Campaign Crawlers

One Local Election Night

American democracy at work, even in a losing cause.

By 4.8.05

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I watched my friend Wendy Wakeman lose an election two weeks ago. Wendy, who was running for a second term on our town's Board of Selectmen, and who had chaired the Board for much of that time, had invited me and my ten-year-old son Bud and a host of family and friends and supporters to her house on Tuesday night to greet the returns. Wakeman family and pals brought a fine selection of cookies and cakes and other goodies for the buffet table. As at most such gatherings, I felt small -- the Wakeman circle could readily patronize a chain of big 'n' tall shops. And I felt especially small as we all pressed toward the low-ceilinged New England kitchen, where the wall phone hung, and where tall husband Brad with his Mr. Peepers glasses waited anxiously, thumbing his Blackberry.

One of Wendy's most devoted campaigners, who I think of as Big Dan, had lined out the local statistics for me. Out of 33,000 citizens, North Andover has about 17,000 registered voters. An ordinary election, with no tax question on the ballot, might draw as few as three or four thousand voters. This year, we had a yes/no question to override state Proposition 2 1/2, a tax limit, and to use the special levy to build a new police station. Dan expected that as many as 6,000 people might vote.

The phone finally rang. Brad answered.

"It's Licciardello-Xenakis," he said first, announcing the news that Wendy had lost a five-way run for two seats. "The police station goes down. School committee is Pybus-Kelly."

Wendy spoke graciously from the kitchen, thanking everyone for their support and recalling the good work she had done. I could see over and around the big shoulders and backs in front of me in the tight little room. Wendy's face was red. Some time later she would need a good cry. You don't work that hard and care that much without it hurting when you lose.

A MONTH BEFORE THE ELECTION, a sign campaign blossomed all over town: "Licciardello: Respectful Leadership." The signs blanketed the main roads, and, most tellingly, the central housing district where Brad and Wendy live. It was a smarmy cut, and an effective one, the more effective for being so vague.

Wendy, tough-minded and blunt-spoken as she is, felt it. She let loose a blast at a private gathering (humorously), "You're not the one who has to live with signs all over town saying, 'Wendy Wakeman is an asshole.'"

I reviewed the campaign in an interview with Wendy a week later. She minimized the effect of the signs. I'm not so sure. Tactically, however, it has to be acknowledged that the signs illustrated a truism of politics: If you don't answer an effective attack, you lose.

The "respectful" innuendo traces back to one of our local controversies, one I described in my column "Naked Politics Is Local, Too." A local family of business owners, the Thomsons, proposed to build a high-tech recycling plant on land they owned at the north end of town, a parcel zoned for industrial and "adult" use (you'll see). The local NIMBYs, as Wendy calls them ("I refuse to call them environmentalists"), howled that they didn't want any more smoke and pollutants in the area (never mind that the plant would be smoke and emission free), and brought pressure through the town's zoning board to refuse a permit for the plant to the Thomsons.

The Thomsons, irked, responded that they would simply build New England's biggest strip club, instead, which of course irked many other residents.

Wendy, first as a selectman, then as chairman of the board, negotiated the increasingly hostile conflict between local interests. She helped hire a national counsel on adult entertainment interests to elucidate the town's rights as against the Thomsons'. She hammered out what is called a "host community agreement" with the Thomsons, where they agreed, in exchange for stringent controls over the trash transfer plant, to pick up the town's entire recycling bill.

There's more, but it's been nearly endless, and has gone on for years. The environmentalist faction would not give up.

"It became much more like the Jerry Springer show than local government," Wendy said. "I'd sit from seven till midnight listening to same people over and over again.

"It became clear this was going nowhere. We were doing a disservice by allowing these 25 or 30 people to hijack our meetings. I clamped down on the rules. With my experience in the Congress and the legislature [note: solid and vast], I thought it was amazing that people were allowed to behave this way at all."

Tom Licciardello, Wendy explained, "was one of the people who stood up at meetings and spoke out of turn. I did ask him several times, very respectfully and very nicely, either to address the matter at hand or sit down. He didn't just refuse, he didn't pay any attention at all. I had to gavel him down. That's what he saw as disrespectful leadership."

Wendy, as I say, disputes that the sign campaign beat her. She noted that Licciardello had outspent her two-to-one, and had used some effective poll-monitoring and telephone techniques. In my view, the signs echoed the national "booga-booga" trope invoked with nearly every mention of names like Nixon, Gingrich, and DeLay. It nearly always seems to work.

There were other issues, of course, primarily money, going back beyond this year's proposed tax override to one three years ago that Wendy had helped campaign to defeat. Nonetheless, the next morning, there grinned Tom Licciardello from the front page of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, with his ten thousand dollar teeth and flossy white senatorial hair, the very image of a Massachusetts process liberal. And the headline read, "Wakeman Out."

I asked Wendy about the emotions she felt when she gave her concession talk in her tight-ceilinged little kitchen.

They were mixed, she said. It was tough, but "I certainly knew that Licciardello was probably in a position to win. I was surprised, I was disappointed. At the same time there was a certain relief at being rid of the constant battle."

There are good things in store, too. Husband Brad's job has developed into a globetrotter, and Wendy and home-schooled daughter Millicent can go along. They were off for Amsterdam the day after our interview.

IT WAS STILL COLD AND WET in New England as Bud and I drove home that election night.

"So what's going to be different in North Andover?" Bud asked.

"Probably not a lot," I said. "The voters turned down the tax override, so the money isn't there to spend. More people will get to talk about more environmental stuff at selectman meetings. We may end up with a strip club. Licciardello and the rest of the board are still going to have to negotiate lots of things."

"So it won't be too bad?"

"Oh, no, not at all."

And it won't be. Democracy worked, one more time, down at the level where it has always worked best in America. Different from national elections, we did not know how it was going to come out. No polls or pundits told us, and, even moments before the vote count, the most experienced local pols could only tell us, "I don't know." And that's a good thing, too.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.