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America Decides 2004 Jewish Campaigners Earn Long Hours, Low Pay and the Time of Their Lives

January 27, 2004
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Jake Honigman says it’s easier than raising money for Jewish causes. Emily Silver says its addictive qualities postpone the nice Jewish husband scenario for which her mother hankers.

Plumping for candidates along New Hampshire’s frozen byways and among its famously irascible voters is, for some young Jewish activists, the best life there is this political season.

With U.S. Jews split among the seven Democratic candidates, almost every campaign has Jewish staffers working at jobs from the very top to the very bottom. Their enthusiasm — and little else — carries through hundreds of monotonous campaign tasks.

Honigman, 21, would have been content campaigning for Howard Dean for nothing, but his skills as an organizer means he gets paid, albeit not much.

“At this point, these jobs are great, because they’re not permanent, but you get some responsibility,” he said. “They’re intense. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a good time.”

The “good time” Honigman enjoys as an area coordinator presumably takes into account the frequent hang-ups he gets when he calls his new neighbors — and the answering machines that warn campaigners not to leave a message.

It’s par for the course, says Honigman, who once raised money in New York for the United Jewish Appeal in phone campaigns.

“This is nothing compared to that,” he says. “That was a lot worse.”

This is exactly how Honigman wanted to spend his winter break from Cornell University. The Brooklyn native came here in mid-December, and will drive back to school the day after Tuesday’s primary.

Honigman fell in love with the former Vermont governor’s campaign long distance, while he was studying in Australia for a semester last year.

He got a jolt, though, when he told his Jewish friends about his choice — Honigman says they were poisoned by an anonymous e-mail campaign distorting Dean’s Middle East positions.

“Walking into my synagogue and saying I was working for Howard Dean was like stabbing myself,” Honigman said. “It was extra painful because I know where he actually stands on issues is where a lot of those people are.”

The reaction may have helped prepare him for New Hampshire’s tough campaign. Honigman has only been in the state for a month, but the history major knows the names on his outreach list well, having spent countless hours on the telephone and knocking on doors in the neighborhood — although getting to each address still takes a few U-turns.

Now, just three days before New Hampshire goes to the polls, Honigman and a volunteer, Emily Koh, are reaching out to people who they think will vote for Dean, making sure they have a ride to a polling place and suggesting they vote early, ahead of an expected snow storm.

Evidence of Honigman’s hard month on the road surrounds him. Sleep is precious, he says, even since he was upgraded from a buddy’s sofa to a basement bedroom at the house of a Dean supporter.

His blue cap — stitched with the words “Bill Bradley,” a relic of campaigns past — bears sweat marks.

There is only one screw keeping his front passenger door attached to the car, a screw Honigman installed. It’s not fooling the car, which registers an incessant ding that Honigman has learned to tune out. Back seat passengers must navigate a sea of campaign literature, “Dean for America” balloons and empty soda bottles.

Honigman is aware he might be a little raunchy for outreach. He sends Koh, a high school volunteer, out from the car’s toasty interior into single-digit degree weather to bring around possible Howard Dean voters.

“If I were living in this town, I’d much rather her show up at my doorstep than me,” he says. “I’m not too pleasant.”

Besides, he says, even “area organizers” have perks. “I’m the strategist,” he says.

She is handling the logistics of a last-minute decision that Lieberman would fly, not drive, Sunday night to a debate upstate. Silver determines which reporters and campaign staffers take the bus upstate and who stays with the candidate as he visits a T.G.I. Friday’s before heading to the airport.

Plus, there is the problem of whether the plane is at the airport yet.

“That was surprisingly seamless,” she says, heading back to the campaign headquarters after checking the bus’ passenger list — twice. Her cell phone’s chime rings throughout the quick trip.

Silver, 24, is Lieberman’s deputy director in New Hampshire. When she arrives back at her desk — in the back corner of the campaign’s second floor office — the phone is ringing off the hook.

There are campaign flyers for her to okay, media requests to be sorted out, and the schedules of four members of the Lieberman family to coordinate for the next day. Silver wants Lieberman to tape some auto-calls for New Hampshire voters, and she is trying to find time for him to do it.

She used to travel with the candidate, but now she mostly runs the show from her desk, sometimes juggling calls on her office and cellular phones at the same time.

“There’s so much going on, I can’t be away from home.” She means the office, and corrects herself, laughing.

Silver, a Brandeis University graduate who first came to New Hampshire in 2002 for a congressional campaign, has been with Lieberman’s operation for more than a year. She has seen it swell from two people to the more than 30 who are working inside now.

“What we did in a week then we do in a couple of hours now,” she said.

It is hard for Silver to explain to people outside the “bubble” of campaign life why she loves long hours, with no weekends or vacations, and constant stress.

“It’s addictive because you feel you’re doing something useful and you’re making a difference,” she said.

Plus, there are the intangibles, like when the candidate invites you over for dinner. Or having the candidate’s mother suggest you get haircuts together.

“The lifestyle is so crazy,” Silver says. “My mom would like to see me marry a good Jewish boy and settle down.”

In a few days, it will all be over.

Both volunteers are planning quick escapes — Silver to another primary state for Lieberman, Honigman back to Cornell.

“It’s gonna be so relaxing compared to this,” Honigman said of his last semester. “I’ll be waking up at 10 or 11 o’clock.”

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