Irene Stein, the little old lady in a purple sweater jumpsuit and black walking shoes, is the chair of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee.
It’s people like her who really run this country. They organize the retail politics that can make or break a candidacy. What begins in living rooms and union halls, bit-by-bit, event-by-event, middle school gym by Elks Lodge, changes the direction of the most powerful nation in the world. That’s why Michael Arcuri is here tonight, in the sagging Victorian building that serves as the community center in Lansing, N.Y., just northwest of campus.
Arcuri, the Oneida County District Attorney, is running for Congress. Over the course of the campaign, the Democrat has turned himself into one of his party’s best chances to take back the House. Late last month the non-partisan Cook Political Report changed its rating of the race in the 24th N.Y. district from “toss-up” to “leans democratic,” and the seat represents one of the Democrats’ 10 best chances to take a seat previously held by a Republican.
But Arcuri will not speak yet. Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-22) is late, and Stein, who is serving as emcee tonight, is determined to stick to her program.
“I’d like Cong. Hinchey to speak, and I’d like him to introduce Michael [Arcuri],” she says. “So we’re going to have a cake break — and then we’re going to take back Congress.”
A group of people blocking the crowd’s path to the three homemade sheet cakes on the back counter steps out of the way.
One cake has Arcuri’s campaign logo on it, another the American flag, and the last a map of New York State with the 11 counties in Arcuri’s district drawn out in orange and green icing. The cakes are attended by a woman in a red vest covered in political buttons and John Cawley, a young associate professor in policy analysis who tonight sports an American flag themed tuxedo vest underneath his camel colored jacket.
“I used to volunteer at the polls,” he explains. His aunt made him the vest.
As Arcuri talks to the press, he fields requests for autographs from adults as well as children. They want him to sign the custom Mike Arcuri baseball cards that his campaign had made up.
“That’s the one thing I haven’t gotten used to yet,” Arcuri says.
“Don’t pivot too far,” says an aide, reaching over and turning him by the shoulder so a reporter on the other side of the circle can hear.
His staff says he’s knocked on 1,800 doors and driven 30,100 miles since the campaign began, and according to Arcuri, the road has taken a toll.
“Sometimes you’ll be lying in bed at 4:30 a.m. and you want to sleep but you’re lying there and you think, oh God, maybe I should check my email, and then you drink coffee and then you’re up and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he says. “We drink a lot of coffee.”
At events like this one — in halls, homes and diners across Central New York — a candidate can’t avoid having a cup.
Today, Arcuri will vote with his children at 7:00 a.m., take breakfast in a diner, speak to retired union members, and then begin a whirlwind tour to polling places throughout the district, which will wind up with an election night party in the Utica Radisson.
Arcuri, who says that he enjoys campaigning, makes light of the unsavory bits of the political process in his speech to the gathering. Arcuri says his son, C.J., came home from school a few weeks ago with a story about telling a classmate what it means to be a Democrat – his answer, apparently, was too vague for Arcuri’s taste.
“Even my poor son’s on message now,” Arcuri jokes.
After the speech, Ethan Felder, who is co-president of the on-campus student group supporting Arcuri’s candidacy, asks Arcuri which committee he’d like to be on if he gets to Washington. Arcuri mentions his interest in the science committee and issues like energy independence. Then he remits, owning that he should probably join the transportation committee, to fix his district’s roads.