The last campaign

My father was the kind of upright politician who did thankless, largely unquantifiable good works. Unfortunately the electorate didn't give a damn.

By Erin Aubry

Published November 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I'm not proud to admit this, but I've never been much inclined to try to overcome my fears. I've always regarded fear less as a trial and more as another essential compound in the periodic table of spiritual elements. Rather than stare down the demons, I tend to make room for them and then go on about my business. Roller coasters inspire terror, so I don't go to amusement parks. A dog bit me in the face when I was 11, so I've given dogs a wide berth ever since. When a waterbug finds its way from a sewer drain into my apartment, I promptly leave and call a neighbor to come attend to it. I can't bring myself to look at the thing again, let alone step in close enough to whack it with a broom or give it a good spritz of Raid. True, fear can exact a certain price of inconvenience, but in my mind that seems a small price to pay, compared with alternate courses of action -- for instance, picking up the bug by the antennae and flicking it out the window.

I am proud to admit that recently I have pushed through some measure of the fear, through the inconvenience and all, because my father needed me to. My father was a member of a local school board for 10 years, and when reelection time rolled around early this year, he enlisted me and my other siblings to help him campaign. Campaigning involves a good deal of walking precincts and phone banking -- political euphemisms for knocking on strange doors and cold-calling strange, potentially hostile people. I have a dread of approaching people I don't know; maybe it's fear of rejection, of appearing stupid, of reactivating a childhood stutter that, in my weakest moments, threatened to rear its ugly head, like a virus or a volcano, even after I'd outgrown it. But my father, though he could be gruff to the point of intolerance, was self-contained and asked for very little, particularly from his children; and these bids to stay in office were expressions of his lifelong commitment to furthering community good. I could hardly say no.

My fear of confrontation was odd in light of the fact that I'd always loved to perform and had gone so far as to earn a master's degree in acting; then again, it was not so odd given that I craved only the applause and was really too thin-skinned, uncompetitive and horrified at the prospect of repeated rejection and lack of interest to ever consider acting as a career. Yet as a pitchwoman for my father's last campaign I invoked every bit of actor I could. Ten years had passed since his first election battle; I still harbored dread, but it was tempered somewhat by experience and by the fact that my father was really struggling to hold his seat this time out. Often a lone voice of reason on a hotly contentious school board, my father had grown unpopular lately for opposing the hire of a superintendent whose employment history was eminently questionable but who had many friends on the board eager to bring him in. To shore up their voting bloc, these board members figured they had to oust my father, and so they began circulating all manner of lies about him in election mailers -- he was against progress, against children, etc. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Unlike his nakedly ambitious colleagues, my father had never during his 10 years sought higher office precisely because he had never been interested in anything but education reform. I was incensed, and moral indignation proved to be just the fuel I needed. The assault on my father's character, on my regard of him as a man of inviolate integrity even in his worst moments, was a bigger enemy than fear.

I walked neighborhoods like a missionary, wielding our modest fliers like copies of the Constitution. I exhorted people to vote for ongoing truth and justice, even when I got nothing more than baleful looks or wary appraisals through peepholes, mail slots and porch windows -- or when I got more than I bargained for, with middle-aged men looking no higher than my bust line as I delivered my spiel. I gave them fliers anyway and figured I didn't care what made them fondly remember the Aubry name and cast a vote for it -- far more crucial elections, after all, had been won with less. Most people were polite in an officious or Southern-upbringing kind of way; many brightened at the realization that I was Larry Aubry's daughter, that this campaign was a family endeavor. Some had no idea there was a school-board election at all, and didn't care, until I called my father from across the street, where he was walking, and had him brief such folks. Leaving fliers for those who weren't home or weren't answering felt like progress -- at least they would know we'd been there, agitating. Any contact at all felt like triumph.

