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A funny thing happened on the way to the legislature; I lost.

I am standing outside a firehouse on a rural road in the town of Esopus, New York. Inside, five or six people are voting. Two of them have come with me. I know they are just two votes out of more than 4,500 that will be cast today, but I do not really believe it. In my mind, they have become the two votes, the only two votes that matter.

I have never run for anything in my life, and now, in its final hours, my campaign has come down to a desperate attempt to get those last two voters to the polls.

For nearly five months I have been campaigning for a seat in the Ulster County Legislature, one of three Democrats running against the three Republican incumbents in the towns of Esopus and Rosendale. Over the past 60 days, I have devoted about 200 hours of my life to knocking on doors, attending church dinners, addressing envelopes, putting up yards signs graced with my name, and hitting up just about everyone I know - and lots of people I don't - for a few bucks to keep my campaign going. Almost every night and every Saturday and Sunday, I have been out knocking on doors, more than 2,000 in all. I've become obsessive and compulsive: driving home from work, when I've felt the urge come over me, I've pulled over my car, put on my name badge, and begun working a neighborhood.

Getting my two voters to the polls has not been easy. They are strangers to me, names on a list of people I have been calling in a last-ditch effort to get out the vote before the polls close 9 p.m. Yes, the woman has told me on the phone, she wants to vote, and her son, too, but they have no ride to the polls. "And we always vote," she says. Ten minutes later, mother and son are in the back of my Honda Civic, chatting about Brooklyn and septic tanks and life in the country.

As we cruise along in the dark, I fantasize that in a just universe, these two voters will put me over the top. Their votes would be the payoff for the extra effort. For it work out any other way would be cosmic cruelty.

In my newfound life in local politics I have become, like the other candidates, a luck freak. There are no polls. There are no experts. In a local race like this one, the campaign trail had no markings. Yet we desperately want to know how we are doing, looking for some confirmation of vague feelings and half-baked hunches. We have become rumormongers and tea-leaf readers, believers in signs, bouncing back and forth between uneasy optimism and unfettered paranoia. I have won four raffles at the dinners and fairs and yard sales that are mandatory stops on the campaign trail. People tell me it is a good sign, a very good sign. I shrug off such talk, but I notice that as Election Day draws nearer, I tell people about the raffles more and more often.

Now I am convinced that I am going to be one of the three winners in the legislative race. I just have a certain feeling. Bea Havranek, the town supervisor in Rosendale, has said it looks good for us. "How can she tell?" somebody asks. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. We trust Bea. We want to believe it. We let the subject drop.

All day, I have felt on the brink of victory. I've seen it in the way people have nodded at me as they come out of the polling places, and I remember all the rumors I have heard over the past three days of die-hard Republicans ("black Republicans" we call them) who are abandoning their party and voting for me. And Tommy Killeen, proprietor of Port Ewen Liquors, where the collective political wisdom of Esopus is distilled and dispensed, says it looks good. I believe him, too.

My bliss in believing that these two last voters I'm bringing to the polls will deliver my soon-to-be-good political fortune is jarred by the presence of a freight train making a complete stop in front of me, blocking Union Center Road. In effect the train is cutting the election district in half: my two votes and me on one side, the polling place on the other. For a few minutes we wait. The train does not move. I think again of cosmic cruelty. Finally, I pull a sloppy U-turn and head back to Route 9W, drive south a couple of miles and try a second crossing. The train is blocking that one, too. It appears to be quite long and quite dead. In less than an hour, the polls will be closed.

The only route that remains lies even farther south and involves going over the top of Esopus Mountain on a road that is, in places, barely wide enough for a car. But it's that or cart my two omens back home. Take it or leave it. Twenty minutes and one wrong turn later, I pull into the polling place. Mother and son both thank me for my efforts. I wait in the parking lot. "Good luck," a young woman says as she leaves. Another good sign, I think.

For the first time in hours, I am alone. In a few minutes the whole campaign will be over. Campaigning has overtaken my life these past eight weeks. In Ulster County politics, it's a time-honored tradition to campaign door-to-door, but none of us really knows whether it does any good. We do it, in part, because it makes us feel as if we are making progress. Each night we go home and get out our election district maps and color in the streets we have done that day. It's the one tangible thing we have in our luck-freak world and we choose to swear by it.

At the end of the day tomorrow, I will go and do what other people do. I tell friends that I'm looking forward to that, but I know that I will miss the clarity of purpose that a campaign imposes on a life. All addictions have their own peculiar logic.

