Honorable Defeat: My Campaign Experience Hsing-Chi (Chuck) Chang
West Windsor is a small suburb town near Princeton, New Jersey, located roughly between New York City and Philadelphia, the two largest cities in the US East Coast. The city is well-known not only for its excellent public school systems but also for its convenient access to the two cities since both the AMTRAK, a main railway in the US East Coast, and the NJ Transit, a regional commuter train and bus transportation system, pass through the city. Therefore, many professionals who work in New York City or Philadelphia elected West Windsor as their favor place of residence. Accordingly, the city population, including Asians, has increased substantially in recent years. There are nearly 8,000 households in the city with a population of about 20,000. When I was transferred to New York City from California by my employer in 1981, my family chose to settle in this town as well. Time flies, it has been almost 30 years since we moved to East Coast and I consider West Windsor City my second hometown. I felt strongly that I am part of it and would like to do something in return to the community. Serving as a volunteer in some capacities occasionally came up to my mind. However, I don’t know where and how to begin due to time constraint of my high-demanding and frequent-travelling job.
In 1993, the city changed its administrative system from “Committee System” to “Administration (Mayor and various administrative departments) and Council (five council members) System, with various Boards and Committees served by volunteers such as “Planning Board”, “Zoning Board”, “Affordable Housing Committee”, etc.. The Mayor and the Council members are paid and elected positions. All eligible citizens may submit applications to the township for serving as member(s) of various Boards/Committees. Following the reviews of applications, the Mayor appoints the members of various Boards and Committees, and the members of each Board/Committee elect its Chairperson.
After the restructuring of administrative system, all township-related elections are supposed to be non-partisan in political sense. I joined the Planning Board at that time, and have been helping the Board in reviewing various development projects for more than 10 years. Since I was working in the fields of industrial hygiene, safety, and environmental protection in industry at the time, I paid particular attention and demanded various relevant protective measures (such as noise control,
lighting levels, pollution controls, etc.) while reviewing various development projects to ensure that the projects would not pose any potential negative impacts to the township citizen. The reviews were conducted in accordance with relevant township, State, and Federal codes/regulations /rules and frequently required the applicants to submit additional plans or answers prior to approval by the Board. The process, naturally and inevitably, triggered complaints from some developers, but appreciated by many residents.
Invited to run for a seat in Township Council
In mid-January 2007, a Township Councilman unexpectedly called and informed me that the term of three of the five current Township council members, including him, will expire in May and all of them are determined to run for re-election. He asked me whether I would be interested in joining him and another lady to form a three-member campaign team. Hearing his question, I was almost speechless and asked him why I was picked. He candidly stated that the mayor and some elders who concerned about the township affairs recommended several potential candidates, including me, to him. After reviewing the credentials of all of them, he believed that I was the most eligible candidate with a highest possibility of winning. He indicated that his long-time observation of my services in Planning Board appeared to be on the same page with him in most cases. He emphasized it would be a big plus to him in addressing various municipal projects if I am able to serve in the Township Council.
I remembered my father used to remind me when I was young that politics is a
dirty business and should never get involved in it. Therefore, I never intended to run for any public offices in my career plan, except for volunteering in local community services and various Taiwanese American organizations. At that time, I just retired from a high-demanding and frequent-travelling job, ready to taking a break and enjoying life with family and our four lovely grandchildren. I was really flattered and surprised when I received the call from the Councilman and didn’t know how
to respond. I thought it would be utterly impolite if I refuse his invitation right away, even though I intended to decline his invitation at that moment. I humbly replied that I need time to think it further and consult with my family as well. As expected, all members of my family strongly opposed me to run after briefing them about the call.
