Campaigning in small town America

As the American mid-term elections come to pass, every second advertisement in Maryland seems to be attacking Republican Larry Hogan or Democratic Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown. I was more interested in down-ticket campaigns and candidates, so I went to an NAACP-sponsored candidates forum in the town of Havre de Grace.

I walk into the African Methodist Episcopal Church. An unreasonably dapper man in a bow tie extends a hand, smiling- “Are you a candidate?” I glance down at my jeans, converse and frankly shabby t-shirt, and I immediately revise my expectations of the of the standard of candidate downwards. “No no, just an observer (without a vote, I neglect to add). I amble past tables of election literature, and notice that from these flyers, you would be utterly unable to discern what party any candidate was a member of. In fact, if you walked into the hall without any prior knowledge, you might reasonably assume these people were supporting two candidates, one called ‘Main Street’ running against the equally popular ‘Small Business’.

Ten minutes before the first panel is due to begin, I take my seat in the most comfortable church pew ever made. I look around, and I am the 4th person in the room. Judging by the amount of election pamphlets in the other room, candidates are going to comfortably outnumber voters, and I start to wrack my brain for the suitable bowling alone comments. By 6.30, however, there is a respectable, bordering on large crowd, and the NAACP chapter president opens procedings. The Pastor leads the room in prayer. I quickly stifle my knee-jerk First Amendment indignance; I am, after all, sitting in a church pew, surrounded by hymnals. There’s a time a place for the high horse, and I suspect this isn’t it. I look instead to the first panel, candidates for Sheriff, the Council, and County Executive. It could be a national piety contest. A row of furrowed brows, clasped hands, and eyes closed in fierce concentration on the pastors voice. As we move from the prayer to Pledge of Allegiance, there is a just barely dignified scramble as chairs are pushed back the flag is faced. No candidate wants to be seen as the last to press their hand over their heart. It would appear that Harford county residents have to make their electoral choices from a pool of the most devout, patriotic citizens in the entire country.

The event itself is nondescript, which in itself is perhaps a testament to the pull of the NAACP. Even with a hour for each panel, the sheer volume of candidates means that beyond a simple two minute stump speech, there is no real time for questions, certainly not for follow-up. The platitudes are as anodyne as they are predictable, and although some candidates mention their party affiliation, it remains difficult to tell Democrats and Republicans apart. In the introduction, the merits of a well informed electorate was touted, but it seemed to me that this forum did very little to inform the audience, save to put into stark relief the lack of real choice available. The only moments that deviated from orthodoxy came from fringe candidates, greens and libertarians. No coherent left (or indeed right) wing position was laid out. There is some token resistance to NSA programs, but the largest round of applause comes from a stout defence of the right to snoop on ill-defined ‘terrorists’. Everyone is against taxes, for job creators, and abhors ‘partisan politics’. Indeed, one of the most common refrains is “I’m not a politician”. Really? Because you’re sitting at a candidates forum, asking people to vote for you to hold elective office. Seems… political to me.

The forum ends with the school board panel. I submit a question- Do you believe in evolution, yes or no?- but it isn’t asked. Instead, a question about getting greater church involvement in schools is asked, and again, the candidates line up to display their love and commitment to erasing the barrier between church and state. Not one suggests that perhaps it’s inappropriate. A final prayer rounds out the evening, and I leave, wondering who a left wing atheist could possibly vote for. I’m still wondering.

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