It's been eight years since I was on the campaign trail, but the horrors associated with it came roaring back the other day when I was speaking with one of Wise County's would-be elected officials. (If you don't know, I'm happily getting off of the Elected Island at the end of year). He related to me how difficult it can be to simply walk into a room full of strangers in an effort to win a handful of votes. I wouldn't say I suffered a Vietnam type of flashback, but I did relive my own private and personal Saigon.
It was February of 1992, and I was a 29 year old kid trying to grab the job of District Attorney. Being a private guy in general, the thought of handshaking and baby kissing was something I considered no less than frightening. Yet, I did my best.
All of my "advisors" kept telling me the same old story over and over: County Clerk Sherry Parker may have single handedly won her election a few years earlier by standing in the parking lot of Walmart and handing out cards and shaking hands. That was the "desire" that the electorate was looking for, I was told.
I could do that, I thought.
So one cold Saturday morning, I got up early, put on a suit, grabbed a slew of campaign cards (the photo which appeared thereon is still ridiculed to this day) and drove down to the Walmart parking lot. Now this wasn't the Walmart Supercenter of today - it was the old one where the Tractor Supply store is currently located.
I looked around and, to my dismay, I didn't exactly see a ton of people coming and going. Nevertheless, I grabbed a few cards, shoved them in my pocket, and walked to the front of the lot near the front entrance. I immediately saw a dilemma: there were two entrances on either side of the front of the building. Not to be deterred, I chose the North entrance after doing some serious calculating using quantum physics as to which one was most likely to be used.
I immediately knew something was wrong when the first three Walmart visitors walked to the South entrance even though, it seemed, the North entrance would have been the more direct route. They couldn't possibly be avoiding me, I thought. Then I saw my first opportunity. A lady who had innocently chosen the North entrance as her point of passage.
I quickly rehearsed my speech in my mind.
As she was about 30 feet away from me I saw her steal a glance to her right. I, of course, was to her right. After she noticed this apparent stranger dressed in a suit for no apparent reason, her pace quickened and her gaze focused straight ahead as if under some sort of hypnotic Walmart trance.
"Ma'am," I said.
She didn't look up.
"Ma'am," I tried again a bit more gently as I took about four steps toward her, card in hand.
"No! No!" she exclaimed as she raised her hand to expose the palm in my direction. (Little did she know that her "speak to the hand" gesture would not become nationally known for several more years). In any event, I might as well have been a mugger because she almost broke out into a trot in an attempt to escape.
"I'm running for District Attorney and ...." Before I could finish the sentence she dove into the store like a World War II soldier would seek refuge from the Germans in a French church.
I stood there somewhat stunned. After about 30 seconds of contemplation, I muttered something like "screw this" and got the heck out of there.
Sherry Parker was a better campaigner than I.
But the lady's attitude was pervasive around the county. I was amazed at the cold reception I would get even at political functions where citizens had specifically come to meet me. I'd walk into a pre-arranged "Meet Barry" meeting at some fire hall and ten guys already there would suddenly stop talking and start staring. Heck, they knew who I was and why I just walked through the door. Nevertheless, if I didn't take the initiative to walk over to them and introduce myself, I have no doubt that we would have stood their looking at each other for two hours.
For those folks on the campaign trail right now, it can be a terrifying experience. I don't care how smooth or comfortable the candidate looks, it is a difficult and emotionally draining experience to walk into a room of strangers and begin "selling yourself" as if you worked on Harry Hines.
Can I offer a word of advice to those that make up the electorate the next time you see someone campaigning? Get off your rear, walk over to them, and simply say "It's nice to meet you, I've seen your name". Nothing more. Nothing less. Why? Because it is the kind and humane thing to do. Sure you can sit there like Pharaoh waiting for Moses to approach you so that the begging and groveling can begin, but there is no need for it.
The candidates are running to become our public servants. They are not applying to become our own personal cabin boys.
Come on. Give 'em a break. It will be Christmas soon.
Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District of Texas.