More than ten days after his initial call, the Councilman called me again and inquired the result of my discussion with my family. He strongly encouraged me to run again. I was not decided at that moment and requested to meet him in person for further discussion. We subsequently met at a local coffee shop nearly for three
hours the next day. He briefly analyzed the current Township affairs, the Council meeting process, the strength and weakness of the two campaign camps, his (our) campaign strategy, etc. I also mentioned my weaknesses, such as older age, no campaign experience, limited social networks, low visibility in the community, language barrier, and so forth. He said that I was too humble, trying to make an excuse, and emphasized that all I need is willingness to serve and confidence to win. He stated that if I noded to join him, our camp will have an inclusive representation in terms of ethnic background, gender, professional experience, and party affiliation, and will surely receive wide support of residents in the township. His strong persuasion began to convince me following our dialogue. I picked up the phone on the spot and asked my wife’s opinion again. “You decide it yourself” was the
answer this time. With that, I made a big decision in life and stepped onto the tough road of election campaign. My decision also received full supports from all members of my family subsequently.
The hard decision has been made. There was no retreat, but commited myself to a hard campaign. I have to be prepared to face difficulties, challenges, and humiliations that may be encountered during the campaign. Although it was a local election, there are numerous things to do. Following the announcement of my campaign, many supporters called to offer their help and contribute to my campaign fund. Several politically-active residents voluntarily formed a core advisory group for our camp. Shortly, my own supporting group was also organized, with more Asian Americans and young volunteers as members besides those in the advisory group (see Figure 1). The members of the advisory group and supporting team are well-experienced in election campaign and had worked successfully for the township mayoral election in the past. With the guidance and support of these people, I was full of confidence that I would be elected and our camp would hit a home run at the end.
There were six candidates competing for three seats in the election. The candidates were divided in two camps with three candidates each. However, voters are supposed to vote for three individuals of their choice, not one of the two teams.
The top three vote getters got elected. In terms of team structure, members of our opposition team are energetic and ambitious young and middle-aged men (all Caucasians). Not only have experience in election campaigns, they also have an election manager to handle their daily election activities. On our side, we agreed not to have a campaign manager, raise campaign fund individually but share the cost equally, meet periodically to review campaign progress status, campaign jointly for the camp, and aim for a home run. As to door-to-door grassroots activities to visit
voters face to face, we agreed to work together whenever possible. We soon found out that was infeasible since my other two team mates were still full-time employed. I therefore ended up walking the streets alone most of the time during the campaign.
The first step of the campaign was to collect sufficient endorsement signatures that would enable me to register officially as a candidate. I was very uneasy while soliciting endorsements because that was the first time I met people and asking their support. Questions such as who would show up in front of me when I knocked the door, would they discriminate against an Asian American candidate, what other questions would they ask, etc., came to my mind. Regardless of these concerns, I moved forward courageously to do my best and responded to each case wisely. Since the goal of the campaign is for serving the entire community, I paid no attention to the ethnic background of the people who responded to my request. I tried to treat each person friendly, and, in rare occasions, walked away politely when my endorsement request was declined. No arguments and build no enemies were my rule of thumb. After a few days of visiting neighbors, friends, and with the help of the support team, I collected more than 300 endorsement signatures, far exceeding the requirement of the legal threshold of 180. I ranked the first in our camp and successfully completing the registration shortly.
After the registration, in the midst of busy campaign, I traveled to Taiwan, my home country, to visit my seriously-ill eldest sister. I also took the opportunity and attended the 25th annual meeting of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) in Taipei since I was serving as the President of FAPA, New Jersey Chapter (FAPA/NJ) at that time. Although I was aware of the problem that the trip will lose a valuable prime time for the campaign, it was virtually impossible to change or cancel my itineraries. I did what I planned accordingly. However, I never expected that the trip later drew some stern critics from a few individuals within our camp. They questioned why I participated in the FAPA activities that advocate Taiwan’s sovereign independence if I wanted to get involved in local politics in America. I kept their accusations in mind, but did not change my point of view that there is absolutely no conflict between my concern of my home country and my intention to serve the local community here. The accusations, on the contrary, prompted me to work even harder for FAPA. (Thanks to the support and hard work of FAPA/NJ members. We won the FAPA’s Best of the Year
awards for two consecutive years in 2007 and 2008 while I served as its President. The glory belongs to all members and supporters of FAPA/NJ). After returning from the hasty Taiwan trip, we quickly started planning our campaign strategies and began a full scale campaign war.
