by Charles A. Monagan
Nov 6, 2012
08:22 AM
On Connecticut

A Distant Campaign Trail


It’s hard for me to get through an Election Day in Connecticut without thinking about the years I spent on the campaign trail. It wasn’t my own trail, I am happy to say. It was my father, John Monagan’s. For 14 years, from 1958, when I was 8, through 1972, he was a congressman serving Connecticut’s 5th District. In the view of my brother, my three sisters and me—especially in the early days—he was a valiant Democrat fending off the challenges of scheming, black-hatted GOP usurpers.

The district changed shape a couple of times during my father’s stewardship. It always included Waterbury and most of the Naugatuck River Valley, but for a while it also took in Connecticut’s entire northwest corner, where there were easily more cows than Democrats. I recall one typical visit to Norfolk for a late-season get-together in 1960. We arrived on a blustery afternoon in a Dodge station wagon that had been festooned with very large “MONAGAN for CONGRESS” lettering. A hardy little band of local party regulars stood around an open pit in which a side of beef was roasting. We were grateful for the warmth the fire provided, and my father was no doubt happy to find any Dems at all in town. 

The trail offered many such diversions. There were fairs with cotton candy and sideshow tents (a baby-skinned bull! a two-headed calf!) in farm towns such as Harwinton, Goshen and Bethlehem. There were outings (the Portuguese in Naugatuck, the Lebanese in Waterbury) celebrating every nationality with music and food. There were genteel ladies’ teas that seemed like throwbacks to an earlier day—Mamie Eisenhower rather than Jackie Kennedy.

The campaign season was much shorter back then, so October was when you had to get most of your work done. (Things were a lot cheaper, too; that victory in 1958 cost just under $15,000.) Polling and other forms of technology were basically nonexistent. As the days shortened and the season deepened, you just had to hope you’d done enough, your opponent had done too little, and that the party apparatus would get the vote out on Election Day.  

Now here we are in 2012, with a presidential race, senate seat, congressional races and all the seats in the state Senate and House of Representatives up for grabs. More than 50 years after my first experience on the trail, I have to say that the campaign season has changed but not for the better. It has become endless and wantonly expensive. Campaign buttons and bumper stickers—symbolic personal touches both—have been replaced by TV commercials and professional consultants. Negative campaigning and open cynicism are stronger than ever. Candidates no longer seem to be in charge of their own lives.

In fact, we voters may be the only remaining sane part of the process. In races large and small, our voices are still the ones that matter most. It remains up to us to find the distinguishing trait, the sense of honor and honesty, the sliver of hope, that puts one candidate in front of another. I finally got to vote for my father in 1972, the year he lost. I remember feeling that my vote hadn’t meant much, and I’ve felt that way a few times since. But then another November like this one comes along and I get re-energized. My father’s old election trail may be little more than a distant, fading memory, but voting remains an evergreen pleasure and, of course, a signal privilege of living in a free society. 

A Distant Campaign Trail

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