Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dirty Business: Campaigns and Elections in Schenectady

This post was written by SCHS curator Mary Zawacki.

How do we tell the story of politics in Schenectady?
We asked ourselves this question last year, as we began putting together the grant proposal for our “Vote Here! Vote Now!” project. How do we tell the story of politics in Schenectady, especially during such a major year in national politics? How can we take the enormous, complex, and sometimes controversial political history of Schenectady, and make it an engaging, vibrant narrative?
We thought about this, and came up with a list (you wouldn’t believe how long) of possibilities. Exhibits, speakers, events, games, and more. Many of these we flushed out, and developed into programs you’ll see this year at 32 Washington and Mabee Farm. But then we realized something that changed our approach to the project. The story of politics – in Schenectady and beyond – isn’t one, linear, objective story. It is instead a tale formed by opinions, ideals, and the voices of thousands of Schenectadians. And the best way to dig into this history is to go to the source – the primary sources, let them speak for themselves, and then encourage our visitors speak to each other about their own political opinions.

Though we have excellent primary political sources in the library and archives, as we began this project, our tangible collections in the museum were lacking. Sure, we could examine scrapbooks from socialist mayors (looking at you, George Lunn), pour over the records of the Dialogue Café (donuts with your discourse, anyone?), and discover the insecurities of Governor Joseph A. Yates in his letters from friends. Yet, something tangible to hold, display, and to inspire dialogue was missing. And then, serendipity struck!
As we were developing this project, Donald Ackerman, the longtime leader of the Schenectady County Democratic Party and a former county legislator, reached out to us. He had a large collection of political memorabilia, and wondered if we interested in acquiring it. Hundreds of buttons, bumper stickers, signs, and more needed a new home. Ackerman’s collection was unparalleled, made up of everything from matching Roosevelt and Hoover license plates to a Mayor Stratton bobblehead.  Here was our story, we realized. Centuries of political history documented in our archives, and then brought to life through our new Ackerman political collection. The perfect collaboration between our sites.

So we displayed our story. It’s on view now at the Schenectady History Museum at 32 Washington Ave. We selected a variety of pieces from Ackerman’s collection and on loan from the Schoharie County Historical Society to help us visually narrate politics, campaigns, and democracy in Schenectady and beyond. The artifacts are colorful and vibrant. They make you think about the tactics politicians use to shape our opinions of them, and the way campaigns play out. And, hopefully, they encourage you to consider your own opinions and those of your community members, as we move through another messy campaign season!

Included on display are artifacts that document just how complicated politics and campaigns can be. Take, for example, the election of 1840, one of the first truly messy ones in American history.
President Martin Van Buren narrowly defeated by William Henry Harrison, running on the Democratic and Whig Party lines, respectively. Van Buren’s first term had been plagued by an economic depression, and the campaign of 1840 saw him branded as a wealthy, out-of-touch snob. Meanwhile, this was the first time that the Whig Party had coalesced its full support behind a single candidate. Harrison was also wealthy and well-educated, but he was a war hero and enjoyed wide popularity as a result.

Harrison was also the oldest President up to that time, and Democrats mocked him for this; one newspaper quipped that if given a barrel of hard cider and a pension, he would “sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin”. The Whigs co-opted this detraction, however, declaring Harrison the “log cabin and hard cider candidate”, a moniker that swept the nation and gave him an image as a man of the common people. Log cabin dances were held in support of his campaign, miniature log cabins were built, and even jewelry was designed around the theme. Harrison was able to ride this image to victory, along with disapproval of Van Buren due to the poor economy.

How politicians speak to us through their campaigns is just as relevant today as it was in the 1840s. Consider what words politicians say -- or don't say -- to swing our votes in their favor. Do they use simple language, or are they verbose? What about rhyme and repetition? Are politicians vague or specific? At times, politicians use a bit of all of these. Carefully crafted campaigns strategize and determine which voice to use, and when.

It’s our hope that, as we move toward November, that participants in the “Vote Here! Vote Now!” project will be inspired to engage in political discourse, consider campaign tactics, and voice their opinions. And, if our participants elect to elect, that they consider the options. It’s important to speak out, to make your voice heard, and to vote. But it’s also important to understand, completely, what the issues are

Fortunately, there are many nonpartisan organizations and websites that can help determine which candidate represents your voice best. Locally, the Schenectady League of Women Voters runs, which publishes voting guides to candidates. Other sites, such as can help you determine which candidate is most closely aligned with your ideology.

Your vote is your voice. This election season we’re choosing state and national leaders, whose decisions and policy will have great effect on our lives as Americans. Why not take a stand voice your opinion?

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