From the side door of the firehouse, my two lucky charms emerge, thanking me again. It is a pleasant ride back to their house. I have invested the better part of an hour for these two votes. As we pull into the driveway, the woman asks: "Are you David McCraw?" I have mentioned my name at least three times. I mention it again. There is an awkward silence from the back seat. The woman says she has voted for me. I'm not so certain. The son is noticeably quiet. Yes, I think as they walk toward the door, may be the gods can be that cruel.

Tuesday, May 26, 10:15 a.m.

You'd like to think it happens the way it does for Jesse Jackson, with a throng of supporters screaming, "Run, Jesse, Run!" For me, it was one Roger Mabie on the phone saying, "David, I have a rather strange request."

I have met Roger only twice in my life. He is the head of the Esopus town Democrats and, at 70, the closest thing the town has to an elder statesman: a supervisor, former county legislator. Two weeks ago, we were seated together at a fundraiser for Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey. Now Mabie is calling to ask me to run for the Ulster County Legislature.

I do not ask him the obvious question - why is he calling me? I am too flattered, too vain, too curious. Instead I ask him some technical questions about running for office, and then tell him I'll think about it.

"It will be a slice of American life," he assures me.

Tuesday, June 2, 7:15 p.m.

I am speeding down the back roads of Rosendale, trying to get to Ulster County Community College. Neil Young is on the radio, singing a song about what it would be like if Miss Liberty were a little girl. The late-day sun is still shining.

In a few minutes, at the Democrats' county convention, I will be nominated as one of the three legislative candidates from District 6. Marilyn Coffey, the Esopus supervisor, has agreed to run also. Our third running mate is a nurse named Manna Jo Greene.

I have dressed for my part - the standard issue khaki suit, the blue Oxford, the requisite red tie - but the last thing I feel like is a politician. For six years, I have been the Sunday humor columnist for the Daily Freeman, a freelance writer, and a journalism professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. I have never held public office, never been to a caucus or convention, never worked on a political campaign.

Until eight days ago, I had never thought about running for office, except in that off-handed way that journalists do when they cover politics, knowing full well that blessedly it will never come to pass. So newborn is my political identity that a week ago I received an invitation to a fund-raising luau for Republican Roscoe Pecora, one of the incumbent Republican legislators I will be nominated to run against tonight.

Why am I running? The question makes me uncomfortable. Because I was asked. Because I am curious to find out what it's like. Because I think I'd be a pretty good legislator, although I'm not all that clear on what legislators do.

Three days after Roger called, I called back and accepted. By then I had talked it over with a few friends and arranged for a leave of absence from the Freeman. "If I were Frank Cashen [general manager of the Mets], I'd call you a foundation player," Roger says on the phone. He is decidedly more difficult about this than I am.

In the legislature, the Republicans hold a whopping 25 to 8 majority. Tonight's gathering is not likely to conjure up many visions of a better tomorrow for the Democrats. Maybe 100 people fill a quarter of the auditorium. There are no balloons, no banners, no brass bands playing "Happy Days Are Here Again." Seven or eight reporters slouch down in a row of seats near the front.

One by one, the candidates come forward to say a few words. A couple admit they were drafted that very afternoon. One concludes his remarks with a loud promise to help make "Bob Dwyer the majority leader in the legislature." John Dwyer, the Democrat's legislative leader, smiles forgivingly.

All the candidates, including myself, float the standard rhetoric about tossing the Republicans out of office and sweeping to victory in November. The Democratic insiders think there's reason to be hopeful in my district. Until two years ago, two of the district's three seats were held by Democrats, and the current legislature has received some bruisingly bad publicity for cost overruns on the renovation of the county office building in Kingston. Add to that Marilyn's high profile as town supervisor and my purported name recognition as a columnist, and you have the rosy, upside scenario.

But the numbers are against us. Of the 7,000 voters in our largely rural district, only 1,700 are registered Democrats, with the rest fairly evenly divided between Republicans and independents. One of the three incumbents Attilio Contini, a darling of the hard right, has managed to hold his seat for 10 years. His junior colleague, Roscoe Pecora, has already raised nearly $2,000, with more to come, in a race that most people price in the $500 to $1,000 range. The third Republican, Joan Every, whose first term in office might charitably be described as nondescript, is seen as the most vulnerable, but even she rolled up an impressive 2,200 votes in the 1985 sweep.

And then there are my personal statistics: no money raised, no political experience, a brief two years of residency in Esopus, and may be six real friends living in the district (three of whom, I later discovered, aren't registered voters).

In my impromptu speech I don't mention the negative numbers. Instead I play on my image as a columnist with a low tolerance for politics and politicians. "I am not a politician. I am person who cares deeply about Ulster County," I say.The warm response is encouraging. I leave feeling upbeat.

