Trail-buddies are a must in campaigning

Two days before Kerri Price ’07 finished her summer internship with the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign in Ohio, she decided to memorialize the experience – on her hip. It was a group decision. Price and four other campaign workers, including her boss, all inked themselves with elephant tattoos.

Price may be the only Yale student to have solidified her campaign-made friendships in ink. But she certainly is not the only student to have discovered how quickly friendships can be spawned on the campaign trail. Whether Democrat or Republican, student volunteers agree that the long workdays and intense emotions that come with stumping for a candidate make for fast friendships, though not necessarily lasting ones.

For Price, her new skin art does not simply reflect her dedication to the Republican Party. It also displays her dedication to the friends she met on the campaign trail.

“It’ll be a lifelong relationship we have with each other,” she said. “And when we look in the mirror, we’ll remember that.”

While Price was getting tattooed, Alissa Stollwerk ’06 was unpacking her suitcases after a summer spent working on fundraising and Web site redesign at Kerry campaign headquarters. At the bottom of one suitcase, she came across a farewell card from her co-workers.

“It’s hard for me to describe how important that [card] is to me,” she said. “On one piece of paper, it summed up all my experiences from the summer.”

Before she arrived in Washington, D.C., Stollwerk said, she had doubts about working on the campaign. She did not know anyone in the city and had only solidified her job plans a week before arriving. But her co-workers quickly became her friends as well, showing her around the city and making sure she ate in local hotspots and saw famous memorials.

“The summer could have been a disaster,” she said. “And I got there and everyone was so incredibly welcoming and so friendly.”

Still, students said most of the bonding with fellow campaigners occurred during long hours spent in the cubicles.

“You tend to be in the campaign office for 14, 15 hours a day, nonstop, for the six months leading up to the election,” said Yale College Democrat Roger Low ’07, who spent the summer working on Ken Salazar’s senatorial campaign in Colorado. “Everyone gets to know everyone else pretty well. Unusually well.”

But intensity doesn’t necessitate seriousness. Far from it.

“You have to be fun, otherwise everyone wants to kill themselves,” Low said. “There’s a lot of banter.”

Matthew Blomerth ’05, who spent the summer at the Bush campaign headquarters in Washington, D.C., agreed that campaigners need some time to goof off.

“Everyone at the office took things extremely seriously, but when you’re working that hard, you have to just kind of cool down from time to time,” Blomerth said. “You lose your mind if you don’t take time off every now and then.”

“Taking time off” might mean hitting up the D.C. party scene, he said, or just grabbing dinner out with some campaign compatriots.

But other campaigners had relationships that extended beyond both the cubicle and the club. For a lucky few interns, romance bloomed on the campaign trail. But the majority said they spent their free time recovering from the stress of the job in a purely platonic environment.

Christine Slaughter’s three co-workers for 2004 Ward, a program focused on voter registration and community organization, were also her housemates. Unlike Blomerth, they were far too tired to party after a day’s work, she said. Instead, they bonded in an atmosphere the sophomore compared to a “retirement home.”

“We would come home at 9:30, make dinner at our kitchen, and sit around and talk and have tea,” Slaughter said. “We were all exhausted. And we really needed to have each other there for that emotional support.”

Although they were all Yale students, she said, they hardly knew each other before the summer. Now, they sometimes have brunch together. But they have separate lives at Yale, Slaughter said, so it is difficult for them to keep in touch.

For those campaigners whose new friends live in other time zones, even the occasional brunch isn’t an option. Instead, many said, they turn to e-mail and AOL Instant Messenger.

Topics of conversation can be trickier. Reminiscing is always an option. So are other “college things” such as classes, sports or even food. And when all else fails, campaign buddies can always talk politics.

But some students have already begun losing touch with campaign-trail friends. Jeremy Ershow ’06 said much of that distance occurred because his candidate, Wesley Clark, lost the Democratic primaries.

“It’s kind of hard to bond and build a relationship over a losing campaign and then have that relationship stay intact,” he said.

At the same time, he said, his experience strengthened his relationships with Yale campaigners like fellow Saybrugian Stollwerk, who was campaigning for Dean.

“Both our candidates were just clobbered in ways we hadn’t expected to get clobbered,” Ershow said. “We were able to just collapse into each other’s arms and lie on the couch for two hours, just because this thing had taken everything out of us.”

And because they were going through the “trauma” together, albeit for different candidates, it made it easier, he said.

Of course, most campaigners hope and plan to bond over a victory.

Price, for example, already knows how she’ll celebrate a Bush win: by visiting her group of newly-tattooed friends again.

If Bush wins, the five plan to meet in Washington, D.C. for his second inauguration, she said. And they’re getting another tattoo. This time, they’re outlining their elephants with the state of Ohio.

It will be another reminder, she said, of their friendships formed on the campaign trail.

“At a certain point, the people we were campaigning with became more important than the man we were campaigning for,” Price said.

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