“Money” cannot buy everything. However, it is dispensable to run a campaign here as in Taiwan. It is not for bribing voters, but to cover basic cost of the campaign. Soon after my return from Taiwan trip, my campaign supporting team immediately organized a fundraising dinner at a local Japanese restaurant. There were more than two hundred people, including many local and out of town Taiwanese Americans, attended the party. In accordance with the provisions of the State Election Commission, a fairly large amount of campaign fund was collected at the party, virtually from small contributions by individuals. Seeing the well-attended party and the successful fund raising, my other two team mates gladly told me that I definitely will be elected. I told them that many of the attendees were not eligible to vote in this town because they came from other towns in the state, New York, or Pennsylvania. They were just friends, and I was very grateful and deeply touched by their support. Due my successful fundraising, our camp insisted on not accepting any contribution from local industries or unions. In addition, all campaign expenses of our team were practically paid by my campaign account at the end, contrary to sharing the cost equally that we agreed earlier.
Following the successful fund raiser, our team began to develop and distribute campaign signs, establish websites, assist voter registrations, and other related matters. Several politically-active and well-experience supporters met periodically and provided their guidance, recommendations, etc. One of the supporters was responsible for coordinating writers to submit one or two literary essays per week to the mainstream media in the region. The essays, naturally, emphasized our willingness and capabilities to serve, good records of our community services in the past, balanced professional backgrounds, etc. All of the essay contributors are fair- minded individuals. They might politely criticize our opponents, but never insulted them. In my opinion, that was the biggest difference in election cultures between the US and Taiwan.
The phone in the house kept ringing. The campaign test began. A local reporter
called. She wanted to know more about me. She asked me how old I was, where did I came from, why I wanted to participate in the election, what was my career, do I have experience in community volunteering, what was my views on the important issues of the community and how to solve them, etc.. In particular, she wanted to know whether I support or oppose the city’s heatedly debated 350-acre housing development project near train station proposed by a developer. I told her that I am from Taiwan, a naturalized US citizen for many years, a little bit over 70 but energetic and feel young. I jokingly cited a Taiwanese saying that life begins at 70, and in that sense, I am not even one year old yet. She joyfully said she loves my humor on our philosophy of age and life. I answered all other questions one by one to her satisfaction except for the housing development project because of its complexity and I cannot explain clearly in the short telephone interview. She demanded a written reply within one week.
Knowing the importance of my reply on the housing development project, I wrote a two-page highlight of the project, including my opinion, and presented it to the Mayor, the Chairman of the Planning Board, the planning consultant, the lawyer, and several of our supporters for review and comments. Except for some minor editorial comments, everyone thought it was well written. Basically, I respect the recommendations made by planning consultant and supported the project. I also presented my suggestions and reasons as to the number of housing units that are allowed to be built. The manuscript was sent to the media and my position on the project was made public. In the subsequent public debates and meeting with voters, I have always insisted on the same position. Not because I was stubborn, but because I was trying to explain the project as clear as I can so that voters will not misunderstand or distort my position. Although I have done my best in this regard, I heard some comments after the election that my position on the project was one of the reasons for our team’s defeat. Nevertheless, many people, including me, believe that the other camp disseminated faulty information two days before election that misguided the voters.
