A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Running for Office in the Age of Donald Trump and Climate Change
“YES!” he yelled, thrusting his fist in the air. “We get to live in the mayor’s house!” My son’s reaction when I told his two sisters and him that I was running for mayor of our town became the laugh line of my campaign. But in real time, I had to burst his bubble. “Oh Seamus,” I said, smiling, “the mayor just lives in his own house. There is no ‘mayor’s house.’ If we win, we’ll keep living in our house and it will become the mayor’s house.”
Seamus’ reaction was indicative of his boundless confidence in his mother and his seven-year-old’s ignorance of how the world actually works. But I held his reaction close when I was feeling less than sure of myself, when I was headed to my third campaign event of any day as the Green Party candidate and found myself eating popcorn for dinner at 9:30 at night, listening to my kids breathe in their sleep instead of reading them bedtime stories.
I’ll cut to the chase: I lost. I am not the mayor of New London, Connecticut.
On Tuesday, November 7th, when the polls opened at six in the morning, it was cold and clear. It rained hard through the middle of the day. When those polls closed at eight that night, it was warmer and humid, but no longer raining. I was outside all day, rain or (not quite) shine, moving between the three polling stations with my friends and our signs and our cards that explained how to “Write In Frida for Mayor.”
That’s right: I wasn’t just running as a third-party candidate in a Democratic town, but as one not even on the ballot. The state had lost my paperwork. The Green Party hired a lawyer and sued, but the judge ruled against us and declined to order the secretary of state to put my name on the ballot. That setback made an uphill campaign into an Everest. I embraced the climb. Being a pacifist and an activist means that lost causes are par for the course for me and, as a Catholic, I believe hard work is its own reward.
The campaign season started in earnest (for me, anyway) after Labor Day, as I tried to balance work, family, and this new experience, this job-and-a-half running for mayor. Oh, yeah, and there was my mother, the peace activist Elizabeth McAlister. She was then in pre-trial detention for a Plowshares action at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in coastal Georgia.
Throughout the campaign, I asked New Londoners the same questions over and over: What do you love about New London? What frustrates you about our town? What’s the one concrete change that would improve your life? The answers were varied and often inspiring.
Unexpectedly, I found myself back in school on a crash course, discovering what’s wonderful (and not so wonderful) about my chosen hometown in the age of climate change and Donald Trump! I even learned a few things along the way. What follows is just a partial list.
Celebrity Matters, Even Though It Shouldn’t
While I was in Georgia for one of my mom’s hearings, I spent time with the actor and peace activist Martin Sheen. Standing near the church where supporters of my mom were ladling out dinner, we shot a low-tech political ad. It promptly went low-key viral and signaled to the pols in New London that something different might be happening. I know Martin Sheen is famous and I love him as an actor and a person, but I wasn’t prepared for how excited people would be about a 45-second clip of the two of us. As far as I can tell, it didn’t get more people to vote for me, but boy was it a conversation starter!
Cultivate a Constituency
The political scene in New London is more than well established. It’s written in concrete: Go Democrat or go home! In our town of 27,000, set along the confluence of the Thames River and Long Island Sound, only about 16,000 of us are registered to vote and only 3,000 to 4,000 of us turn out for off-year local elections. Before this election, there were about 70 Greens. Our party’s strategy was to bring out new voters, a great thought, but I had no idea how hard that would prove to be.
I felt strongly that environmental and climate-change issues should be reframed as relevant to the poor and working class of New London. So when, for instance, I talked about creating a more walkable city, I was careful to emphasize not just that such a goal would be an environmental plus, but that it would aid the working poor, too. After all, they walk out of necessity, so safer sidewalks and a city infrastructure that takes walkers into account — including people in wheelchairs or with limited sight and hearing — would be a good investment for all.
The same was true when it came to planting more trees. A better urban canopy wouldn’t just make our local world look better or absorb more carbon dioxide, but slow street traffic and make life better for otherwise unwilling pedestrians.
I had hoped we would increase the local Green Party membership from 70 to 100, which didn’t happen, but we did add a handful of new members and reengaged some older ones. Call it the most modest of successes.
Be Nice and Make Your Points
We ran an issue-focused campaign. I’m going to live in New London for a long time and so are my opponents. I generally avoided taking pot shots at them, cultivating instead what I thought of as a spirit of gentle disruption. Here’s an example: most of the town government department heads the current mayor hired live outside New London (something that goes against the city’s charter). The incumbent claimed he did so “to get the best,” which sounded as if he felt there was no one in town good enough to run our departments.
