Monday, February 25, 2019

Functionally Obsolete

In signs that development challenges are occurring in the world outside of Howard County, Maryland (“perish the thought and pass the tax abatements!”), they (an evil cabal, bien sûr) recently demolished the building that housed the polling firm where I spent, and occasionally misspent, many a fine hour in 1990, and again from 1992 to 1996.

I suppose the passing of Pat Caddell, former wunderkind and one-time pollster to McGovern, Carter, and yes America’s Uncle Joe got me thinking about that era again.  Of course, it doesn’t take much to fire up the Reminiscence Machine. I was thinking back to the people I met there and some of the hijinks that transpired in and around those premises.  For those reading this who may have Been There, and whose jaws are presently tightening out of disclosure trepidation, don’t worry, your secrets remain safe with me.

So many moments populate the mind, even small, ephemeral ones.  There was the telephone interviewer who once informed a respondent that their “apathy disgusted” his sensibilities.  I had to take him off the phones for a while. There was another interviewer who decided to add his own probe to the “Most important problem facing Michigan” question – whenever a respondent said “crime,” he would follow-up with, “would that be white collar or blue collar crime?”  One day, two unmistakably plain-clothes cops were waiting in our downstairs lobby to speak with one of our employees.  I didn’t ask why.

There was the structured insanity of Election Day Exit Polling.  We would have interviewers stationed at polling places throughout the state.  Then, when they completed a few interviews, they would call into our offices (using pay phones), where an interviewer would, using pen and paper, essentially re-create the questionnaire responses one by one, on fresh survey documents.  These would be collected by our data entry people, who punched the numbers into an early, bootleg, DOS-based form of SPSS. I would run the numbers and report the findings, as they rolled in, to the Company President…who would spend the day in Detroit doing on-air commentary based on our tabulations.  We did this in the 1992 presidential election cycle and the 1994 gubernatorial election cycle.  We had to rent several hulking machines (maybe 486 model desk-tops) to handle our data entry needs in ’94.  I recall running from computer to computer with floppy disks, saving files, and aggregating the data to keep everything together; with the chatter of 24 interviewers in close quarters bouncing off the walls and narrow wooden partitions that separated the calling stations. It was exhilarating chaos but our finger wasn’t just on the pulse, in those moments, we were the pulse.  And we had precious Insights on the electorate.  Special knowledge that made us, or at least my boss, an oracle-for-a-day.

Fueled by apple cider, Quality Dairy doughnuts, and by the vitality of youth itself, General Election Days were heart-pounding.  Of course, for some of the interviewers, it was just another day, 1/14th of their check.  For those who cared, it was a sorting day – winners from losers, and exit polling for the media gave us an early look into who would fall into which category.  For someone in their early 20s who aspired to a career in political polling, it was Christmas in November.

Yet the center, as it inevitably does, fails to hold.  It started to crack after Ronna Romney lost her primary in 1994, and after the GOP Revolution of that fall (that would have assuredly propelled Ronna to the U.S. Senate, if she defeated Spence Abraham, which would have perhaps saved the world from his most notorious aide, Ann Coulter, well, who knows how such things would work out).  According to the multiverse theory, all of these events, and an infinite number of Ronnas won and lost and never ran for anything and were never even born.  

Suffice to say, 1995 was a quieter year.  That building was still a home, of sorts.  But our lives were growing detached from it.  I had just earned my Bachelors and was newly married, to my first wife, who I hired to work at that polling firm back in ’92.  She was finishing up her undergraduate work and was looking for employment in the PR realm.  I was focused on finding a way to get to DC, where the Action was.  And yet, “high above the Subway sub shop,” as my then-boss was wont to say, the building stood.

When I would go back to visit East Lansing, which I did every year or so for a while, I would go into that edifice and chat with my former colleagues for a bit, always seeing new hires roaming the hall.  Shortly after the Wars began, the office moved, less than 200 yards away, but they vacated the spot where I spent so many hours, printing off crosstabs on a dot matrix printer until the early morning hours, coaxing our interviewers to “keep those dials up,” pulling together telephone samples using pages I copied from a Bresser’s Telephone Directory, and once, falling in love. 