The “Development near Train Station” was a general land development objective of the state government for those municipalities with sizable tracks of land near train station, including West Windsor. Two or three years ago, the township, through open biddings from more than a dozen of competitors, hired a local internationallywell-known architect and planning firm as a consultant and initiated the planning process. The township and the consulting firm subsequently co-sponsored three well-attended public hearings, with one attended more than 400 residents, breaking the record in the township history. Due to wide ranges of public opinions and inputs, the consulting firm summarized all pro and con comments and drafted four options of development for the project. To ensure the project is sustainable, the consultant proposed 1000 mixed housing units regardless of which option is finally selected. They cited that there would be an insignificant increase of student numbers when the project is completed based on the forecast by demographic experts. The company repeatedly stressed that it was only a preliminary conceptual plan to build a thousand houses. The final number will be subjected to further assessments of impacts to local environment, traffic, taxes, and quality of life of residents. With civil engineering background and years of work experience in safety, health, and environmental protection, I thought the company’s proposal was reasonable. However, I also believed that no matter how accurate the forecast was, there will always be some errors. To be conservative, I suggested that the number of housing units should be reduced to 800 (80% proposed by the consultant), and this number be used as a starting point for all potential impact studies. The number should be reduced appropriately if negative impacts were found. Conversely, more than 800 houses can be built if no significant negative impacts were found in the studies so as to attracting more developers, generating more development tax, and thereby reducing the burden of the property tax for the township residents. (Note: The subject has been debated over and over in the past two years, and the consultant’s draft proposal has been revised again and again. To my best knowledge, the latest version adopted by the Council will build 500 to 900 houses, which is quite close to the number (800) I suggested earlier, meaning my initial position on the issue was quite reasonable. The case is currently under review by
the Planning Board, and being a current member of the Board, I will have opportunities to continue participating in the reviews).
After clarifying my position on the aforementioned development project, I soon participated in two public debates sponsored by two civilian organizations to face the challenges of the opposition camp and public. Based on the seating arrangement of the candidates and the rules of debate process, it was obvious thatone sponsoring organization was our supporter, while the other one supported the other camp. Unlike the large-scale campaign rallies in Taiwan elections, the debates in local elections here provided opportunities for candidates to collectively publicize ideas and show off their verbal skills. With respect to township affairs, I was fairly confident because I have communicated with my team mates and studied hard beforehand. However I was a bit concerned about my ability to communicate with the audience in public. Although I have been trained in speech skills and experienced minimal language barrier at work in the past, I was afraid of being embarrassed when I misinterpreted the questions or responded to them with meaningless answers.
About 100 people attended each debate. Each candidate briefly introduced himself/herself and explained his/her positions on various issues. After the audience asked some traffic congestion and property tax related questions, most questions were centered on the aforementioned development project. Our opposition camp insisted on “zero” housing. Although my team mates did not recommend a specific or the approximate number, I basically insisted on my aforementioned concept. Since there was a heated debate on the subject, our opposite team proposed a referendum for settlement. In accordance with the majority rule of basic democracy, I was in favor of the referendum, but against the idea to have it done hastily due to the complexities of the project. I emphasized that before the public received sufficient information and fully informed of the consequences of the project, the referendum may generate a bias result. I therefore recommended that, as the first step, the township prepare relevant information, educate the public, and then conduct a referendum at a proper time down the road. Upon hearing my recommendation, many listeners nodded and applauded. I believed they trust what I said makes sense to them. At the end of the debate, a local mainstream media reporter congratulated me on the success of the debate and praised me for my consistent position on the development project. She commented that she is optimistic and predicted I would be elected.
Incidentally, a young journalist from China assigned by a local Chinese paper also attended the debate. I think either his English proficiency is questionable or he purposely intended to distort my position since the paper published an article next day stating that I opposed the referendum and promoted 1000 housing units. Thenews completely distorted my position on the project. I was annoyed by the news, as it may have a significant negative impact to my campaign. Some of my supporters demanded the paper to offer an apology and make a correction to the news. However, I chose not to do so since damages already done and any remedies seem to be helpless.
