The Democratic View: Why we do this

Some have long resisted the messiness of politics but now realize that politics, for better or worse, is us.
– Kathy Zahler

I’ve been doing this politics thing for half a century, ever since my mother hauled me downtown to stuff envelopes for a guy who was running as the antiwar candidate for U.S. Senator. He lost, by the way. The first guy I voted for as President won, which was heady, although he hadn’t been my top choice in the primary. But that triumph didn’t last, and I’ve lost at least as often as I’ve won, from federal elections on down.

People have asked me, “Why do you do this?” as though working to elect candidates were something like my husband’s lifetime support of the hapless Cleveland Browns. Yes, there’s disappointment. Even some of the winners end up disappointing me. It’s not about the win-loss ratio. Not for me, anyway.
As a Democrat, I believe in our government as a means for us Americans to do those big, important things that we cannot do individually. When I started out, my support of candidates was all about antiwar fervor. There were no sidelines in that battle; there was no apathy possible. For the past 25 years, my issue has been equity, whether that meant civil rights, closing the wage gap, or fair funding for small rural schools. Fairness and equity seem to be, with a few local exceptions, Democratic concerns.

There are perks to getting involved. For one thing, I don’t view my elected representatives as anything other than people. I can pick up the phone and ask a county legislator to fix the potholes on my county road. I can email the DA with a legal question or buttonhole my assembly member to ask about school funding streams. This isn’t because they feel that they owe me anything; I have no qualms about calling my Republican representatives, either. I’ve met them, and I know that Democrat or Republican, they all work for me. Government by the people becomes real when you see it close-up, when you have helped to recruit the candidates, or had coffee with them to plan a campaign, or quizzed them in person about their ideas and ideals.

It’s also nice to be able to dip in and out of local politics and to have some sense of where I live and what’s going on. I don’t need to attend all the meetings or know the intricacies of every municipality’s laws to understand the basics of local issues involving bridges or solar panels or the opiate crisis. I don’t have to be a politician to talk to politicians.

In 2018, which already feels like the longest election year in my lifetime, I’ve met hundreds of people for whom “this politics thing” is brand-new. Their reasons for getting involved are much like my original reasons—it’s a time when there are no sidelines and the issues are fraught. Some are as young as I was when I first voted. Some have voted regularly for decades but never considered that their civic duty might possibly be broader than a voting booth and more time-consuming than a few minutes in line. Some have long resisted the messiness of politics but now realize that politics, for better or worse, is us.
“Why do you do it when the odds are stacked against your candidate, when the numbers are bad, or the district is gerrymandered, or the polls say you’ll lose, or the timing is wrong?” Well, I have had my share of wins with bad numbers, gerrymandered districts, skewed polls, and unlikely timing. Just as “any given Sunday,” the Browns might manage to pull it out, “any given Tuesday,” the electorate might surprise me. I never thought Obama would win the primary in 2008. I was shocked when we achieved a majority on the Dryden Town Board. I’ve seen a school district budget go down with a perfectly tied vote. You just never know. It’s always a crapshoot, and it’s always electrifying, and what matters is who shows up.

Some people think I do this for a living. I don’t. I have a real job and a real life, and politics is, for me, an unpaid avocation. I want to find and elect candidates who believe in affordable education, collective bargaining rights, net neutrality, universal health care, and environmental regulation, candidates who will fight climate change, corruption, and the rise of fascism. It’s not a bad hobby. Consider joining me by connecting through our website.

If you are reading this before or on Nov. 6, please make a plan to vote. Find your polling place here:
If you are reading this after Nov. 6, how did my team do?
Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. See the committee website at


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