It was a freezing cold and gray Saturday morning in February 2014. I was trekking through the hills of Clifton Heights, trying not to fall and break my neck on the slick, ice-covered roads. Two months prior, I filed as a candidate to represent the Ninth District of the Louisville Metro Council. I still had two more months to endure until sunny, warm spring days brought budding flowers and, hopefully, a victorious primary election. It seemed like an eternity. I had already lost 12 pounds through constant door-to-door walking and sleepless nights of writing personal notes to people I had met along the way. This was stress like I had never experienced before. On top of that, I had 13 opponents (one Republican, 12 Democrats) to worry about! I was flanked on all sides, and somehow I had to find a way to stand out from the crowd. In the midst of this physical and mental grind, I became deeply aware of what kept me going. I absolutely loved the thrill of door-to-door campaigning.
With zero name recognition, zero campaign experience and zero volunteers, I was fortunate to have a support team, mostly family members, to help motivate and encourage this young rookie candidate. The Ninth District is arguably one of the most vibrant and diverse political subdivisions in Louisville Metro and/or the commonwealth of Kentucky. The only way to stand a chance in this race, or any race for that matter, was to get out and meet the voters. I learned that every door I knocked on presented a new experience and opportunity.
Take, for example, when a small, seemingly harmless lap dog jumped up and bit me while I extended a handshake to greet the owner. (No time for rabies vaccination, must plow on!) An entire family with hoarding tendencies invited me to come in among the junk and watch hours of daytime television. (Great segue into a discussion about neighborhood fire hazards.) College-age apartment dwellers thought I was an undercover LMPD officer when I knocked. (No, you’re not under arrest; telling me what issues are important to you is not incriminating, but the marijuana smoke billowing from underneath your door is.) An aggressive Tea Party Republican yelled at me for being a Democrat and “loving our socialist president.” (No, I didn’t hold the president’s hand while the ink from his signature was drying on the Obamacare law.) An enthusiastic liberal voter blasted me for appearing “too moderate.”(Yes, I’m 110 percent for fairness, sustainability and infrastructure improvement, and no, I will never be the next Tina Ward-Pugh.)
Yet, I also experienced random acts of kindness. Elderly couples welcomed me into their homes to offer water and a bathroom break. I received several unsolicited campaign contributions from people who more than likely thought I was homeless. People asked questions, challenged my responses and helped mold me into a formidable candidate.
This was politics at its very best, in its purest form. There were no super PACS, no special interests or multimillion-dollar ad buys. Although, at times, fully attended candidate forums, competing yard signs and literature drops resembled a circus-like atmosphere. I felt that I was performing an important community service by just being a candidate. By going door to door, I was the “eyes and ears” of the community. I was connected in the most real sense of the word. It was an honor to serve, and I loved every second of it.
I now understand what people mean when they criticize politicians for being “out of touch.” They get elected, hide in their respective offices and forget about engaging with the people that put them there in the first place. They lose the sense of community that I gained while out campaigning.
We are always quick to bash candidates and politicians. Without question, we should continue to hold them accountable. However, regardless of political affiliation, I respect those who step up and put their name on a ballot. It’s always exciting to learn of a new political office. (We elect the soil and water conservation district supervisors?) Voting for a candidate in every single race, from the U.S. Senate to justice of the peace, can be an overwhelming task. Yet, the choices we make at that moment are crucial to our functioning democracy.
When the polls close at 6:00 p.m. on November 4, many hard-fought and arduous campaigns will come to an end. Some candidates have endured the physical and mental rigors of politicking across and throughout Jefferson County for over a year. Make no mistake about it: These candidates work hard for every single vote. Win or lose, most have engaged their community, and those fortunate enough to win re-election have learned how to remain engaged.
Now it’s our turn to complete the process and vote!
Chris Hartley is a Louisville attorney and former Democratic candidate for the Louisville Metro Council Ninth District.