By Robert Holst, co-founder of The Middle Class Action Project
Upon hearing that Mr. Grimm was going to step down from his seat I was approached by a few people that felt that the time was right for an ordinary working person to make a run at congress here on Staten Island. At first I was hesitant because like many of you I figured the fix was in and wasn’t interested.
Of course a person’s main concern is that people would not take them seriously and you end up hurting the issues you are attempting to bring to the forefront. That was a major concern. So at the very outset it was an attempt to challenge the establishment more so then actually winning the election. I along with my supporters believed that actually wanting to do well was enough to give it a try.
A special election is challenging in the sense of having a short time frame to do it and the rules for money and the collection of it. Realizing I was a “Dark Horse” as the S.I. Advance called me people were not going to be so willing to give their hard earned money to an outside shot.
Also knowing that the republicans were surely putting up a well know candidate with name recognition and the benefit of being an elected official already we knew the money was going to flow on that side. Nobody besides the anointed candidate from the republican side of the aisle was going to run. There was no chance at challenging. Now knowing the democrats were more willing to have an open process here on Staten Island and knowing that nobody on the democrat side stepped up I did. I approached the chairman of the party and declared I wanted to run.
Officially from what I can tell I was the first. There was no fanfare. The press did not come knocking down the door. As a matter of fact nobody paid attention. They were more concerned with the possible match ups than the one that was actually happening at that point. Which were Mr. Donovan and I opposing each other in the election? We pushed on. Clear in our message and clear in our resolve.
The next step for me was to speak to other elected officials. Some who were thought to be possible candidates? All were supportive and encouraging. Imagine that? It took me by surprise. They all had the attitude of “If you are going to do it there is nothing I can say that will stop you.” All democrats, of course.
Two actually advised on how to go about it and get the ball rolling because why would they want somebody to look like a fool? Very surprised at this point we pushed on. The Chairman of the Democratic Party assured me I would be interviewed. NEVER tried to talk me out of it. NEVER offered anything to get me to change my mind. None of the other possible candidates did either. Nobody at anytime said to me it was impossible. Seeing no reason why it couldn’t be done forward I went.
After an initial meeting with the Chairman on Staten Island with his director I was a little bit worried. He informed me it was a full time job campaigning and I was stepping into a big election that would attract national attention. I was concerned with how I would keep paying my bills while giving this an honest effort. He didn’t discourage. He was honest. I figured if everyone else could do it so could I.
After that I met with the Chairman of the party in Brooklyn. He offered the same advice and guidance. At the end of the meeting he said good luck and if you are the candidate we will do all we can. Still very surprised that nobody was saying no or that it couldn’t be done again I moved forward. Now came the time to start talking to the ground troops. The backbone of the party. The people that make the calls knock on the doors and part with 100 bucks for every candidate. This is where resistance was met. Some felt I didn’t deserve that opportunity.
Others felt I could never pull it off. Still others were indifferent because there was no other candidate. I can understand that. People want to win. After the race with Mr. Recchia they were very wary of anyone expressing interest to run for any office. But there was also a few that were supportive and encouraging although not in public. Perhaps if more people believed this could be done and must be done things would have gone differently. Now a person could say that because none of the elected officials on Staten Island expressed interest that was the reason I was a possible candidate.
You could say that but at this time nobody had said anything. Other candidates had come forward at this point. I was encouraged by that. More people who weren’t elected officials wanted to do something good. Perhaps by seeing nobody was shutting me down they were encouraged. I don’t know that for sure but I am sure you can allow me a small feeling of accomplishment. Of course I was not privileged to the discussions between those candidates and the party but I was assured they would be given every opportunity I was being given. Good news for democracy I thought. It was. You have to remember all of this was unfolding in a matter of days.
In the meantime two serious candidates had emerged from Brooklyn. One being Mr. Gentile and another being Mr. Colton. At this time the only Staten Islanders still in it were Ms. Honor and I. At this point the candidates expressing interest were known and the party moved forward. A date was set for interviews with the executive committee.
In the meantime it was expressed that the chairman would prefer a more experienced candidate. Again I understood that but it didn’t discourage. Still at this point nobody was attempting to talk me out of anything. But the conversation came up of being a third party candidate. that was something I was not willing to do. I am a democrat. I wanted to serve as a democrat. To switch parties (to me at least) was to say that winning or running was more important than my goal. Which was to be a democrat and do what is right and not what the party tells me to do? Again there was to be no primary. So that is why the thought occurred to me and some of my close supporters to attempt the third party campaign.
So the day of the interviews arrived. Many called and offered support and encouragement. I arrived at my scheduled time. Answered the questions. Put forth what my campaign would look like. Told them where I would go for funding and answered questions from the executive board regarding both foreign and domestic issues. I spoke from the heart but was feeling the enormity of what I was trying to accomplish at the same time. I am sure I did not look like I was comfortable and at ease. I am sure I looked (as many in that situation would) nervous.
Was I saying the right things? Is my suit up to snuff? Is my hair out of place? Do I look like a wacko? Did I turn the iron off? I did my thing they thanked me and off I went. The Chairman in the paper stated it was no place for newbies. That was the first time I felt discouraged. But his job is not to be concerned with my feelings. His job is to be concerned with his party. Nothing personal. On the way out Mr. Gentile assured me if I was chosen he would do all he could to help. I got back in the car and was completely confused still that nobody said no.
I called friends on the executive board and asked for a critique. They were all brutally honest and said that I wasn’t as confident in my speaking as I had been in the past. Mr. Gentile was calm and collected. Still in the days after there was no announcement. Mr. Gentile contacted me. I thought oh boy here we go. He’s going to tell me to back out. Threats or coercion of some point was coming. It didn’t. He asked me how I was feeling about everything. Asked me about my concerns. Asked me why I was doing what I was doing.
He listened. He said nothing. That never happened before when I talked to a politician. Again he wished me luck and that was it. The next few days the writing was on the wall. The democrats wanted a more surefooted candidate. One with access to funds readily and one that could speak publicly and articulate well. I was at a disadvantage there. I wired buildings. I couldn’t close that gap in 50 days. I backed out under no coercion or duress. Mr. Gentile was the better choice as far as democrats were concerned. I didn’t think there was a plan to push me out.
I never felt there was one. The Democratic Party on Staten Island did no wrong by me. They did what they thought was best. Democracy. It was the right thing to do. I didn’t want to make it a side show Staten Islanders deserved better.
Now of course I left things out that I don’t recall at the moment. If you are still reading I want you to know I offer this because to say that we need to abandon the system is not the right plan. Standing up and demanding to be part of it is. I want this to serve as a reminder it can be done. Not only that it must be done. Particularly on the republican side of the aisle here where it seems candidates are anointed.
Wanting to do the right thing and making an attempt is no guarantee of success. But not doing anything is a guarantee of failure. I hope that perhaps this encourages one person to say “We got to do something.”
Program: LEGISLATION DRAFT 1