But when I think beyond the partisan crowd in the auditorium, there are some nagging personal doubts. For one thing, I have no idea what running for office entails. For another, the response to the announcement of my candidacy has been something less than overwhelming. A former colleague at the Freeman wrote about me in his political column: "Legislative candidates are a dime dozen. A good writer can give joy for a lifetime." Another friend said I should run because I have "one of those Jimmy Carter smiles." My ex-wife has weighed in succinctly: "Oh, God."

Thursday, October 22, 4:30 p.m.

The sky is real blue, and it's the best day yet for watching the leaves turn color in Ulster County. I am making my way down Hardenburgh Road with Marilyn Coffey and Anne Hiller, the town court clerk. We've gone part of the way on foot, but as the houses start to spread out we resort to using Anne's car. After seven weeks of this, we have fallen into easy camaraderie.

In a local race such as mine, door-to-door, grass-roots campaigning is the most common modus operandi. Media coverage is minimal, and only four meet-the-candidate nights are on the schedule. Few people, except for family and friends, will show up for any of them. A fat issues notebook I've compiled rarely gets opened. The advertisement medium of preference here is the yard sign, and there we already have had to concede defeat. Our opponents' signs are everywhere, hanging from stakes and trees and old barns.

As we go door to door, very rarely is there any real politicking. We introduce ourselves, we hand out our literature, and then we move to the next house to do it all over again. People are polite, albeit noncommittal. Only one door has been slammed in our faces. At another stop, a woman let us know that "only the Democrats would dare interrupt her in the middle of a TV show."

On weekends, homeowners are more hostile. I feel like an intruder as I go knocking on doors. We've taken to announcing right up front, "We're Jehovah's Witnesses." It helps.

What doorstep conversations we do have generally fall into three categories: home improvements, cooking, and disease. I have learned to be careful when someone mentions shingles. Home improvement or disease? It could go either way.

I am threatening to write a country-and-western song about campaigning door-to-door, but I can't figure out how to rhyme "aluminium siding" and "gall bladder." We are getting giddy. The exhaustion, if not the absurdity, of campaigning is catching up with us.

As part of my coattails strategy for getting elected, I nearly always campaign with veteran politicians. In Rosendale, I work with Bea Havranek; in Esopus, with Anne Hiller or Marilyn Coffey or Roger Mabie. Over time, we learn one another's style and rhythm, and we adjust accordingly. With Anne and Marilyn, I know we will be moving at a healthy clip. With Roger or Bea, the pace will be slower. With Roger, I know I have to think twice about my apparel. We have been known to show up dressed in Ivy League identical: blue blazer, blue stripped Oxford, and a crew-neck sweater. To an unsuspecting electorate, we look like renegade recruiters from a failing New England prep school.

Among the veterans, an entire body of folklore about door-to-door campaigning has evolved. There are stories of candidates falling through porches, and being chased by gun-toting constituents. Once, so the story goes, a woman came to the door, the candidate discovering too late that he had rung the doorbell of a couple who had been making love on the living room floor.

Nothing so exciting is happening to me on my campaign trail. But I've been in a living room with Dwight Gooden shrine on the wall and have been given a tour of a house built largely from junk found at the Rosendale landfill. One woman told me her neighbors had planted electrodes in her brain. One older and somewhat demented woman came to the door in her underwear. Pretty tame stuff, really.

On this Thursday, we are having a particularly good afternoon, lots of people home, and even a few commitments. We resist the urge to feel confident, but it comes over us anyway. Marilyn and I have been endorsed by the powerful Civil Service Employees Association. And a fundraiser my friend Sandy put together for me last weekend at her house was an unabashed success. We set out to bring in $900 and ended up with more than $1,700. Tomorrow Marilyn and I will be among three candidates endorsed by WGHQ-AM in Kingston. Everything is going our way.

Thursday, October 29, 4:45 p.m.

The rain and sleet come down as we ride along Route 9W, jumping off and on the back of Anne's Subaru station wagon, going door to door on the final Thursday of the campaign. I am wet and cold and miserable, I want to go home. I want the election to be over.

I think about yesterday's candidates' night, our last joint appearance with out opponents. I talked, as always, about fighting overdevelopment, but this time I had the passion, clarity, the right touch of humor in my voice. I connected with the audience like no one else. "You should be thinking about running for the Assembly," someone said afterwards. Others offer similar praise. I left on the best high of the campaign.

Now, 18 hours later in the rain on Route 9W, I hit bottom. I'm tired. For five hours last night, Sandy and I folded letters and stuffed envelopes. At 3:30 in the morning, I was dropping off a grocery bag of mail at the Kingston post office. Now, the weather turns worse. My shoes and socks are soaked. I have no overcoat. Yet we go to one more house.