The funny thing is that, years after I stopped working there, sometimes, the office door remained unlocked.  Once, perhaps 10 years ago, I was able to walk inside the long-empty office, now clearly hurtling past Condition: Ramshackle.  There were some odds and ends scattered about, a VCR box cover of Pulp Fiction was resting on the floor in the main office, which once offered one of the best vantage points for observing the activity at the corner of Grand River and Evergreen, a short walk away from the MSU Union.  Time and the wrecking ball ended that cozy perch.

And now, the building is gone, living only in the memories of those who trooped up and sauntered down its steps.  I believe a hotel is going to be built in the space it occupied.  I suppose we all have such a place that stands out in our recollection, a place that fills us with a sense of warmth, even when not all of the times experienced there were joyous.  But when we think of it, we default to a smile.

In solidarity.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Village Idiom

I saw a Facebook post from the Wilde Lake Community Association this afternoon.  Apparently, “the nomination period for the annual Wilde Lake Village Elections open today.”

Having served parts of two terms on the Wilde Lake Village Board (WLVB) let me fill you in on what to expect.  If you are considering running for such a position, this post is for you.

First, although many Columbia-based elected officials once served on a village board, it is not an elective governmental office such as the Howard County Council or the state legislature.  It is a “Community Association” which is essentially an over-sized Homeowners Association that has some facilities and runs some programming, which are executed/overseen by a handful of paid staff members (primarily a Village Manager) and a volunteer Board.  If you want a good handle on how they spend their time and resources, I strongly recommend attending village board meetings…or at least reading through the meeting minutes and agendas (most, if not all, of the Villages post these documents on their community association websites).

Think of it as a private organization that serves a quasi-public function in terms of putting on/sponsoring community events.  For the Wilde Lake Community Association (WLCA), for example, the mission statement speaks about how it was formed “to organize and operate a nonprofit civic organization, exclusively for the promotion of the health, common good, and social welfare of the owners of property in, and the residents of, the Village of Wilde Lake.”

That mission can cover a fair amount of ground, ranging from hosting village gatherings like the annual picnic held at Wilde Lake in the autumn to serving in an “enforcement” role regarding the “exterior appearance and maintenance of properties in the Village.”  The covenants…”learn (them), know (them), live (them).”

It has been my experience that at least 80% of Village residents don’t know/don’t care about goings-on at that level. This statement isn’t designed to fault them.  People are busy and they have other things happening in their lives.  And even with the close working relationship between the Columbia Association (CA) and the various village community associations, many area residents simply don’t have the time or energy to invest in finding out about what their local village board is up to, programming-wise. 

Case in point, in my first tour of duty, I had this idea called “Active Wilde Lake” that was intended to provide new opportunities for residents to engage with Board members to talk about village-related issues.  We had hundreds of fliers printed up, and I spent a fair number of hours walking door-to-door distributing them, particularly in neighborhoods that I thought were somewhat less likely to be wired into Village happenings, including Faulkner Ridge (my neighborhood) and Bryant Woods.   How many people participated?  Two.  At best, it was a modest success.

In my second term, I was tasked with expanding our Neighborhood Representative program, which basically involves getting local folks willing to serve as information conveyers regarding hyper-local issues and events.  So I called many of them to find out what works and what didn’t regarding How to Get Folks More Involved.  I also developed a survey instrument designed to obtain insights on Village priorities, etc… I recall having about five minutes to present the findings at the end of a particularly long Board meeting.  At the time, I was dealing with a new job that was demanding a great deal of my energy and my dad had recently passed.  I needed to simplify my life, so I left the Board.  Expanding the pool of Neighborhood Reps beyond the Regulars, from what I hear, remains an ongoing challenge.

