(L-R): Harry McEnroe, Ray Durkin, Phil Thigpen

My introduction to politics came in 1973 when my father helped run the campaign for Harry McEnroe’s bid for election to the Essex County Board of Freeholders, and Harry won. I helped my father stuff, seal, and stamp hundreds of envelopes espousing why Harry was best suited for this position; whatever a Freeholder was, Harry was your man. The victory party is what really hooked me. Seeing the adults’ unbridled (and drunken) joy sold me on the importance of campaigns and politics.
I took a more active role going door-to-door with Harry’s son, my good friend Paul, in Harry’s 1976 re-election campaign. Paul and I also handed out flyers at the polling place pushing for legalized gambling in Atlantic City. Both Harry and gambling won. You could say that, indirectly, I helped Donald Trump go bankrupt on more than one occasion, and I gave my mother a place to go to spend my inheritance.
I watched Richard Nixon give his resignation speech in the summer of ‘74. That was a jarring event to witness. The President of the United States quit before being fired and imprisoned; and then he was pardoned of any and all crimes by the man he chose as his successor. I may have been young, but I was really starting to like this game.
By 1980, I was knee-deep in New Jersey politics. The backroom machinations are what really intrigued me. Seeing the Old Boys Network in action, slapping backs at the Knights of Columbus and making deals over corned beef and stout at Cryan’s Beef & Ale House, gave me a real sense that there may be room for me at that table.
Being Paul’s close friend gave me a front seat and a better view, on more than one occasion, of what was happening on New Jersey’s political stage. It was mostly dull yammering but I was also taught lessons on how to jockey for position and curry favor from unsavory characters. Taking care of your own was one of the main lessons. The adage “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” was based on actual back scratching. Let’s just say that there were a lot of itchy backs in Jersey.
Also, right about 1980, two things occurred: one, Abscam began hitting the papers. U.S. Representatives were being indicted and found guilty of accepting bribes. Elected officials were betraying the public trust. The second occurrence that proved pivotal in determining my relationship to American politics going forward: I worked at a polling place for the first time.
I had just entered college and it was the Carter-Reagan-Anderson presidential election. I didn’t campaign for anyone and mostly kept my opinions to myself. The polling place in my precinct was at Marshall Elementary School. Polls opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 8 p.m. We had three tables for signing in the voters. I already knew a lot of the people but asked them their names for formality’s sake. They would sign the book and I’d give them a slip of paper with a number on it, and they’d, in turn, hand this paper to the person manning the voting machine.
The voting machine was on wheels, opened wide like a giant steamer trunk. The voter would step into it and pull a red handle, closing a curtain behind them so they could vote in private. There was a bank of levers in front of them with the names of the candidates under each. The voter would press the lever down on each selection and when they were done, they’d pull the red handle back, the curtain would open, and the levers would reset for the next voter. The citizen’s civic duty was fulfilled, and every vote was counted in yet another peaceful revolution.
Election Day was a long day, but I would get some schoolwork done, visit with neighbors, get paid $75, and eat some brownies from the bake sale. The PTA can be pretty damn intimidating. I worked the polls every election for five years. Most of the poll workers were retirees. The election judge overseeing any potential problems was an old crony of Harry McEnroe’s. After the polls closed, we signed off on the results and the final tallies were delivered to the South Orange City Hall for tabulation. I recall my time working the polls as a privilege. There was almost an air of sanctity enshrouding the proceedings.
I know this will sound hokey, but I felt bonded to my fellow Americans every time we shared in this civic deliberation. All we had to do was listen to the candidates’ pitch, read about the different proposals on the ballot, show up and vote. In those days it felt like everybody won the election even if your candidate lost. It gave me a sense of pride, more than backroom deals could deliver, and better than a scratched back could ever make me feel.

Comments are not available on this story.