Election night, 9 p.m.

The poll watchers at Esopus Town Hall in Port Ewen cheer. They have been here since 5:30 a.m. The polls are now closed. The election inspectors open up the backs of the machines - three of the town's seven districts vote here - and pull out five carbon sheets that record the votes.

The Democrats have set up in the town clerk's office next door to the polling area. Roger Mabie, once again a candidate for supervisor, has put himself in charge of our unofficial tally. Marilyn is out at the rural polling sites. Manna Jo Greene is with the Democrats in Rosendale. I am here, pacing.

Today has been disorienting. All around me normal life has continued in fashion, but I have felt like a groom on his wedding day: a public curiosity, itchy, idle, a man carried along by events no longer under his control.

I also feel full. We have eaten our way through Election Day. All the Esopus candidates, Republicans and Democrats, gathered in the morning at Lindy's luncheonette for a free breakfast. Lunch was an extended chow-down of chicken, steak, and wine at Kingston's Twaalfskill Club, and dinner was stew at Marilyn's house.

In between, we cruised the district, visiting polling places, passing some time with Tommy Killeen at the liquor store, hanging around town hall waiting for calls from voters who needed rides.

Over the past 10 days, I pressed my campaign well beyond anything I intended. I send personal notes to more than 150 people I met during the campaign. I aired 20 radio spots. I did a hand-addressed, first-class mailing to nearly 1,000 voters, writing individual messages on at least 700 of them. I spent more than $600 on newspaper advertising. And even as late as last night I was knocking on stranger's doors and calling people at home. When all the bills are in, I will have spent $2,500, nearly five times what I had planned, $800 of my own, $1,700 raised.

And now this is it: 15 people in a small room waiting for some numbers to be recorded. I feel neither hopeful nor pessimistic, just numb. We are no longer luck freaks and omen readers. We have become accountants.

I walk over and join the cluster of people around Roger. The first district - Esopus I, a swing district - is being counted. Coffey. . .180. . .Mccraw. . .150. . . Greene. . .143. . .Contini. . .207. . .Pecora. . .263. . . Every. . .194. I walk back to where Sandy is sitting. It's going to be a long night, I tell her.

Election night, 9:45 p.m.

At least I am no longer the prisoner of uncertainty. I am also no longer the prisoner of hope. Every few minutes, more bad news dribbles in from the polls and for a while our loyalists gamely float encouraging words. "Wait and see what happens to District 3," someone suggest after we take a beating in 1 and 2. But within five minutes I learn that in District 3, I am running a distant fifth. "Maybe Rosendale will come through for you," I hear a few minutes later. The phone call comes from Bea Havranek. I am running fifth there, too.

Tommy Killeen starts talking about what I should run for next year - the campaign has officially ended. I pour some champagne and walk back to Marilyn's office to take the final results from Rosendale over the phone. She has finished third in Esopus. She runs last in Rosendale. The Republicans have swept. "Tomorrow will be bad," she says, "but by Thursday no one will remember."

Out front, the few people who remain are trying to have a party and failing miserably. Roger has won; so has Anne. But the Republicans have taken both the town board and the county legislative seats.

"You of all people should know how to be philosophical about this," a friend says, I can't decide whether she's just trying to lift my spirit or is afraid I'll go outside and punch out a telephone booth. "Of course," I say.

Election night, 11 p.m.

Marilyn and I ride in my car in silence. We are going to Republican headquarters in Rosendale to congratulate the victors. We have no theories about what happened. We just lost. Tomorrow, we and everyone we know will be doing a post mortem.

We walk into the Republicans' storefront office. Inside we find a crowd, largely made up of Democrats, town candidates who also came over to concede. The Republican candidates are nowhere to be found. Nobody knows what we're supposed to do. We stand around for a while, and then we leave. An absurd twist on a bizarre night.

I drive back home via Port Ewen. On the way out of town, I pass our billboard, the one that has "Coffey, Greene, McCraw" in big red letters across the top. Below that, it says: "Vote for answers, not excuses." It occurs to me that the sign is going to look fairly silly in the morning.

I think back to June, when somebody asked me why I wanted to run, and I said, "I think it's one of those things everybody in America should do once." I guess I still believe that. In local politics, you see America from the ground up. You see the pettiness and the prejudice and the narrow vision, but mainly you come away amazed by the marvelous diversity of life out there. There is also affirmation that people are basically decent, good, and caring, I'm glad I had to chance to discover that.

But damn, it sure would have been nice to win.

David McCraw is director of journalism at Marist College. Copyright 1988 Suburban Publishing Inc. Reprinted with permission of Hudson Valley magazine.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Washington Monthly Company
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:McCraw, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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