Another puzzling outbreak of campaign fever in Md.

October 17, 2002|By Nicholas Leonhardt

IS THERE a virus that turns normal people into political volunteers?

Is it a bacteria that compels the Palm Pilot generation to spend precious free time handing out freebies to total strangers?

This affliction apparently attacks the body first, replacing Tommy Hilfiger attire with Fruit of the Loom campaign shirts.

This ailment also alters the mind, causing volunteers to throw around words like "fiscal" and "appropriations," speaking as though they were Ted Koppel.

The media have been examining politicians for months. But what about others who have caught this biannual bug? What makes normal Marylanders become political volunteers?

The cause certainly cannot be glamour. Campaign helpers learn quickly that the chances of meeting celebrities are less than those of finding a naked bumper in the parking lot of Rep. Robert Ehrlich Jr. While spending the past summer aiding various campaigns, the most exciting creature I met was Sheriff Andy, a law enforcement blimp.

Nor is volunteering the way to meet other Marylanders. At one festival, thunderstorms chased away the public, leaving six candidates and their brigades of supporters thrusting fliers at a family of three, a hot dog vendor and a mime. While I could not gauge the family's reactions, my candidate definitely hooked that mime.

At well-attended events, a candidate's disciples are so busy handing out candy, balloons and buttons that Marylanders become a giant blur of grabbing hands. A sweaty father towing four children does not want to hear a volunteer's scripted stance on the environment. He just wants the red campaign balloons -- not the blue, not the white -- for his kids.

Political volunteers certainly do not join to learn the inner workings of a campaign. No one really utters snappy dialogue like The West Wing staffers. True, volunteers frequently cluster around computers, whispering, but it's usually to argue over Yahoo! MAP directions. "No, Myrtle, you can't get to Belair Road from Exit 25."

Instead of debating the state's budget deficit, supporters actually are pondering campaign etiquette, such as, "Can one hand out bumper stickers during the Towson Town Parade, or have all candidates agreed to stop when the first float rolls?" "Is it proper to fling candy into a clamoring crowd, or does one risk a personal injury lawsuit for a badly aimed Tootsie Roll?"

So if supporters quickly discover that campaigns are hardly glamorous or highbrow, what makes volunteers return day after day?

Perhaps the rewards are the discoveries recruits find on the political battlefield.

Volunteers learn to respect their elders. Senior citizens are usually the most interested, frequently the most knowledgeable and often the most opinionated of all voters. The elderly show up at campaign events, ask questions and, no matter how badly they might need a free pen, they refuse it if it carries the wrong candidate's name.

Political volunteers master a life-enriching talent: resourcefulness. If the courts' latest ruling means that a candidate's new territory differs from the district number printed on hundreds of campaign T-shirts, there's no problem. Two volunteers armed with markers can update the constituency faster than their candidate can find a parking spot in Annapolis. Forgot hammers to install yard signs in Maryland's drought-hardened soil? Volunteers' shoes can pound those placards into the ground.

Campaign supporters see a side of politicians that news cameras and columnists rarely capture. Disciples view their leader as, well, human. Although candidates may appear perpetually optimistic and incessantly focused, they get tired, discouraged and as cranky as a toddler who missed a nap. My favorite campaign memory is when one diligent politician abruptly decided to skip a night of campaigning after his little daughter arrived to invite him home to her wading pool.

Last, campaign supporters learn never to take anyone or anything for granted. Every vote matters, every lawn sign counts. Novice volunteers roll their eyes after hosting a "coffee hour" that attracts only seven constituents. But experienced supporters choke down the Maxwell House and remember that these seven voters will tell seven more voters, and so on.

These experienced volunteers know that fascination with politics is contagious. However, if politics infects Marylanders like a virus, then surely volunteering -- not laughter -- is the best medicine.

Nicholas Leonhardt is a high school sophomore from Lutherville who spent part of his summer break as a campaign volunteer.

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