Phone calling was a different, darker experience. I needed the bracing wind at my back, that communing with a live audience, that shot at a face-to-face conversion. The phone allowed for none of that. The phone was where I had to battle my fears the hardest, contain my willingness to retreat the most. Working the phone was performing stripped of all its improvisational, elocutionary glamour and reduced to the cold, hard kernel of selling. I had to sell my father's good name in 60 seconds or less during that window between breakfast and Saturday errands or between weekday dinner and bedtime, like a long-distance service. It seemed unsavory, not to mention contradictory; for all my moral indignation and political and filial faith, I felt like a fraud. And granted phone anonymity and the power of hanging up, people were far more likely to be rude, even vitriolic. With each call I increasingly hoped for an answering machine, so that I could at least get out all my words brightly, with no stutter and no interruptions or sighs of impatience or background noise of wailing children and God knows what else. But I had to maintain calm, even more so than during the walks, because my father was often sitting right across from me at another desk doing the same thing. I could see this was hard for him, too -- he was the furthest thing from a performer and was not good at sounding bright right off the bat, even for his own cause -- and that touched me unexpectedly. For his sake, I had to make it look easy.

Our small reelection headquarters sat on a major thoroughfare in a town that had seen better days, down the street from a long-shuttered movie palace papered with beauty salon ads. We had no amenities save a water cooler and an old television set with a wire antenna and no cable. After a couple hours of calling, my father seemed relieved to go down the block for pizza to feed the troops -- me, a brother and sister, a volunteer or two. I was bolstered enough by my father's tacit gratitude to take some phone lists home with me to do some calling during the week, after work. Though my resolve slipped several notches in the privacy of home, it nonetheless flared up in its own defense on several occasions. One night I got a real cynic on the line who announced that not only was he not going to vote for my father, he wasn't going to vote for any of these shiftless Negro politicians who had been busy selling out community interests for the last 30 years or so. I was stung. "Sir," I said, as firmly and as brightly as I could, "My father isn't like that."

"Oh, really?" he said sarcastically. "How do I know that? They all claim to be different." I launched into an impassioned recitation of my father's risumi, his honors, the details of his history as an education and human relations consultant. Then I threw all lingering fear of rejection and political good sense to the wind and told the man that my father would absolutely agree with the idea that black politicians had done a generally lousy job, and that he'd said on several occasions that the whole school board should be fired because, as a group, they were failing to do their job. What my father believed in most, I concluded, what he would fight for most diligently, was accountability.

The man was only slightly mollified. I realized then that no matter how bravely I or my father opened our hearts and told the unvarnished truth, if a candidate hadn't done something tangible -- presided over the grand opening of a park, fixed a pothole, even gotten embroiled in scandal -- the electorate was not likely to give a damn. Unfortunately for my father, he had done thankless, largely unquantifiable work all his life -- striving to get people to coalesce around issues, mediating street-level conflicts that rarely made it to the papers. As much as I admired his work, as a child I secretly wished he had been a plumber or a bus driver, something I could easily explain to my friends. It was no easier now to explain what my father did to adults who often had no more patience for complexities than children. I could only hope that the man would be impressed by the fact that I was willing to argue his points, and that I exploded a lot of hidebound fears in the process; those things together probably weren't as persuasive as my bust line -- now there was something tangible -- but it was better than nothing. Even, I had to admit, better than an answering machine.

We lost the election. Gathered in our office, surrounded by pizza boxes and sub sandwiches and soda that was meant to be the victory repast, we instead made regular calls to the city clerk's office that sank us deeper into gloom. My father was the most spirited in the face of defeat -- he had seen a lot of it in his life. When it was clear there was no chance of winning, he sat atop one of the old desks and acknowledged his thanks for our efforts and said of course he would keep on fighting the good fight, but in a different capacity now. He put his glasses back on and asked if there was anything any of his children wanted to say. I froze -- he had never invited this before, publicly or otherwise. I felt him glancing at me out of the corner of his eye, with some amount of longing. I was still. The moment passed from silence to a "Well, thank you all again, very much," and we all started eating the last of what we had the heart left to eat.

I wanted to say something; I didn't. Ever since I have regretted not stepping up to the moment and delivering a last, and probably most meaningful, impromptu speech of the campaign years. My built-up courage collapsed in the face of possible rejection, in the face of my father's need to finally hear what we had to say. All this time I had faced the masses for my father, yet he was an audience of one I was still uncertain of winning over. As much fear of strangers as I'd overcome on sidewalks and porches and phones, in the end I wasn't quite able to overcome a more deep-seated fear of the familiar. I am waging now, as I have always waged, a private campaign to unseat that fear for good.

Erin Aubry

Erin Aubrey Kaplan is a staff writer at the L.A. Weekly and a contributor to "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood," edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses (Villard).

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