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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Primary Night in Pennsylvania

Yesterday was primary day in Pennsylvania and last night was the first time I've been to any political candidate's headquarters on election night. In fact I made it to two of them.

As Republicans, my friend Bernie and I were both invited to the primary night headquarters of Pat Toomey at the Best Western Hotel in Bethlehem. We were also invited to wait for results with the campaign team of Justin Simmons, the 23 year old insurgent that was challenging incumbent Rep Karen Beyer for the nomination for State Representative of the 131st District. Bernie and I had both circulated petitions to get Justin on the primary ballot. We went to the Toomey HQ first. We signed in, got our ToomeyforSenate lapel stickers, and mingled. The Toomey staff looked like they were recruited from Southern Lehigh High School. Okay, maybe not, but it's amazing how young campaign staffers can look to a 52 year old. They were sharp, well-dressed, polite, and at ease. There was no real question to the race. Toomey was going to walk away with the nomination and the only excitement for the crowd was watching the TV monitors to keep up with the Sestak/Specter contest in the Democratic primary. Bobby Gunther Walsh, the conservative Allentown talk-radio guy, went to the microphone every now and then to make announcements. Bernie and I each bought a Yeungling Lager at the bar; Bernie introduced me to Bobby; and Bobby and I chatted for a bit about the joys and horrors of raising daughters.

Pat Toomey wasn't around yet, nor were any of his senior staffers. We figured the inner circle was in a suite near-by, not paying any money for their beer, and waiting for the right time to have Pat make his entrance before the crowd. When Bobby announced that Pat would probably show up within the hour, we decided to drive to the Justin Simmons HQ.

That's where the drama was. Justin's team had taken over the bar at Pacifico, a Mexican seafood restaurant in the Promenade Shops in Center Valley. When Bernie and I got there, Justin's father was outside, getting some fresh air. We all shook hands and talked a bit. Justin's campaign manager was pacing around on the sidewalk, saying things like "56 votes up". He played with his cell-phone a lot, and talked into it often. I think I heard him apologize three times to various people for the hooded sweatshirt he was wearing. He was excited, and he should have been. His candidate was winning a primary race against an incumbent that had party support. We all went into the restaurant and Jay Simmons, the candidate's father, told us to order whatever we cared for at the bar.

There were only about 20 people in the place and the majority were under thirty. I can't really describe how electric things were; I'm not that good a writer. What I remember is how everybody's eyes were shining as the reports came in, and the vote spread kept growing. Before 11:00 PM the Beyer campaign people started calling Justin and Mark, his campaign manager, on their cell phones. Justin looked cool, collected, and in charge. Just like he should have. Mark was talking into cell-phones, typing on laptops, texting into hand-helds, and generally acting like the campaign manager of a candidate in a race that was looking good but coming down to the wire. Little by little the vote spread kept growing, and when the TV showed Simmons with 1928 against Beyer with 1748 (and 97% of the vote counted) someone pointed out the spread was wider than the 5% recount threshold. Simmons took the concession call from Beyer on the sidewalk outside, in the light drizzle, with Mark at his side. We watched through the windows. Just in case we couldn't tell how the call was going from Justin's comfortable stance and smiling face, Mark helped out by jumping up and down, and pumping his fists into the air.

When they came back in, and everybody finished hugging everybody else, and shaking hands with anybody they didn't hug, Justin said some gracious words about Karen Beyer. He then thanked just about everybody in the room by name. Other short speeches happened, most of us thought of people to send text messages to, a couple toasts were made, and everybody kind of hung out and yakked for while about the general campaign. I doubt I will ever again be in the inner circle of a political campaign when the opponent calls to concede. As Bernie and I drove home, we agreed that we made the right call leaving the Toomey shindig to come to Simmons HQ. Not only was the beer free, but the show was much, much better.

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