The debate is important, but our team advisors repeatedly stressed that one-on-one, face-to-face canvassing is more effective. I agreed with them and took serious actions right away. Based on voter registration information, our camp started sweeping the streets, visiting voters door to door, and explaining our positions on various issues facing the town. Sometimes the three candidates of our camp walked together, occasionally accompanied by mayor and a few supporters, but most of the time I walked alone due to scheduling problems. To be honest, of the three candidates in our camp, I was the one worked hardest during the campaign. Of the approximately 7,000 households in the town, I visited nearly 1,700 households in two months. Including the areas covered by the other two partners, we estimated that our camp visited about 70% of voters in the city. The other camp, however, boasted that they visited more than 90% of them because they started their campaign much earlier. We did not try to verify the number they claimed, but thought that could be one of the reasons of their success at the end of the election.
I really experienced the mental and physical hardship of the campaign when sweeping the streets and visiting voters door to door. With my campaign materials in hand, I left home at 10AM in the morning, grab a quick lunch at home, out again, and returned home after 8 or 9 PM in the evening every day. I kept walking and talking continuously for more than two months and unexpectedly lost about 11pounds at the end of the campaign. It was truly a severe physical test for a person who was over 70 years old. Participating in an election can be a free and effective weight control program. Try it for yourself, if you don’t believe me.
There were joys and bitterness in the campaign. I appreciated the precious friendship while canvasing the streets. Many people, including some retired mainstream people and Asians, took turn to accompany me canvassing in their respective neighborhoods. Most of them were politically active, highly respected, and very persuasive elders in the community. Their assistance was quite helpful as
can be witnessed from the higher vote counts we received from their neighborhoods at the end of the campaign. I was particularly grateful and blessed by the support from a few Taiwanese Americans who escorted me in street canvassing after work prior to dinner. I thank them sincerely again.
Street canvasing, in a way, is an art of judgment and decision making. Basically, the questions or concern of each voter were very similar to those raised in the campaign debates mentioned above. In just a few moments after starting the dialogue with a voter, I can tell whether the person supports or opposes us, or taking a neutral position. For supporters, I shook their hands, thanked them, left quickly, and continue to move on. For the other two categories of people, I found their positions easily after a short chat. In the beginning, I naively took time to answer their questions or explain my political views in details, which, in fact, slowed down my campaign schedules. I found this strategy was wrong after discussing the problem with our team advisors. They pointed out that the opponents will seize me, ask a lot of questions, and deliberately delay the time to reduce my chances of visiting others. After a few occasions of similar experiences, I realized that was in fact one of the opponents’ tricks. I regret that I was naive, stupid, and unexpectedly fell into their traps. In retrospect, I think it might be also one of the reasons for our subsequent defeat. Nevertheless, I continued to explaining my position tirelessly in details to those opponents or undecided voters. I was grateful and touched that some of them told me that they changed their mind and committed to vote for me after they heard the truth.
I was praised, humiliated, and frightened sometimes while canvassing streets alone. For examples: (1) A man shouted loudly after opening the door, blaming me not seeing the “Do Not Disturb” sign posted near the mailbox. Without a second word, he forcefully closed the door. Frightened, I immediately turned around and left (I found out later that he just lost his wife recently and did not get along well with his neighbor, a Taiwanese American family. I guess that’s why he was so angry and acted so weird in response to my sudden visit. (2) A big dog jumped straight to me after a boy opened the door. The boy can’t hold the dog back. Fortunately, his father came to assist him in time. Otherwise, who knows what would happen next. (3) A young girl opened the door and called her father, saying someone is visiting. Her father yelled loudly at her why she did not obey his order that she was not allowed to open the door for any stranger. He then ordered her to ask me to leave
their house immediately. (4) A lady in a house adjacent to a supermarket opened the door. After introducing myself and stated the purpose of my visit, she thanked me again and again saying she definitely supports me because I helped them previously. It turned out that she remembered an instance during a public hearing when the developer applied to build the supermarket a few years ago. As a member of the Planning Board, I asked the developer to control the noise level that could be emitted by delivery trucks so as to reduce the negative impact to adjacent residents.
I was gratified by the lady’s response since I never expected that something I did a few years ago while serving in the Planning Board was still remembered and appreciated by someone. There were many more instances similar to those mentioned above, but not included here.
