his team also have knocked on more than 40,000 doors and have made over 100,000 personal contacts.
As I’ve watched this congressional race unfold, I’ve wondered — in this day of entrenched political positions, can Harbaugh’s approach work? Making tough decisions at the start of his campaign, he was unwilling to take money from corporate-funded Political Action Committees (PAC). His campaign is self-described as "powered through individual donations, hard work and the belief that our country is worth fighting for." As a former Navy pilot and president of Team Rubicon Global, an organization that trains military veterans to aid in natural disasters, he’s tested that belief in the toughest of situations.
Harbaugh is running in an odd-shaped district, stretching from the shores of Lake Erie in Lorain County, through parts of Huron, Medina, Richland, Stark, and Tuscarawas counties, and encompassing all of Ashland, Coshocton, Holmes and Knox counties. How can a newcomer possibly cover all that ground? As the incumbent, Rep. Bob Gibbs has the advantage of name recognition and of prior service. In 2014, he didn’t even have an opponent from the other party. Even with those odds, Harbaugh has stepped up to take on the challenge.
I’m curious — is Suggett correct about election campaigns? Given the implications of fiercely-held red and blue political positions, shouldn’t a candidate focus on raising money and buying television and internet ads, as the experts suggest? Is a commitment to the "meet-and-greet," the time spent listening to the concerns of our neighbors across the district, wasted in today’s culture?
I’ve often asked, "Is anybody listening to the ordinary people?" I remember visiting Congressman Ralph Regula in his D.C. office in the late 1990s, chatting about his farm and his grandchildren, as well as legislative issues of impact to our Salvation Army clients. His willingness to engage in that dialogue reminds me why the person chosen by "we the people" to serve "we the people" in Congress is called a representative. These 535 people are the closest thing we have to a voice in Washington. Who is listening to us? That question seems like a good one to ask as we head to the voting booth this November.
JoAnn Shade, author of "Only in Ashland: Reflections of a Smitten Immigrant," can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.