Among fellow right-wing crazies, Ithaca provokes less eye-rolling than Berkeley, Madison, or Ann Arbor, but it inhabits the same political Brigadoon, a perpetual 1968. (Its annus mirabilis actually occurred the following year, captured in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Cornell’s Afro-American Society trooping from Willard Straight Hall with raised rifles and bandoliers. That Cornell is an Ivy might, from time to time, slip people’s minds, but the famous image proved it could be cutting edge.)
Ithaca is also full of smart, interesting, public-spirited people who are excellent company, though I do my best to keep conversations away from their monocultural politics. Our congressman, Maurice Hinchey, is best known outside the district for two pet theories: (a) that Bush/Cheney let bin Laden escape from Afghanistan in order to create a pretext for attacking Iraq; and (b) that the fake letter “exposing” Dubya’s dereliction of National Guard duty, the sucker-bait that ended Dan Rather’s career, was planted by Karl Rove for just such a purpose.
Theory (a) was aired on MSNBC. Asked by a gobsmacked interviewer whether he actually believed it, Hinchey produced the confident smile of one privileged to receive regular messages from Neptune through his fillings, then doubled down. He proposed theory (b) at a town hall meeting and, asked for supporting evidence, said, to enthusiastic cheers, that he needed none. It’s unclear whether his political longevity (he’s been in the House since 1993 and before that served 18 years in the New York assembly) is owed to his legislative record (e.g., cosponsoring the Kucinich resolution to impeach Bush); his ability, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, to bring home the bacon; or the electoral dynamics of New York State, which has been described as a jurisdiction in which incumbents are not defeated until after they’re indicted.
It therefore felt daring (if risking the occasional snide remark could be said to require anything resembling courage) to join a “strategy session” on reviving Ithaca’s Republican party—invited by the party chair, who’d got my name from two of my neighbors. She, thank God, is openly gay, which takes certain PR problems off the table. The brain trust that convened comprised the four of us, though some brains missed that session because of previous commitments. Our immediate goal is to get candidates on the ballot. For several years, city council elections have consisted of Democrats running unopposed—though slightly nuanced according to whether they also appeared on ballot lines for the Green party, the Working Families party, or other political religions. Circulating petitions on behalf of candidates for the upcoming state and federal elections will serve as a dry run for 2011, when city officials are chosen—and we will be well on our way to becoming seasoned, canny, streetwise political operatives.
So we’re talking Tocqueville. We’re talking retail politics on a nano-scale, in a place where vegans may be thicker on the ground than registered Republicans. But, to quote Joltin’ Joe McCarthy, we have a list—a list, one hopes, more accurate than any of his. Not a database. One made of paper, several pieces, with entries alphabetized by street name. Our first strategic move is to borrow scissors and cut these names apart to fill five small bags of confetti, each with the names and addresses of Republicans in a single ward.
My own ward is full of student apartments. In them, clearly, the great majority of those named on my scraps reside, or once resided, or may reside again in the fall, having sublet for the summer. How would a canny operative proceed? I search Cornell’s website for my Republicans’ email addresses and spam them. Four hours of work net one response fervently denouncing the Republican party (for “hypocrisy and incoherence” and “eschewing” things they shouldn’t have) and concluding with a polite Thank-you-for-thinking-of-me. A well brought up kid. His reply calls dimly to mind a Nabokov story whose text is a letter that vigorously abuses its addressee for conducting an affair with the writer’s wife and ends with a declaration something like: On the other hand, if I’ve got the wrong fellow, please ignore this.
A Nabokovian touch: I find that no such story exists but that a much better one, “The Admiralty Spire,” has faint similarities. High-class literary allusions are not out of place. Once I’m on the street, mixing with my peeps, I find that the ritual of retail politics called “walking petitions” can be a ruminative, contemplative, undertaking—especially when the walks between peeps are lengthy.
I have leisure to note the Invisible Hand at work: The recently opened Mehak Authentic Indian Cuisine having advertised itself as a specialist in goat, I see that the Sangam (plain old) Indian Cuisine, three doors away, has been forced to respond with the notice “We Are Now Serving Goat Meat.” I pass a sickly maple to which the city has attached a sign saying “This tree scheduled to be removed” and am mildly, pleasantly, surprised to find no one chained to it. One address lies on a street I’ve never heard of, though I have lived in this compact neighborhood for 25 years. MapQuest displays it in a place where I’m sure no street exists. The Harry Potterish mystery has a boring resolution; an apartment building called Sheldon Court sits where, presumably, a cul de sac of that name once existed.
My first set of signatures comes from a man who’s selling his house in order to flee the city’s steep taxes, my second from one who might also be a no-show at the polls, as he’s breathing through a portable oxygen canister. I bag college-age brothers who may be proving a disappointment to their mom (someone not on my list), though she kindly goes out of her way to help me track them down.
Having overlooked one target on my way down steep East Hill, I trudge back up. A gentle rain, which has misted sporadically all afternoon, resumes. How goes it, I wonder, with the great DiMaggio? I fear both the Tigers of Detroit and the Indians of Cleveland.
I am, however, guardedly optimistic about the three married couples with land lines—suggesting to this canny if not yet seasoned operative that they are nonstudents. If the stars align I will just sneak into double digits.
The couple on O— Place have put a cheerful greeting on their answering machine, though it does not, as I might have hoped, specify “Petitioners welcome.” I leave a message with my pitch, ring their door bell on four different days (once a dog barks; once a flag is flying), but never connect. It’s the same story on F— Place (one day a lamp shines in a downstairs window; on another, a UPS package I’d seen on the stoop has been taken in).
I manage to score on C— Park, bringing my final tally, for a week’s work, to six. But I was told not to worry about numbers. This is, in part, group therapy, to reassure political outliers that they are not alone, that Resistance is Not Futile. And for my schlepping I was warmly thanked by everyone who signed. Two days later I pass the C— Park couple in the supermarket and we all smile broadly: My peeps.
David Guaspari is a writer in Ithaca, New York.