The response of the voters was recorded after sweeping the streets every day. I roughly estimated that, of the people I visited, about 70% of them would cast their votes for me. Regrettably, many people are not at home during day time. For this group of people, we left the campaign brochures and a short note at the door. To ensure these people received my campaign information, I personally distributed the campaign materials and met a lot of commuters alone every day during the last week before the election date. I was informed that our opposition camp did the same as well. However, three of them worked together, not struggling alone like me. Some of our supporters pointed out later that one of the reasons we lost was that three of us did not cooperated and worked cohesively enough during the last phase of the campaign.
I thought I worked hard and looked forward to wining. I never expected that our opposition camp would play a dirty campaign trick two days prior to the election. In one night, numerous campaign signs with written “1000” plus a bright red slash and a circle (see Figure 2) were posted at the cross sections and along the streets of the entire city, asking voters to oppose the draft plan proposed by the consultant. Oh, My God! My position on the project was distorted again. The voters were poisoned. Our team was caught off guard. We met urgently, and decided to issue an antidote document to clarify my position. Our volunteer team clipped the document to each household mailbox overnight. Unfortunately, it was too late, for many people might have thrown the papers into the trash. Although I sensed the possibility of defeat, I still campaigned very hard by phone the night before election as the last push.
The Taste of Defeat
On May 8th, the polling day, the three candidates of our camp drove to polling stations to greet election staff. In the evening, we waited for the results of the election at a supporter’s home. It was the first longest waiting in my life. At 8PM, the vote counting started. Good news followed when the votes of the first four polling stations located in the areas that I canvassed. Of the six candidates, I was far ahead of the others. It showed how powerful the street canvassing was in the campaign. Unfortunately, when the results started pouring in successively from other stations, our votes started falling behind gradually. My heart was pounding while waiting for the final results. At the end of the vote counting, sadly, I was defeated by a margin of about 200 votes and all three candidates of our camp lost the battle entirely. As a courtesy, the representative of our camp phoned the opposition camp congratulating their victory. The election campaign officially ended. There was no joy for me to cheer the “Glory of Victory”. However, I really tasted the “Agony of Defeat” first time in my life.
Although our camp lost the battle, I gained a valuable experience in my life. During the course of the campaign, I have done my best, met many new friends, and learned proper ways in dealing with others. The campaign enriched my life. It is comforting to note that although my position on the important township project was misunderstood or distorted, I did not alter my ideas and principles just to please the voters. Although I have been criticized for what I did, it did not reduce my concerns for my hometown, Taiwan. In short, apart from blaming myself not sensitive enough to politics and probably not working hard enough during the campaign, I have no sense of shame at all at the end of the day. In other words, I lost but no regret, and the best way to describe my overall feelings would be “Honorable Defeat”, as I call it.
May is the month of weather transition from spring to summer in the US East Coast, with cozy breeze and sunshine outside. My life returned to normal and calm after the campaign. I picked up garden tools and started tendering our flower and vegetable beds. My wife and I enjoyed watching and cheering our grandchildren’s baseball, softball and volley ball games, and served as part-time baby sitters as well every weekend. We were busy, yet very happy and full of joys. Many friends and
supporters called to comfort me after I lost the election, and encouraged me to run again next time. Will I run again? I may think about it if I was ten years younger, but not now. I only hope that I can maintain my physical strength and mental health and continue to do some volunteer services for the community and my hometown, Taiwan. I sincerely hope and encourage more Taiwanese Americans, especially the young generation, break ethnic boundaries and get involved in community affairs. They should consider one step further and get involved in politics when the time is right and continue to speak louder for Taiwan so as to promote our visibility in the society.
Finally, I am very grateful to the support of my wife and all family members for their understanding of inconveniences caused by my campaign. I also would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all friends who have contributed and supported my campaign. To those who voted for me, I thank you again and again. (End of the article)
(Taiwanese Version 01/10/2009) (English Version 11/26/2018)