Friday, May 21, 2010

On the Campain Trail — Now about that fear and loathing

More than seven years ago, a young newspaper reporter green and a fresh graduate of a reputable J-school penned a column that ran in the Chronicle Tribune, Marion, Ind. with the headline, "We should all fullfill our civic duty to keep politicians in line."

After the column had published I recall a conversation with my bulldog of an executive editor, lambasting me for what I had wrote. She warned that I hadn't earned the authority to make such aggressive statements about my disdain for politics and politicians, especially coming from someone relatively new to the community. (Good luck to anyone who can find that column, it ran a little more than a month ahead of a primary election).

Fast forward seven years and I find myself on the other side of the politics game — and that-it-is; a game! There is a strange juxtaposition when you jump from in front of, to behind the printed political story. But the words I shared with the community of Grant County, Ind. comes full circle to my current work as a field organizer for Das Williams' campaign for California State Assembly, District 35, which spans slightly north of Santa Barbara, down to include most of Oxnard.

I feel different than most of these politicos. Much of the time I feel like the lone strait, right handed cat in the room wearing his watch on the right wrist. Or maybe I'm just the only cat in the room who would pay attention to such detail.

But now, I have become a part of the very political machine from which I have previously felt disenfranchised, have scrutinized and bemoaned. I went from being that unemployed guy, to working on my first campaign, like I hopped into the cockpit of Bugatti Veyron. Although, much less glamorous. Twelve hour days are a welcome delight. It doesn't exactly feel like work always, but I've got plenty of work to do.

In my past, I have covered plenty of elections, from small town politics and school board races to pieces of the historic 2008 Presidential election. The latter, from THE battle ground state of Ohio. Then, I was working as the education reporter at the Toledo Blade. One day, on that campaign trail, my assignment was to follow and cover the rallies of Sarah Palin as she traveled the state, from Canton to Columbus. I contributed on the scene add-ins to the overall coverage. Sidebar: Those Secret Service guys are alright, but they are on their job. I guess game recognize game though.

Let it be known, covering an election and working for a campaign are like comparing a one night stand to a summer fling that has the potential to turn into something longer term.

I was ignited in part by that need-to-know associated with being a newspaper man. The rest of the fire came out of the annoyance of having to quietly sit in the stands and simply report what I saw leading up to and through the announcement that Barack Obama was going to be our 44th President. So I jumped at the chance to put my skills to use for a progressive, smart and upcoming young man with a background as a community organizer and university instructor. Additionally, Das has a strong endorsement from a highly respected friend. Then, when my skeptical gauge realized the genuineness of Das, I know his intentions and actions are in the right place and he isn't going to be one of the "many or multiple" "small blood-sucking insects" I wrote of in March 2003.

"Political influence is a chance to utilize the power that citizens create for you to change not only yourself, but also the community you represent."

I feel like Das Williams really gets that and it's something he has been doing through his grassroots campaign for State Assembly. House to house, neighbor to neighbor, the past few months have flown by. The countdown is now fewer than 20 days until the June 8th Primary. The day 69 count seemed like it was just last week — but that's also when my written words got the 7-year itch.

To date, this campaign trail is riddled with good times, inspiring young minds, plenty of talking, occasionally some gawking; takes lots of cojones and can be cold and lonely, much time spent on the phone, many "I'll vote for, but volunteer ... no." Networking and meeting all new people, the campaign trail pushed me back through the churches steeple.

"Decisions should reflect Kingdom values and not abandon the basic tenants of our faith," Das said to the congregation.

My man. It was the most in-his-element I had seen the candidate. Though my bet is that he'd be even more comfortable once he's elected and can directly effect change. But the road to that aim is paved with slung mud and lined with tactics and distortions. Just more of what had previously kept me out of the process.

"Politics is a blood sport, people need not forget it," the Derby Jedi reminded me early on the campaign trail.

"Axel grease wards off the theft of yard signs. Wipe it on a towel and smear it around the edges," the wise sibling suggested.

