As I write this from afar, I can picture the long tables in the Chilmark Community Center, the town clerk’s volunteers overseeing voter check-in and the old oak box where voters deposit their ballots. It’s a long way from where I sit now, in a bustling, fluorescent-lit campaign office in Seattle where we are working to defend the state’s marriage equality law on the Washington ballot this November.
My absentee ballot has already been stamped and mailed. It’s not the same as walking into the community center, greeting friends and neighbors outside on South Road holding signs for one candidate or another, but it’s a vote I’m always determined to place. And that’s a value that I learned on Martha’s Vineyard in my very first job.
As a young reporter for the Gazette three decades ago, I learned firsthand that all politics is local. Whether it was a public records issue, a contentious article on the town meeting floor, or a school controversy, I learned that voices and votes had an impact, and that stuck with me.
And I think my biggest lesson was that those votes, whether by committee, in an election or on the town meeting floor, had real consequences. A town official’s absence could turn a question from one outcome to another. Significant zoning proposals and budget line items at town meeting often won or lost on the basis of fewer than 10 votes. Even town election outcomes in contested races or controversial ballot questions did — and do — come down to razor-slim margins.
Very quickly, I got it that every vote mattered. And the outcome was not some distant policy affair, it involved things I saw every day and people I knew. If the scalloping limit or calendar was changed, chances were I knew someone who was affected. If the town planning board I was covering made a zoning change, I didn’t have to check Google maps, chances were I knew the neighborhood.
School committee meetings often saw heated and passionate debate and went long into the night. I have a clear memory of the late Trudy Cournoyer running the regional high school committee meetings like a corporate board room (and I mean that as a compliment). People had their say but there was no filibustering. She was impressively unmoving on Robert’s Rules of Order, and as a result much was accomplished while everyone was heard — maybe not for as long as they planned, but they had their turn.
Local elections? Loved them all. These decisions weren’t based on YouTube videos with a cool sound bed or a big TV ad buy. This was honest-to-goodness retail politics, with candidates stumping on the front porch of Alley’s, at the town dump or making rounds on the harbor. There were (and still are) appeal letters that came in your mailbox, often with a personal note. For me, it was hard not to become drawn in, even when close Island ties could make a voting decision awkward at times.
My introduction to federal electoral politics came through the late Cong. Gerry Studds who was the first person to introduce the concept of town hall meetings to Congress. No one had done it before him. Gerry held those town hall meetings regularly in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, and unlike the often-sparsely attended political meetings of today, these sessions were packed with interested Islanders full of spirited questions on everything from fishing regulations to foreign affairs to Congressional rancor (there was plenty of it then, too). Gerry answered them all with characteristic frankness, humility and humor — always with a special nod for the late Gratia Harrington, an elegant senior citizen with peppery opinions who was a front-row fixture.
For me, the jump from journalism to government, advocacy and politics was not such a stretch. I left one to join the other mainly because I was drawn to move beyond observation into the political process, into participating and not just recording.
As we enter the final days of another presidential election year and face some profound choices that I optimistically believe have real meaning and consequences, I think that while we’re not casting our vote in Ohio or Virginia or even New Hampshire where the presidential contest may be decided, the Island taught me that it matters a lot to make our voices heard, however small.
And the way we do that in this country is to vote.
Mary Breslauer is a former managing editor at the Vineyard Gazette and current media and communications consultant who lives in Chilmark.