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Climbing the Mountain
Working in Vermont politics in the summer and fall of 2004 felt a great deal like jumping into a lake with a thorough theoretical background in ocean kayaking to keep me afloat: I knew both far more and far less than I needed, and ultimately found my way with a lot of advice and no small amount of thrashing around.
When I was accepted by the 21st Century Democrats to work on one of their campaigns, I have to admit that I envisioned something a bit different from the situation I found myself in. I was ready to work long campaign hours and to be more outgoing and assertive than is my general habit, but I wasn't entirely prepared for the extent to which I would be on my own.
After a whirlwind three-day training session, I found myself back home in the county where I had grown up, suddenly designated as the entire full-time staff for the thirteen Democrats running for the State legislature from Rutland County. This was not a position I had been expecting nor, since Vermont legislature races are among the smallest in the country, was it precisely what I had been trained for.
In Vermont, the average statehouse campaign is won or lost by three or four hundred votes. The average campaign budget is a bit shy of three thousand dollars, and while the average candidate probably doesn't actually knock on every door., [he or] she certainly tries. To some of these candidates I was simply a representative from the state party. To others I was a volunteer coordinator, mailing strategist, literature designer, media consultant, taskmaster, events planner, debate advisor, or campaign manager. For each campaign I slowly worked out what combination of roles I would play. While I had good support from the state party staff, there was a lot that I had to figure out, and there were many practical and strategic choices I had to make on my own. Frequently I found that I simply did not know, and in some cases couldn't have known, what the right decision was.
That is of course a fairly unremarkable statement. On a theoretical level I was familiar with that kind of uncertainty; in my college papers I often concluded that the answer to the question posed was "yes, however." I spent many pleasant hours contemplating strengths and flaws of a variety of theories without reaching anything so practical as a definitive answer. Still, I think a large part of me felt that that kind of uncertainty ends, or should, at the classroom door, and that in work in the "real world", decisions would be somehow simpler, clearer, and with less room or need for the "however".
As the campaign wore on, I found more "howevers" than I was comfortable with, and had less time for research and contemplation than I was accustomed to. In my job I had to make the call about how to coordinate with other campaigns, where to put volunteers or money, or how best to target a mailing; while there were certainly people I could ask for advice, it was ultimately my responsibility to find the relevant information and decide what to suggest that the candidate do. These decisions were not earthshattering, but they were important, and having never before held a job or other position with so many decision-making responsibilities, I was often afraid that my choices and suggestions would be the wrong ones. Sometimes I cared so much about getting it right that a part of me wanted to do nothing at all, and settle for at least not getting it wrong. But life marches on [despite] uncertainty, and I learned, and will continue to learn, how to accept that I have to march on with it and do the best I can.
In retrospect, I think I did well for the candidates I worked with, and for the most part I believe that I made the right decisions. I probably made some wrong ones as well. I still think about the sixty votes by which one of my candidates lost, and rehash debates about this kind of event or that kind, this mailing or that one. Still, my life has indeed gone on, and I'm going to keep on making choices, and doing the best I can to gain the knowledge and keep the energy and passion I need to get them as close to right as possible.