I'm just going to stay on the grind and stick to the winning plan. Have got to get on my game. Must I fall at the feet of my sugar mama again, this time in my three-decade-old birthday suit? The campaign trail made me do it!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Horses are Only Half the Hype; The Party Pretty Much Sums Up the Rest of the Kentucky Derby Experience

Dubbed "the greatest two minutes in sports," the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky., is a spectacle, a great American cultural event and my happy place for the past three years. (Past eight years now — seven appearances. I missed Derby 135 in 2009. That year the Derby glasses were black and gold and it wasn't one the better years in my near 30).

For me, it all started when a colleague from my previous job was always talking Derby this and Derby that. He grew up in the Louisville area and said it's a holiday for his family. I had no idea why. Horse racing was of little interest to me. Little did I know. After repeatedly declining, I finally accepted the offer to be his guest at my first Derby, the 129th running. I've been back every year since, thanks to the Derby Jedi. (Shout out to BCoo)

Sure, the horses are the catalyst for the excitement, but when local churches cancel 5:30 p.m. Mass on the First Saturday In May, it's got to be about more than the horses.

During the weeks leading up to the event, the city is aflutter.

The Kentucky Derby Festival shoves aside daily routines in the city of more than 256,000 with galas, festivals, marathons and fireworks. (Now 713,870 according to 2008 U.S. Census Bureau statistics)

The festive mood kicks up a notch the week of the big event. A few beers at lunch — normally a no-no — is somehow explainable. And in the spirit of a birthday wish, "Happy Derby," becomes a common greeting.

And as the week winds down, families start sending children and dogs to sitters. (Also known as "Derby Camp").

Finally it's Friday, the day before the Derby — Kentucky Oaks Day.

Horses run then, too, but the event is more of a shirt-and-tie affair. The fresh suits and the Southern belles' flowing sundresses generally don't show until Derby Day. (Although that has shifted in recent years as it has become a day of pink, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness).

Oaks Night fills the area with parties and final preparations for the most anticipated day of the year for the city.

As the sun rises on Derby Day, preparations for the flood of people at Churchill Downs is already under way: the food, the drinks, the souvenirs, the horses. When the crowd starts to flow in, some enjoy the thrill that has become an annual tradition: trying to sneak in alcohol. However, with the tight security restrictions few succeed.

For that brief moment of entry, the infield-bound people — clad in flip-flops and shorts — brush elbows with those headed to the elevated suites that hang next to the historic twin spires, a signature of Churchill Downs.

A Jay Z line comes to mind: "from Marcy to Madison Square." The thoughts of the hip-hop icon may have been more reflective of his social advance from New York's Marcy Projects to his "retirement extravaganza" at Madison Square Garden. Mine had less of an impact.

In the span of an hour I went from wishing luck to New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, in Louisville to root on his early Derby favorite, Bellamy Road, to slapping a high five and toasting the hedonistic ambiance of the come-as-you-are infield.

The air that surrounds the track on that First Saturday In May filled with the booze-sellers pitches: "Ice-cold-beah-heah," and "Mint Ju-lep" — two coveted traditional Derby beverages.

As the 6 p.m. hour approaches and the call to the post sounds, the bathrooms clear and the vendors calls are replaced with the crooning of "My Old Kentucky Home."

Then the last horse is in the post ... and they're off!

For two minutes, the cheers don't breath. Everyone is a potential winner. The noise subsides only when the winning horse crosses the finish line.

This year, spectators grabbed their programs to answer the question at the front of everyone's mind: "Who's Number 10?"

That's Giacomo — the 50-to-1 longshot and official winner of the 131st Kentucky Derby.

Although many of the more than 156,000 in attendance took the chance to win, few were winners.

But the party continued anyway.

At the end of my four-day stint in the Bluegrass State, when I laid down and closed my eyes on the final night, everything in my mind's eye seemed vast.

Anything in the world seemed obtainable and life's worries were not mine.

- A form of this column was originally published in the Yakima (Wash.) Herald Republic on May 15, 2005.

A lil video from Derby 136 (2010)