At debates and forums, I pushed back hard on that issue, insisting that I would hire locally, not just because the charter says we should, but because not doing so sends a message to our kids that we aren’t good enough. Such hiring practices also weaken our tax base, since some of the highest-paying jobs in our community go to people who don’t even pay property taxes here. It took time to learn how to be critical without being cranky and offer creative solutions to decades of short-sighted, reactive decision-making by a relatively unaccountable leadership.
I also wanted to demonstrate that someone who wasn’t a middle-aged white man could make a splash by running for mayor in our town. At 45, I’m no longer a young person. I even have a head full of white hair. But my two opponents were 20 years older, had grown up just blocks apart in the same New London neighborhood, and went to high school together. Long time friends and rivals, they could argue over who said what at a city council meeting a decade ago (and they did).
They took shots at each other over a past they shared. In one debate, the Republican even condemned the Democrat for driving a Tahoe while he drove a Prius. Never mind that the Tahoe was the official city-owned mayor’s car. “I walked here,” I said, “and I’m driving home with the three members of my family in a 2002 Honda Odyssey. We’re happy to give you a ride to further decrease our carbon footprint.” Everyone laughed and no one took us up on the offer.
Do What You Can
In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore out her shoes as she campaigned to be the youngest member of the House of Representatives. She even tweetedphotos of the bottoms of those shoes with the line, “I knocked on doors until the rainwater came through my soles. Respect the hustle.”
I didn’t wear out my shoes, but I do respect the hustle, AOC, I do! Still, I did what I could. When invited to run by the local chapter of the Green Party, I said I would do so to promote issues and amplify voices that weren’t getting a reasonable hearing, but that I couldn’t run a 24/7 campaign, not with a job and young kids to take care of. I held as fast as I could to that commitment, but thinking back on the — by conservative count — 14 public meetings, eight house parties, four television appearances (three of them hour-long), three public debates with the other mayoral candidates, and daily check-ins with my campaign manager, party chair, and fellow Green Party candidates, I still feel exhausted.
What I can’t document is just what it meant to continually make myself visible in my community and connect with my neighbors. That, without a doubt, was the most rewarding and beautiful part of the experience. Handing out candy to trick or treaters, I ended up chatting with four high school football players who remembered my visit to their school earlier that week and told me their moms were voting for me. I was so happy, I dumped the rest of our candy in their bags.
I was walking to work one morning, balancing a birthday cake in one hand and trying to text with the other when a garbage truck pulled up next to me and the driver called out, “I hope you win! Nobody cares about sanitation!” We chatted for a few minutes as I assured him that I knew the funds for his department had been cut in recent years and that the Green Party platform supported more money for public works, while emphasizing recycling and composting. He cheered, toot-tooted his horn, and we both continued with our day.
And by the way, no one told me how much fun it would be to knock on doors and chat with strangers, each conversation offering me a yet more complex map of my community.
Peace Begins at Home
I’m glad I threw my hat in the political ring in 2019. The whole process felt like a personal balm in a national political landscape that was pitted, mired, and aflame. My stump speech — yes, I had one! — began with these lines: “At a time when the national news is almost uniformly, massively bad, the New London Green Party is collecting, conveying, and amplifying your good ideas, hopes, and visions for our small and dynamic, diverse and youthful, historic and struggling city!”
And honestly we did just that.
I can look at the dates of each of the debates and recall that while we were talking about immigration, the climate crisis and economic development, representation and equity, and how systemic racism plays out in local power struggles, the nation as a whole was mired in a kind of political hell.
Our first debate was held in an elementary school gym. I was nervous, overprepared, and my microphone gave me trouble. My kids were playing in the hallway, while more than 150 people crowded the auditorium. I answered one question in Spanish, said I would reject the $124,000 mayoral salary because one-third of the people in our community were living below the poverty line, and insisted that the police should not cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, in apprehending people in our community without documents.
In the last 18 years, war has seldom been out of the headlines. That very day in the New York Times, for instance, one headline was: “U.S. Disputes Finding That Airstrikes on Afghan Drug Labs Killed 30 Civilians.” And war wasn’t far from our community either. During the debate, moderated by the publisher of our local newspaper, I was asked with a gotcha edge, “Are you a pacifist and how will that impact your relationship with Electric Boat?” (Electric Boat, part of General Dynamics, one of the nation’s largest defense contractors, makes submarines for the Navy in New London.)