So why get involved?  If you want to get more engaged in your local community, and have the time to dedicate to it (ideally at least a couple of hours per week, between the official Board meetings and activities connected to community programming or related events), then why not?  You will meet some interesting Columbia-folk and have a better handle on how the CA and villages operate. Is it for everyone?  No.  In my first term, I decided to visit some other village boards, to see how their meetings ran.  I saw some Boards that seemed quite well-aligned in terms of focus and general camaraderie (the Kings Contrivance Village Board being one example) and others…somewhat less so (no comment).  Will you hear odd questions?  Yes. In one meeting, someone needed clarification on how a parking garage works.

You have to have at least some commitment to the concept of community service.  Liking your neighbors helps.  If you are getting into it as part of some personal/political advancement scheme (I have seen this and it is painful to witness), people are going to figure that out quickly.

Hope this post helps.

In solidarity.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

HoCo Council, Kamala Harris, BLM

Incense and Shibboleths

Well, not so much incense…but Tahitian Vanilla candles provide a welcoming atmosphere for reflection and the sort of high-minded pontification that you, my dear readers, both expect and deserve.

Having essentially taken a month off from the blog, I was hoping to gain some valuable Perspective on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.  Of course, the answer to that question was 42.  42 also, coincidentally, being the vehicular mph at which one may receive a $100 fine from the speed trap cameras that are poised like vultures high above 295 in DC.  OK, perhaps it is slightly higher than 42, but still, I know an Autobahn when I see one, and the limit is ridiculously low for that stretch of road.  The lack of a posted limit in that area is no accident…we are cash cow herds rambling atop rough asphalt. 

Let’s do national and local politics today.

My audio wasn’t the best, but I believe I heard Howard County Council Chairperson Christiana Mercer Rigby endorse Senator Kamala Harris for President.  [Source: recent episode of Elevate Maryland.]  If I am correct, coupled with Opel Jones’ earlier public endorsement of Harris, that accounts for half of the Democratic members of the Council lining up behind Senator Harris’ presidential bid.  I may be pulling from a small sample size here, but, in light of some of the postings from others in our community, it does seem as though HoCo’s Young Establishment is enthusiastic about the esteemed Senator from California.

Note: in the interest of declaring my interest, I am still undecided regarding a primary preference.  While this blog looks favorably upon Senator Sanders and Senator Warren, I am not sold on either (yet) for 2020. 

Frankly, as I digress, I think Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has the potential to be a once-in-a-generation talent and I hope she finds her way on a national ticket in, let’s go with 2032.  But that is looking a bit down the road, isn’t it?  I love her politics and her communications skills are extremely impressive (we are talking about approaching-their-prime Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton-level connecting abilities).  But since she is not constitutionally eligible for the office of which we are speaking, I should veer back to the topic.

Harris is probably as far right as I can go. She seems to have a better candidate skillset than Sanders or Warren and I think a series of debates between Harris and Trump would show her mettle and reveal his flaws anew in many delightful ways, in front of a global audience.  Which is why she is on my short-list…but I don’t feel compelled to announce my support for anyone yet.

Why?  First, from a mercenary standpoint, no campaign is paying me for services performed.  So there is that.  Second, I want to see how the field shapes up.  We don’t know if Stacey Abrams will enter the fray (probably not, but still….).  Among others, Biden, Beto, Brown, and Bernie haven’t declared their intentions yet.  We are living in a time where Terry F’ing McAuliffe is looking like a saint, given what is going on in Virginia now.  There is madness in every room.

What else…oh yes, I am a bit late on this one (re: infrequent posting) but, for the record, I too am very displeased about the abstentions coming from three members of the Howard County Board of Education regarding the Black Lives Matter At School Week of Action.  This was an opportunity for words on inclusion to be translated into action and for a commitment to be made, in support of and in solidarity with “Black students, families, and staff members” to quote, in part, the words of Jessica Nichols. These are our brothers and sisters, and the children of our brothers and sisters, and to not recognize the need and moral imperative for this Week of Action, in these times, is simply inexcusable.  I don’t know what was in the hearts and minds of those who abstained.  I just believe that “process” is not a valid reason for an abstention.  Dante wrote about fence-sitters…and not in the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. 

Anyway, around 700 words.  Time to wrap it up.

In solidarity.