Charlie Crist and Paul Vallas have at least four things in common: they are Greek-American, they are Democrats, they ran for public office this year, and they lost in close elections.
Notably, both had the chance to tell their story, to tens of thousands of their fellow Greek-Americans, in our print and online editions, but neither took advantage of that golden opportunity.
In all fairness to Crist and Vallas, I do not know if they were personally aware of our interview requests, or if the information simply never got to them. Either way, the fault, if not their own, is that of their campaigns.
Crist ran for governor of Florida, and Vallas for Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, the running mate of Pat Quinn. Most likely, I would have been the one to conduct both interviews. They would have been feature profile articles, not opinion pieces. Hence, they would not have been outright endorsements. Nonetheless, as TNH readers well know, my feature profile pieces tend to be positive by default, because the interview subject has ample opportunity to tell his or her own story.
I am not a “gotcha” journalist. I save my opinions for my op-ed column. When I conduct interviews, it is the interviewee’s forum, not mine. Therefore, unless Crist or Vallas actually said negative things about himself, chances were overwhelmingly likely that those would have been two positive articles for the candidates.
In Vallas’ case, many Greek-Americans in Illinois might not have been aware that he was even in the race. After all, who but the most politically astute (and in the U.S., that’s not many) even pay attention to who the candidates for lieutenant governor are? After all, this is a country in which the odds of receiving a correct answer to the question “Who is the vice president of the United States?” are about 60-40 (okay, maybe 70-30 on a good day).
In Crist’s case, he was running for the comparatively higher-profile top spot – his state’s governorship. Had his father not shortened the family name from Christodoulou to Crist, perhaps his Greekness would have been more evident. But again, for non-politically astute voters who might simply turn out to vote on Election Day if they have nothing better planned that day – it might take a TNH interview to illustrate that Crist is of Greek descent.
Granted, none of this is to say that Greek-American voters are a monolith who necessarily vote along ethnic lines. After all, scores of Greeks did not vote for Richard Nixon in either 1968 or 1972 because of his Greek running mate, Spiro Agnew, and legions of Greek Republicans refused to cross party lines to vote for Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race.
Nonetheless, plenty of Greeks rush to the polls in droves to support one of their own, and exposure to their candidacies by The National Herald might have been just what was needed to make the difference for Crist and Vallas.
Again, neither candidate declined outright, but I made the same diligent effort to interview them as much as I do for any subject, but I seemed to get nowhere.
I began with the Vallas campaign – actually the Pat Quinn campaign. I tried contacting campaign headquarters repeatedly, specifically requesting an interview with Vallas, but got nowhere. Later on, I read an article from Channel 5 news in Chicago, whose headline speaks for itself: “Quinn Campaign Muzzles Paul Vallas.” Essentially, the article concluded, because Vallas had a controversial past with charter schools, and Quinn’s Republican opponent and election winner Bruce Rauner also had a background in that field, Quinn campaigners felt the comparison was too close for comfort. After all, the last thing Democrats and Republicans ever want to do is admit to the possibilities of similarities between them. Case in point: President Obama and former Vice President Cheney, a Democrat and Republican, respectively, downplay the fact that they are blood relatives – cousins. The Quinn Campaign, therefore, “muzzled” Vallas – i.e., forbade him from giving interviews to the press, the article reported, so that his charter school past would not be the topic of conversation. (Message to the Quinn Campaign: I didn’t give a hoot about talking about charter schools – I wanted to know how he and Quinn planned to govern the state of Illinois.)
HELLO, ANYONE THERE?
Next, I turned my attention to Crist. Amazingly, there was no contact information for his campaign headquarters on his website. The closest thing available was a list of phone numbers based on various offices scattered throughout Florida. I began to make some calls. I chose offices in some of the larger Florida cities and amazingly, no one picked up the phone. Mind you, this was on a weekday during business hours! After the fourth phonecall with no response and no prompt to leave a voicemail, I began to wonder whether it really was a weekday, and not a Sunday. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “it’s not Labor Day, either, that has already passed – so why in the world is no one picking up the phone?”
The fifth try was the charm – or so it seemed. A young (that’s how she sounded) woman on the other end of the phone picked up and chuckled when I told her she was the first person in the Crist Campaign who actually answered a call. I explained who I was, the newspaper with which I am affiliated, and how a feature story on Crist might be the key to victory for him. The silence on the other end of the line, depicting her apathy and/or confusion, was deafening. “I don’t know how to help you,” she said, at which point – knowing from years of trial and error in providing futile on-the-spot job training to persons on the other end of the phone woefully unprepared to do their jobs – I responded: “may I please speak with your supervisor?” Wait – this gets better (worse, actually): her response was “She can’t come to the phone right now but I’ll tell her to call you back,” and with that, she hung up. Either she was savvy enough to see my number on caller ID and write it down, or she completely missed the point that her supervisor would need my phone number in order to call me back. My money’s on the latter.
That was enough – my time is limited, and I had other stories to write. Of people who actually provide contact information to potential interviewers.
A couple of days later, I decided to try again. I called another two offices and again – no one picked up. Were these real phone numbers – I wondered. On the third try – an improvement, at least – someone picked up the phone and seemed understandably annoyed at the collective incompetence of the Crist campaign’s phone answerers. He promised me that he would get my name, phone number, and email address to the right people, and even gave me his email address so I could follow up my request in that format. I did. The election is over with and I’m still waiting for a reply – a phonecall, an email – anything.
NO HARD FEELINGS
I purposely held this article back until after the election was over with, as I did not want it in any way to impact Crist’s or Vallas’ chances based on any negative perceptions of them that might result from it. There are no hard feelings. I feel bad for them, not for us. And by “feel bad,” not because I necessarily supported them politically – but insofar as they squandered a golden opportunity to gain exposure to tens of thousands of Greek voters.
Moreover, please do not think of me so arrogant as to insinuate that we at The National Herald are kingmakers – that we wield so much power that we can make or break elections with the stroke of a pen. After all, there are Greek-American candidates whom we have interviewed who lost the ensuing elections. But they were usually trailing very badly in the polls to begin with. In Crist’s and Vallas’ case, the margin was razor-thin. Anything could have made the difference, not least of all a TNH interview.
Finally, I hope future Greek-American political candidates learn from this, and make a point of seeking us out for interviews. Or, at the very least, make themselves sufficiently accessible to the media.