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Politics and Public Policy: Who Has Access to The Political System?

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Braille Forum, Volume XLIII, No. 2, September-October 2004:

Did you ever wonder what you would be up against if you ran for public office?

While running for a city council seat in Ann Arbor, Mich., this past fall, I learned just who has access to our political system. The implications of what I learned may be important to the civil rights struggle of people with disabilities.

I first became interested in politics and public policy during a course in college regarding this subject matter. I was quite intrigued with the decision-making power that a select few have over all of us. I was equally fascinated with the ways in which special-interest groups could change the minds of these decision-makers, and vowed that one day I would run for political office.

That day finally came early this past summer when I learned that one of my council representatives was stepping down. Although it was too late for me to declare a party affiliation, I decided to take a shot as an independent.

I felt confident that I was competent and could possibly win. After all, I have consistently used my master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan, and I was included in "Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges" in 1991 for my accomplishments. I had also remained active in my community civically.

Then there was my charisma, which I thought no one could resist!

The first thing that anyone must do when wishing to run for public office is to get the signatures of registered voters on nominating petitions. I needed 108 from my ward, which was two percent of the number of voters who voted from my ward in the last general election. Our city clerk advised me to get 30 percent over this amount just in case some of the signatures were invalid.

How would I gather these signatures, you ask? None of the businesses in my ward would allow me to canvass outside of their establishments, so it became apparent to me that I would have to walk door-to-door.

The variances in lot size and home styles in Ann Arbor posed a real challenge for me because I am totally blind. I carried the petitions myself with the help of a few very dedicated sighted friends who were not registered in my ward and therefore could not circulate the petitions themselves. Each evening, for a total of 18 hours in mid-July, we made our way walking through my ward as we encountered large barking dogs and out-of-order doorbells.

In early August I visited my city clerk to turn in 145 signatures along with notarized legal documents validating my true identity. Paperwork was also required by our county to record how my campaign committee would be organized. I signed a waiver stating I would keep my campaign spending under $1,000 so that I could avoid the need to file various financial documents later.

The next day the city clerk called to say my signatures were valid and that my name would appear on the November 4th ballot. I must admit that this alone made me feel pretty triumphant! Not even a minute had passed when the phone rang again with a call from a reporter from the Ann Arbor News with some brief questions about my candidacy. Yes, my campaign was off and running!

But now I had to figure out how to get my name out in front of approximately 16,000 registered voters, realizing that only 25 percent of them would vote in an off-year election.

Everything required for good name-dropping coverage is expensive. Copies of my beautiful red, white and blue flyer with my picture on it were $1, and I could only afford to send them to my petition signers. Black-and-white versions of this flyer were only nine cents apiece, but I could only afford to have about 1,000 printed of those as well.

Campaign yard signs would be $2.68, but only if I bought 150 of them without the brackets to put them in the ground. The post office told me that a bulk-mailing permit was $300, which would save me 13 cents for each piece of mail. People hand-carried my flyers to about 1,000 homes.

I originally intended to put copies of my flyers at my church and other community spots located in my ward, but these agencies did not want me to do this. Thus, there were some missed opportunities as I worked diligently to overcome the price of getting my name before the voters.

In mid-October all of the candidates were invited to videotape a three-and-a-half-minute speech on our public access cable station for numerous replays until the election on November 4. I found out later that many of the other candidates used notes, cue cards and graphics. I did not learn how to read braille until I was an adult, so I decided it was best to just memorize my speech, and it went pretty well.

Unfortunately, this was not the case when I was invited to attend the local live telecast of the League of Women Voters Candidates' Forum.

Sighted candidates could see a lighted timer when they were almost out of time, but I had requested to be given a 15-second warning verbally. Prior to the event I was contacted by the program's planner who thought it might be better to have a friend sit next to me and tap me when my time was almost up, but I thought that this would look very awkward, so I opted to have them ring a bell at the 15-second mark.

They would ask us these long three-sentence questions and give us just a minute to answer. The other candidates, who frantically took notes until it was their turn to speak, were able to use their notes to help them answer the questions concisely.

At one point, I heard the bell ring and completely lost my train of thought. It seemed like minutes of silence passed as I tried to recover the lost words. Since I am usually a very articulate speaker, I left there unhappy about my performance.

Reporters know how to cash in on the drama of life, and the Ann Arbor City Council race story was no exception! Early the next morning after the Candidates' Forum, I was contacted by the Ann Arbor News reporter again. He could tell there was a problem by the sound of my voice, and asked me about it.

I started to explain to him the socio-economic and disability barriers that I was trying to conquer in order to win the race. I spoke about how my father was a window cleaner, but how well he had raised three blind children and another with dyslexia who all turned out to be pretty successful. I expressed my surprise at how affluent the other candidates were, including my two opponents. Their fathers were doctors and lawyers.

I told him that I had the intellect and analytical skills to be a councilperson, but that given the odds it seemed so out of reach. And then it happened! I began to cry as I discussed my disappointment. Sympathetically, he told me that the Ann Arbor News would put my picture in the paper the following week and discuss this inequity. Although I asked him not to do so, he could not resist saying in the article that I had cried during our interview.

It was in that story that I learned that my strongest opponent, who was a Democrat, had spent $8,000 on his campaign compared to my $600. And just to show how fickle the media is, they endorsed him two days after this story ran!

I was losing hope when election day finally rolled around. I went bowling that afternoon, making light of the day's importance to others while pondering the entire experience.

I wondered to myself how a person using a wheelchair could even go door-to-door to gather the required signatures? If I had been affiliated with a party, would things have gone differently?

Nevertheless, I am not the daughter of a doctor or lawyer. I haven't been groomed my entire life to appeal to the masses! Yet, aren't I worthy enough to have a shot at politics too?

The results came in and I was not the winner. My Democratic party opponent who spent the $8,000 received the honour of being my ward's next councilperson. He is a 29-year-old labour attorney. I did receive 443 or 12.4 percent of the votes, which some say is a good first start!

As people with disabilities, we need to understand that gaining equal access to the process of becoming elected is just as important as equal access to voting itself. And, while we all weren't born to be politicians, our equity depends upon those who are! Some of us need to count ourselves among them! I will run again!