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An Experience in City Politics

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Mitchell Alexander, a junior with a double major in political science and criminal justice. He recently volunteered for a campaign in the Roanoke city council election, and this is a personal narrative of his experience. — BP


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I’m not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

So, if someone were to tell me that I would be waking up at 5 A.M. on Election Day and braving rain and wind just to place campaign yard signs at voting precincts, I would be skeptical.

On May 3, the city of Roanoke had its election for city council. The election was at-large, meaning that the entire city gets to vote for their three favorite candidates, and the top three vote-earners get a seat on council.

I was very fortunate to have earned a position working for the campaign for Michelle Dykstra, a millennial Independent candidate who emphasized her small business background and balanced approach to government. As a political science major, experience on any viable campaign is priceless, so I was 110% on board.

However, there’s something inherently magical about working a political campaign. After spending 10 minutes with her, my objective, professional praise for her candidacy had transcended into genuine support. I had only spent one Saturday afternoon knocking on doors before I went from her employee to her advocate.

The Roanoke Times, our area’s largest newspaper, would share positive sentiments toward her. I would get excited. I had an emotional investment in this campaign that had very little personal relevance to me…but why?

Answering that isn’t easy, but I think I have a good idea. In the two months leading up to Election Day, I spent weekends and many evenings knocking on doors. No phone calls—just old-fashioned face-to-face interaction. Each time I approached a house, I was stricken with a sort of stage fright. But then I would start talking.

After nervously introducing myself as a Roanoke College student, the weary homeowner (often an elderly woman) would become a little more receptive to the message of the 6’1, 270lb. bearded man towering before her. Potential voters’ eyes would spark with a glimmer of hope when they learned my circumstances. All they of know of my generation is that we are apathetic and care nothing for politics or the community. Their surprise at my advocacy would only motivate me harder, and my enthusiasm and sincerity would inspire them to support my candidate. I learned very quickly that this was the underlying reason behind my deep emotional investment in this stranger’s campaign.

Not every interaction followed this perfect script, however. I’ve had doors shut in my faces. I’ve had blue-blooded Democrats flat-out tell me they refuse to support anyone outside the party, a toxic notion that I’ll revisit later. I’ve gotten wet from pouring rain, and I’ve gotten wet from the sweating that occurred in the context of climbing neighborhood hills on foot in the hot afternoon. I’ve gotten lost in unfamiliar neighborhoods, and I’ve been genuinely scared by some pretty large dogs. However, every hour I spent on the streets was a learning opportunity. The more people I talked with, and the more time I spent on the campaign, the more I grew. I grew my knowledge of local politics, civic engagement, and the concerns of Roanoke citizens.

Let me briefly digress from my narrative in order to provide some context. Roanoke (the ‘urban’ city, not the county municipality that surrounds Salem) is heavily Democratic. It’s perhaps one of the only dots of blue in the vast swath of deep red that runs throughout Southwestern Virginia. For over 40 years, the Democratic Party has had a majority on Roanoke City Council. It’s so extreme that the Republicans didn’t even bother to fund their own candidates. So, we were fighting an uphill battle if there ever was one.

I think part of my enthusiasm for the campaign came from the importance my candidate placed on remaining truly independent. I respected that, as local government is not the place for partisan politics. The real question was—will the voters feel the same way?

Election Day came quickly. The polls opened before the sun was even up, and being awake and working at that hour made me physically ill. I drank enough Red Bull to stop my heart, and we powered through the day. Other Roanoke College students were recruited to help, and it was comforting to see familiar faces. Regardless, we wouldn’t have any idea of what the results may be until well after the polls closed at 7pm.

There was one incumbent candidate who was sure to win re-election. Assuming she won 1st place, that meant that we would need to get 2nd or 3rd place citywide in order to win. There were two other Democrats on the ticket, meaning that straight party-line support for the popular incumbent would shut us out.

Waiting on the results was obviously nerve-wracking. Roanoke’s precincts vote very differently, as they are demographically separated on socioeconomic lines. So, until 100% of the precincts are reporting, there’s no way to be concrete in estimating who the winners are.

It was nearly 8:30 when all of the precincts came in. It was very close. The results were not what I had expected.

But in a good way. Only about 70 votes separated Michelle from getting 1st place in the entire city and becoming vice-mayor. She absolutely killed it in over half of the precincts. Some of these precincts were ones in which I spent many hours knocking on doors. I’m sure I wasn’t as excited as she was, but I was beaming with a smile.

It goes one step further—her campaign organization and mobilization also helped the other viable Independent candidate secure 3rd place as well. The impact on the community would be profound, and I couldn’t help but feel at least partly responsible. For the first time in decades, there was an Independent majority on city council. For now, partisan politics is out.

The energy in the room after the results were announced was unreal. It felt better than any rush or drug—it was a feeling of accomplishment. Of victory.

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My advice? If you ever get behind a candidate, work for their campaign. You’ll learn, you’ll grow, and you’ll gain new experiences that will stay with you regardless of whether or not your candidate wins or loses. In two short months, I made memories and met new people that may have challenged my worldview, but I’m a better person because of it.

I learned a lot while working my first campaign, and I’ll keep most of the lessons with me moving forward. The most prominent lesson, however, is an important one: all politics is local.

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