Life on the Campaign Trail
Andrew Schneider recalls his run for the Virginia House of Delegates and what it taught him about politics, Arlington and himself.
IT ALL STARTED with a phone call in June while I was walking my dog in the Yorktown neighborhood where I live with my wife, Susan, and our two children. The call was from a friend to let me know that our state delegate, Robert Brink, was vacating his seat to take a position with the McAuliffe administration in Richmond.
I wasn’t just an interested voter. I had my eye on Brink’s seat. By the time Del. Brink resigned on June 29, Democrats and Republicans had only until July 7 to declare their parties’ candidates to comply with state law. This is the story of my six-day quest to win the Democratic nomination.
I have been passionate about politics ever since the second grade, when I remember watching the national debate over President Reagan’s plans to deploy MX missiles across Western Europe. Friends from Ms. Grimes’ government class at Yorktown High School will remember (with groans) my earnest participation in class. My 1993 senior yearbook superlative was “most likely to be a politician.”
In college, I wrote my honors thesis on Bill Clinton, and then worked in Vice President Gore’s domestic policy office at the White House at the end of the Clinton administration. With a lifetime interest in and connection to politics, deciding to run was the easy part.
But running as a candidate is a lot different than being an observer. (Think playing football vs. watching football.) I had to figure out how to run.
Political strategists will always start by asking about your “lists.” Do you have people who will give you money? Volunteers who will give up their precious time to help you?
Do you know enough people who will vote for you and, more importantly, get their friends, neighbors and networks to vote for you? Fortunately, the short answer to those questions was yes. Within days, I was able to raise enough money from friends (and my own pockets) to avoid one of the biggest hindrances and time sucks that tend to define modern campaigns—fundraising. (The other silver lining of our short run was that there were only so many things to spend money on in a six-day campaign.)
As for the people, I wasn’t shy about calling on everyone I knew. That included my parents, Ginna and Al Schneider; folks from Nottingham Elementary, where my kids are in school; friends from my alma mater and current employer, William & Mary (my job is engaging the nearly 20,000 alumni in the Washington, D.C., area); the congregation at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, which we have attended since 2000; and a litany of former colleagues from jobs in politics, government and the private sector. My children’s piano teacher even ended up being our campaign treasurer.
The day after July 4 (a Saturday), more than 20 friends knocked on doors and left pamphlets at more than 2,000 houses in the 48th District, covering a swath that stretched from the Harris Teeter on Harrison Street all the way to the Donaldson Run swimming pool. I can only imagine what this group could have accomplished with just a little bit more time, and I was humbled by their efforts on my behalf.
By the end of the six days, on July 5, Rip Sullivan had won the Democratic nomination for the seat. Although I didn’t win, I didn’t entirely lose, either: I learned a lot in this short but impactful experience.
I learned that during a campaign, efficiency is everything and the candidate is the campaign’s most important asset (probably why so many politicians have such healthy egos). I had to be very careful to stay focused on things that could garner votes. That meant that for six days, I ate most of my meals standing up or in the car. I had to outsource my parenting (I think my son watched an entire season of MythBusters in one week). I even swallowed my pride and let my sister-in-law mow my lawn.
I learned that I could not please every voter. While several voters thanked me for the robocalls, an equal number went out of their way to tell me they would never vote for me because I had used robocalls.
I learned that if you are going to record a video, you should always write a script, no matter how skilled you think you may be as an orator. (I ended up making about 40 takes of a 90-second video because I went into the process unscripted. The bloopers reel is pretty entertaining.)
I learned that in six days, I could not possibly wrap my head around every issue that is important to every voter. I knew I was out of my comfort zone when one voter asked for my opinion on collective bargaining for federal employees. (“It’s good…I think” was the official Schneider position on that one.)
I learned the importance of good footwear. Not a single night ended without my feet feeling bruised and battered.
I learned that it’s true—the camera does add 10 pounds.
I learned that being a Democrat is far different from being a Democratic candidate. Being asked to go on the record with yes/no positions on hot-button issues—from abortion, to fracking, to nuclear power—was a lot scarier and more personal than slapping a bumper sticker on my car or planting a sign in my yard.
In the end, my third-place finish (out of seven) wasn’t a victory, no matter how proud I felt of the effort or the immense gratitude I felt toward the family and friends who answered the call when I asked. But third was enough to be thought of—and to think of myself—in a different light.
My lifelong dream of running for office wasn’t soured by the reality of the political process. It was validated. I loved being a candidate, meeting new people, hearing their stories and hearing about the things that were important to them—labor issues, the environment, affordable housing, Arlington schools, backyard hens, transportation—along with their suggested solutions.
I learned, over and over, how many people truly care and think deeply about our community. I was humbled by the time and advice I was given by prominent leaders—even those who had endorsed other candidates or were staying neutral in the race.
I also loved that my candidacy brought together people from so many different chapters of my life. During those six days, I saw the confluence of parents from Overlee Preschool (which I attended, as did my kids); my seventh-grade history teacher, Mrs. Eckbreth (not to mention Ms. Grimes, who came and handed out literature on election day); and former swimmers whom I had coached almost 20 years ago at the Overlee and Donaldson Run pools. Some friends were voting in their first Democratic primary.
More than one family drove straight to the polls on their way back from vacation. Several friends showed up to vote, only to find out that they didn’t live in the 48th District (I applauded their effort, nevertheless).
On election day, as I stood with my fellow candidates outside the polls at Yorktown High School, I felt like I was starring in my own personal version of that old TV show This Is Your Life.
And I loved being a part of what makes our community—and frankly, our country—so amazing. In a few short days, I was able to participate in one of the most fundamental aspects of being an American: a free and fair election.
Granted, I really wanted to win. Losing definitely wasn’t fun. After the polls closed, the drive home was only a half mile, but it was a long and lonely half mile.
Perhaps a day will come when I’ll run for office again. For now, I am staying involved in our community, learning more every day and doing what I can to help shape Arlington’s next great chapter.
And, of course, trying to find new ways to get out of mowing my lawn.
Andrew Schneider, a lifelong Arlingtonian, is president of the Yorktown Civic Association and vice chair of Community Residences, a nonprofit that provides supportive housing and other services to people with intellectual disabilities in Virginia.