Maybe this has happened to you: You find yourself surrounded by people with whom you probably disagree on every issue except possibly the time of day, and you have to decide whether to cower in silence or step forward and let everyone know where you stand.
It happened to me a few years ago in the darkest heart of Red Sox Nation, in a sports bar televising the Boston-Cleveland series en route to Boston’s second (!) World Series title in its tortured history. I cowered — until I was outed by my companion, who thought it would add some fun to the festivities. It added to the evening, but that’s another story.
And it happened again early this month, shortly after I had written a column disparaging the current crop of Republican Party presidential candidates. Where do I end up but at the monthly meeting of the West Windsor Republican Party in a McMansion near the Southfield Shopping Center. Along with 25 or 30 diehard GOPers, I was there to offer a proper send off to a longtime West Windsor councilman, Charlie Morgan, and to hear a few comments from the featured speaker, Scott Sipprelle, who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Representative Rush Holt in the 2010 election.
And it was good to run into Sipprelle, whose mother once rang my doorbell while she was campaigning as a lonely Republican candidate for Borough council (something his father is now doing, as well). In Princeton Borough, where I live, Republicans are on the list of endangered species, and I figure I’m helping preserve the two-party system by simply listening to their views.
There were two positive take-aways from the meeting with Sipprelle. The first was reminiscing about U.S. 1’s Holt-Sipprelle cover story of September 8, 2010, in which our cover consisted of mirror image photos of the two candidates, both in khaki pants, blue shirts, and arms folded in front of their chests. The similarity of the photos, both provided by the campaign publicists, was not what Sipprelle mentioned, however.
What struck him was that our story was the single most substantial piece of reporting about his campaign and what he stood for. Part of me wanted to bask in the glow: Our freelance reporter, John F. Heenehan, did indeed do a good job tracking down the candidates’ views on nearly a dozen different issues. Another part of me grimaced: What does it say about the state of community journalism when a business and entertainment weekly, which doesn’t normally cover politics at any level, provides the most substantial reporting in the course of a hotly contested race for a national office?
The other take-away was the meat of Sipprelle’s speech to the Republicans. It was the five lessons he learned in his first run for political office, which he suggested might be valuable for any business endeavor as well as for a political campaign. I had to agree, as I jotted down the elements:
1.) Have a plan. As Sipprelle explained it, his plan in running for Congress was that he was selling himself, and the voters constituted the market. “I’m a big statistics guy, part of the ‘Money Ball’ generation,” he said, explaining how he analyzed the 12th congressional district neighborhood by neighborhood, figuring how many votes he would need in each to win.
2.) Have a message and keep it simple. He recalled his first stump speech, before a group of MBAs and economists in New York. Sipprelle, who made his fortune working on Wall Street, figured he could talk their language and launched into a discussion of tax codes, long-term capital gains, and the like.
“How did I do?” he asked an advisor. The answer: “You lost them after about 30 seconds.” The lesson: People only have so much bandwidth.
3.) Find the “connectors.” Some people have “spokes that radiate,” Sipprelle said. But — whether they are trying to sell themselves to the voters or a product to a market — people often spend the same amount of time talking to each person they meet.
4.) Speak from your heart, not from your notes. When you are trying to connect with someone emotionally they don’t want to see you reading from notes.
And 5.) Don’t take yourself too seriously. A campaign can be “emotionally stressful,” Sipprelle noted. “Be honest about your own foibles.”
At the end of his talk Sipprelle offered a few thoughts about the state of the union today. “It used to be easy in government — all you did was give away money. But now we are at a tipping point.” Sipprelle compared the economy to a cart that we collectively push down the road. There are people who are disabled and truly in need, and we let them get into the cart and it still works. But when “all sorts” of people pile into the cart for a free ride, the cart gets stuck in the road. And that, Sipprelle declared, is where the U.S. economy is today.
I was tempted to offer another view: That cart is stuck, I could have argued, and it’s filled with Wall Street, too-big-to-fail fat cats who got bailed out while the rest of us took the hit. But I looked around the room. This was not the time or the place. Instead I made my way to the hors d’oeuvres table, trying not to cower. Fresh strawberries!