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Experience January/February 2024

Political Campaign Lessons—A Play in Two Acts

Joe Weeg

Political Campaign Lessons—A Play in Two Acts

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The curtain raises. The Greek chorus appears center stage. The audience settles. The actors quietly look out over the crowd. After a quick in-drawn breath, the chorus sings as one about current politics and the upcoming election—of dishonesty, pettiness, name-calling, strife, fear, inertia. And then they pose to the audience THE QUESTION: “And now what do we do?”

ACT I: Humility and door knocking

The near south side of Des Moines, Iowa, isn’t the Colorado Rockies. But it does stretch away from the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, climbing up away from the flood plain into the safety of the hills. Folks in these neighborhoods are still neighborly—they know of each other’s comings and goings and pull together in the small chores of life.

And they’re well-informed about their community. And politically savvy.

Knock knock knock knock.

“Hello, my name is Joe Weeg, and I’m asking for your vote for John Sarcone as county attorney.”

“Who are you?” she says.

“I’m Joe Weeg, and I work for John Sarcone.”

“I’ve known Johnny a long time,” she smiles.

“He’s a great guy, isn’t he? So can he count on your vote on election day?”

“Well, I was a little bothered when I saw that he lost that murder case last week,” she says with a frown.

Let’s just take a pause. Can you picture being a local politician? I mean, who needs the pain? It was bad enough being an assistant county attorney for an elected county attorney. Yuck.

Just imagine: You’re some poor elected schmuck and you want to go to your fast-food store to get a slice of pizza late at night when you can’t sleep and have a headache that’s causing you to wonder whether it’s better to die of a brain tumor or a massive heart attack. And while you’re waiting for approval of your debit card, the clerk asks what you’re going to do about those darn high school kids littering the parking lot.

“I mean they’re throwing Slim Jim wrappers everywhere.”

And your headache is slightly worse, and you think one eye is starting to droop when the clerk informs you that your card has been declined. So you take your pizza with the promise to bring the money the next morning. Meanwhile, the clerk is on his phone posting that, if you can’t pay for your pizza, can you really be in charge of the community beautification committee?

And now you think that might actually be a coppery taste in your mouth instead of pizza sauce, and you stumble home not quite as ready as you’d like for a well-deserved, peaceful night of rest.

Let’s face it: We’re a nation of grumblers, and our favorite target is our elected officials. Especially those poor elected folks on city councils and school boards and boards of supervisors and all the miscellaneous boards that make a community work.

Usually these people have a day job, and they spend their weekends and nights running our towns, going to dreadful meetings, and donating time and money to just keep that one traffic light flashing.

So, duh, they’re the obvious targets for our mean-spirited grumbling.

“I was very disappointed to see that Johnnie lost that murder trial,” the older woman said to me on her doorstep.

The prosecutor’s office I worked for handled thousands of cases every year, from simple misdemeanors to Class A felonies. It was a large office for Iowa, with more than 100 employees doing multiple tasks. Sarcone even had a policy of training up young prosecutors to handle nearly any type of criminal case. Trust me, more than a dozen lawyers could have been the prosecutor on that murder case.

So of course it was me.

Do I admit it to this woman? Do I confirm my hidden insecurities—you know, the ones about being both a crappy trial lawyer and worried about adult acne? I mean, who needs this? Isn’t it enough that I’m climbing these hills at six in the evening after a day of work?

The Rules of Professional Responsibility say the duty of a prosecutor is to do justice, but they don’t say you have to fall on your sword when you’re knocking doors. And in any case, the guy was guilty. The crucial evidence was excluded at the last moment.

“See, it wasn’t my fault,” I said to my disbelieving mom when I was seven. Very successful defense both then and now.

Aargh! I refuse to ever knock on doors again! Yuck!

“But Joe, it’s how elections are won,” said Sarcone. My boss believed in the personal touch to winning an election and running his office. And a corollary to this rule was that it didn’t matter if a group hated you; showing up in person still counted. As a result, there was no event in our town he wasn’t willing to attend.