I responded calmly: “I am a pacifist. I believe war is a failure of the imagination, that it is never necessary.” I then went on to talk about what a bad civic neighbor General Dynamics is. The saying goes, I commented, that “Boeing makes planes, Raytheon makes missiles, General Dynamics makes money” — and I reminded the audience that New London sees very little of that money, in part because the company is too busy paying its top execs so much of it. It also receives millions of dollars in federal and state subsidies for workforce training and infrastructure, even when orchestrating stock buybacks to enrich its shareholders. Generally, I championed a future New London divested from militarism.
“Don’t go against General Dynamics,” a man cautioned me after one of the debates, “they are all we got.” This is the game that corporations play against communities like New London and the military-industrial complex is even better at it than the Amazons and the Ubers.
They are all we’ve got? Really? How sad is that? What do we want as a community? How do we want to be known? We used to be known as the Whaling City, a brutal, dirty business if ever there was one. Now, our town struggles. So many of our kids qualify for reduced lunch that the district offers free lunch to all schoolchildren. But here’s another reality: the majority of those with good-paying jobs at General Dynamics in New London don’t live here. So if that’s all we got, we got problems!
The second debate was held in the basement conference room of our library and in that one (I was less nervous) we were asked about climate change. I responded that, as a mother of three kids who deserve a decent future on this planet of ours, climate change was what kept me up at night. As the mayor of a coastal town, I added, my strategy would be to build for a resilient future.
Under my administration, there would be more planning and less zoning. As a town on the water at a time when sea levels are already rising, we won’t be able to pump and dump our way out of even the five-inch rise in water levels predicted to occur in the next 15 years, which means every new pebble of development needs to be organized through a climate-change lens. Parking lots — in other words, stretches of land covered in asphalt? Not when we need to absorb runoff, rather than have it cascading down Garfield Avenue or flooding Broad Street.
Worldwide, climate change hits poor people harder and New London will be no exception. While the poor here tend to live further from the water’s edge, the dollar-chasing, asphalt-covered businesses along some of our key commercial streets create ideal sites for increasingly regular inland flooding. The elderly living in high rises are vulnerable to extended power outages when that happens and, as a food-importing community, our food supply is vulnerable, too. All of this hits poor people harder. With that in mind, I added that, as mayor, I would work to make New London greener, more resilient, and smarter about climate change. There’s no techno-fix for the predicament our fossil-fuelized global system has left us in, but we have to deal.
One irony struck me that night, as my opponents labored through their climate-change answers: our debate happened the day after an Ohio Democratic presidential debate during which not a single question was asked about climate change. And that night it rained so hard that a restaurant three blocks from the river’s edge had water pouring in the back door and out the front one.
The third debate, held at a senior center, was less formal than the other two and moderated by an attorney who gave us each 20 minutes to use as we wanted. That night, I pointed out that, of the dozen or so departments in the city’s governing structure, only two were run by women, but that I was excited and impressed by how many women were competing for the board of education and city council. (Thirteen women, myself included, ran for public office that election season.)
Asked (as I often was) about my inexperience in politics, I talked about the toolbox of skills I had amassed in an active life (as well as a life as an activist), including community organizing, consensus building, and deep listening, not to speak of a sense of deep accountability I feel for my community. You don’t have to be a lawyer or have a master’s in business administration (my two opponents) to work effectively with New London’s communities. In fact, professional expertise and ego can sometimes get in the way of representing community interests and truly grasping, no less meeting, community needs.
In the end, on that rainy election day in November, 394 people voted for me. It may not sound like much after all those months of effort, but that was more than 10% of the vote. As a write-in candidate, people had to know me, truly want to vote for me, remember the writing-in process, and then do it correctly. So each of those 394 votes felt hard won indeed.
People keep asking me if I’m going to run again. Who knows? The next election isn’t for four years, which feels like a lifetime from now and, believe me (given our world), I have plenty to do in the meantime.
Frida Berrigan is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood. She has three children and lives in New London, Connecticut, where she is a gardener and community organizer.
Copyright 2020 Frida Berrigan. First published in TomDispatch and included in Vox Populi with permission.