If I had to describe what it's like running for office for the first time, I'd explain it this way: Wait for a sunny day and seek out the tallest, thickest, nastiest tree you can find. Once there, strip naked and climb to the very top, wrap a blindfold around your eyes and jump into the thicket below.
As you're slapped in the face with every limb; knocked around like a pinball from branch to branch, you have to find ways to maintain a belief in a political system wired for resistance; belief in a people conditioned for cynicism; and belief in yourself, as you are challenged almost ceaselessly to compromise your principles in some way.
Something changes when you take that first plunge. The lines of reality sharpen and then fade around the edges, and once you do reach bottom, you're left wondering how your wounds will heal. Will they scar with bitterness and frustration, or will they regenerate into a tougher, wiser layer of skin? Will you hesitate before the next climb to the top? And once there, how will your memories shape your path forward?
It's these questions that illustrate where leadership bleeds into politics. And several months after my first ever political campaign, in which I ran for U.S. Congress in Arkansas's Second Congressional District as a Democrat, I am grappling with these questions in very real and difficult ways.
The phrase "campaign trail" has a special place in the psyche of American political discourse. You don't have to travel far to be reminded about the glory days of politics, as candidates rode from town to town, speaking from a megaphone, leading parades — and, of course, shaking hands and kissing babies. The "trail" was a train of communities, interlinked and interwoven into the democratic process.
But that campaign trail no longer exists. Old courthouse rallies have been replaced with cocktail parties. Backwoods stump speeches with VIP fundraisers. Fireside chats with fund-raising calls. It seems everywhere I traveled throughout the district, voters and candidates alike longed for that personal touch that defines Arkansas politics.
In early May, two weeks before the May 18 primary, I accepted an invitation to speak at the 20th Annual Free State of Yell Fest in Dardanelle, Ark. What was once "the centerpiece" of the weekend's festivities was now hauntingly barren.
While waiting to speak, I saw that one old-timer was visibly upset. As I inched toward him, he continued staring at an old, faded campaign poster of former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, which hung loosely on a plywood wall next to the stage.
"It ain't what it used to be," He suddenly muttered. "It just ain't."
As I walked onto stage, staring at the empty bleachers, I decided it would be my last time to speak before the primary.
I was extremely excited about the opportunity to speak before the public. I guess I wanted my very own "Obama moment." But it never came.
I quickly discovered speeches make little difference. And if an event did generate a crowd, it was mostly candidates and their staffs. And perhaps a few potential voters would show.
As I listened to each candidate deliver their "stump" speeches, I worked extremely hard on my poker face. After enduring the same tired rhetoric week after week, my internal conversations became increasingly hostile.
While candidates did change message occasionally, the one constant was primary opponent Robbie Wills' "do nothing" campaign speech ...
"You might know me as the speaker of the house from Conway. But, you see, that's not exactly true. I come from a small town right outside called Pickles Gap, where my grandfather made these little things called a do-nothing. But he said, Robbie, you don't want to be a do-nothing, but a do-something. And that's exactly what I'm going to be when I go to Washington."
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