And if you happened to win an award, or do something good, or even die on his watch—he’d be the first to congratulate you, or the first to send you a note, or at the funeral home shaking your spouse’s hand saying you were a valued member of the community.

And door knocking, he swore, was how an election was won. Period.

And although Sarcone is now retired, he did win all eight of his elections. So there you go. Proof in the pudding.

With a bit more humility than what I started with, I explained to the questioning woman, “Ma’am, I was the one who lost the recent murder case. Please don’t let it reflect on my boss, who’s a good guy. I’m asking for your vote for Sarcone as county attorney.”

And she paused to look me over, smiled knowingly, and said she’ll vote for “Johnny, of course.” Humble pie eaten.

ACT II: Kindness and door knocking

This west section of our suburban town consists of 1980 frame houses, mostly ranch, built before the three-car garage became the moat that protects most modern homes from their neighbors and from aspiring door knockers. Of course it’s dark because it’s fall in Iowa.

And of course it’s cold and misting because the next evening you have to take the kids out to trick or treat in winter coats pulled tight over their bumble bee and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes. And of course you’re tired and grumpy but pretending unsuccessfully you’re not because it’s just your personality.

In other words, it’s perfect conditions for door knocking.

I’m checking off my list of addresses, knocking on doors, and trying to sell them on voting for my wife for school board—a thankless elected position.

Perhaps you’re thinking of running for school board yourself? Great. Let me give you a brief job description. You’ll devote evenings reviewing budgets, evenings reviewing staff evaluations, evenings reviewing building maintenance plans, evenings attending trainings, evenings handing out awards, evenings reviewing complaints by parents, evenings attending school events, and evenings reading stacks upon stacks of paperwork.

And here’s the coup de grâce—you’ll be hated.

Yup, the person who gets the least votes should be the one who has to do time on a school board. Perhaps the election should be run like musical chairs—you folks left standing are the new school board. Congratulations!

No matter. It was a hotly contested race that year. My wife, correctly identified as a progressive by the powers that be, was running against several of the opposite bent. And, by the way, this is way before book bans, history bans, self-identity bans, bathroom bans, and sports team gender bans. And way before there was any discussion of arming teachers with assault rifles. A different time, for sure.

But before my wife agreed to run for school board, she was very clear: “I will do no door knocking.” Hah!

So that leaves me, her poor sucker husband who vowed many years earlier “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, and for all required door-knocking, until death do us part.”

What was I thinking?

Her race for school board turned dirty fairly quickly. An anonymous flyer papered our town claiming my sneaky wife was going to RAISE PROPERTY TAXES (my goodness), and she was going to MERGE THE SCHOOL DISTRICT (heaven help us), and, finally, she was “FUNDED BY HIGH ROLLERS AND POLITICIANS” (I knew it!).

I confronted my wife with these accusations, but she refused to identify a single high roller. Hah. You know how slippery politicians can be. But there I was. Left with this messy campaign and always unsure whether I was knocking on the door of friend or foe.

So here I stood on the west side of our little suburb, late in the evening, cold and grumpy, knocking on door after door. Finally I decided to do one more address, then call it quits. This last home belonged to a politician who was a member of our county board of supervisors—and also not a member of my wife’s party. He was old and tough and smart. I dreaded knocking on his door.

Knock knock knock knock.

“Hi, I’m Joe Weeg, and I’m asking for your vote for my wife, Theresa Weeg, for school board.”

“Joe, come in. Of course I know who you are. Take your coat off. It’s late and cold. Let’s have a beer.”

And we sat around his fireplace, drank a beer, and spoke about life. Did he vote for my wife at the end of all this? Don’t know. Was he kind to me? Absolutely. And was that what counted?

You tell me.

The Greek chorus trundles back on stage. Again with one voice, they remind the audience of the political tragedy we read about every day ad nauseam, then they pause, and in a higher celestial octave, “But what about kindness and humility?” they sing. “Are they the answer?” The curtain closes. The crowd timidly claps. And the chorus quickly exits stage left so as to get a cherry-dipped ice cream cone while the ice cream store is still open.

The End