This summer, Tina Fey lit up social media with her “sheetcaking” sketch on Saturday Night Live. The episode aired shortly after white supremacists marched on Charlottesville. Fey tapped into the hopelessness many Americans felt in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Her solution? Stress eating.
Among my cohort of suburban moms in Greenwich, Connecticut, the sketch was widely shared, with comments like, “So true!” and “This is me!”
But I was devastated. For months, I’d been trying to get these same women off their social media feeds and out of their kitchens to engage in the political process—right in our own backyard.
My interest in local action was sparked by my father, a Holocaust survivor who came to the US as a teenaged refugee. His story has a happy ending thanks, in large part, to the efforts of many individuals who asked: “What can I do in my little world?”
My little world was Greenwich. And while Greenwich is known as America’s hedge fund capital and as a bedroom community of the rich, the truth is more complicated. Greenwich is actually the most racially diverse town in Connecticut—a state whose demographic hews to the nation’s. Connecticut has the fourth-biggest education achievement gap in the country, and the second biggest income gap. Within Connecticut, Greenwich is near the top for both. The town’s backcountry estates and seaside mansions are a stone’s throw from elementary schools where nearly 60% of students receive free and reduced lunch.
Many well-to-do residents work global jobs and have a cosmopolitan outlook (they’re often referred to as “train people” by long-time townies). They’re politically moderate and are more versed in issues playing out on the national stage than in their own community. As one local politician chastised me, “You and your friends need to put down the New York Times and read the Greenwich Time!”
So I did. And my friends did, too. And the more we read, the more we learned. Our municipal government is populated by many well-intentioned volunteers. But it’s also teeming with single-issue NIMBYs, specific local economic interests like realtors and contractors, and an activist partisan cohort whose views don’t necessarily reflect the views of the majority. It’s also a bastion of long-tenured local personalities who are deeply suspicious of newcomers. None of these groups have typically had to battle a contested election to retain power.
With all 230 seats on our town council (called RTM) up for grabs in the Nov. 7 election, my friends and I set about educating our friends about local issues and why we needed to get involved.
The initial response was enthusiastic. But I soon discovered that people who had a lot of energy for resistance after January’s Women’s March had less inclination to get involved in something specific and tangible as time marched on. They had sick children, new puppies, re-entries to the workforce, college applications, and yes—tennis games. Getting elected and serving on the RTM would require time, commitment, and some feather ruffling. It really was easier to call your Congressman and more fun to attend a protest rally.
But my fearless “comrades” hosted cocktail parties and coffee klatches for months. They met up for walks and drinks with any casual acquaintance who demonstrated an inkling of interest. We hosted a Facebook page and wrote letters to the editor. But basically, it went down the way the old commercial described: She told two friends who told two friends and so on and so on.
Still, as the September deadline to petition onto the ballot approached, many women were wavering. They had back-to-school stress, didn’t want to be seen as agitators in their community, and faced ridicule by conservative uncles. “I’m just not that political,” was a line we got tired of hearing but had to develop a response for.
Right before petitions were due, I stood in front of a hall of women and paraphrased Louis XIV: “Sheetcaking, c’est nous!”
This November marks the first time in living memory Greenwich will see contested RTM elections, with over 110 new candidates standing for office, at least half recruited by my friends. Over 60% of these new petitioners are women.
That’s a victory itself. However, like women across America standing for office for the first time, we face enormous obstacles.
The establishment doesn’t like challenges to their authority. Despite a non-partisan rallying cry focused on civic engagement (we’ve recruited Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliateds who share our values), we’ve been branded as “pussy hat wearing radicals.” As one local blogger wrote, “Hold onto your pocketbooks! Mandatory transgender education is next!”
The same blogger’s community “outed” individual candidates, encouraging followers to call their employers and urge their firing. They also suggested no one vote for any new petitioner with a female name.
And some RTM incumbents who previously stated they would welcome contested elections, have now attacked the well-meaning efforts of one first-time candidate who volunteered to compile a comprehensive “Voter’s Guide.”
Yet the biggest challenge ahead is the one facing candidates across America this Nov. 7: Getting voters to the polls for traditionally low-turnout off-year municipal elections.
Whether you live in Greenwich, CT or Anytown, USA, I hope you’ll find your way to your polling place and throw your support behind the local candidates of your choice.