Getting Political

LIPC Featured in Newsday’s Act II Section

BY JIM MERRITT

November 3, 2007

The U.S. presidential candidate who wins Deborah Weiner’s vote next year can count on the kind of hands-on support that reaches beyond the ballot box to classic grassroots volunteerism.

Weiner, 77, a social worker who lives in Copiague, is a registered independent. She can’t vote in Democratic or Republican primaries, but in the past decade she has managed to have an impact on campaigns by volunteering for politicians who share her views on health care and other concerns of the elderly.

No task is too humble or grand for Weiner, who is known as a “super senior” in Suffolk County politics. Weiner published op-ed articles praising then-Rep. Rick Lazio in the 1990s, and she also did mundane tasks such as stuffing envelopes with his campaign literature. When Lazio ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Hillary Clinton in 2000, Weiner made telephone calls seeking support from voters and rode in pro-Lazio motorcades.

Says Weiner, “it is rewarding work, even stuffing envelopes for politicians whose issues I respect.”

There are thousands more people like Deborah Weiner active on Long Island, political observers say. Numerous studies have shown that adults 50 and older are among the most likely people to volunteer in political campaigns. With the presidential race, Long Island’s five Congressional seats and state legislative offices on the ballot next November, opportunities for activism will abound.

Older volunteers say they take on the work for many reasons, including a desire to influence policy and “make a difference,” and also a wish to make new friends.

The work ranges from campaign office tasks such as envelope stuffing and advocacy calls to “shadowing” a candidate on neighborhood visits. There also are opportunities for stay-at-home volunteer work, including relatively new ones such as blogging and e-mailing for support on the Internet. Some Long Islanders, such as Hempstead Town Board member Dorothy Goosby and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, start as political volunteers and develop the proverbial “fire in the belly” that propelled them to run for public office for the first time in their 40s or 50s.

Likelier to vote

No other demographic turns out more voters or has a higher voter-participation rate than people over 50, according to research from AARP, which notes that exit polling showed voters in that age group cast half of the ballots in last November’s election.

The 50-and-older crowd isn’t just pulling the lever for candidates who share their values and political goals. They also are pitching in at campaign offices, at the headquarters of organizations that support a favorite cause, and at their workstations at home.

“As Americans age, they are more likely to volunteer for such traditional campaign tasks as stuffing envelopes and holding fundraising house parties,” said Carolyn Cocca, associate professor of politics, economics and law at SUNY Old Westbury. They also are active in the world of Internet activism, known as “netroots” activities. They are blogging, fundraising online and producing videos for YouTube, Cocca said.

They flock to paid positions as elections inspectors. “There’s a higher percentage of folks 60 and over” among the 6,000 elections inspectors who typically work at Suffolk County’s polling places on primary and general election days, says Thomas E. Knobel, assistant to the commissioner of elections for the Suffolk County Board of Elections. Elections inspectors, hired by the board, are paid a stipend of $200 for duties such as maintaining order at the polling place and collecting voter signatures in poll roster books. Volunteer work as election day poll watchers also is available from Long Island’s political parties.

Blogging boomers

Although there’s a perception that the Internet is the province mainly of younger people, many of today’s bloggers are baby boomers, says Dominick Miserandino of Oceanside, president of TheCelebrityCafe.com, which features a Web site for moderates on the political spectrum, tothecenter.com.

Visitors can submit opinion pieces and add comments to posted essays. The most frequent contributors of comments to the Web site, which draws 300,000 readers a month, are baby boomers born in the 1950s, Miserandino says.

“There’s something about believing in something, and being part of trying to effect a change for the better,” says Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based political consultant. Dawidziak works with candidates from both major political parties, but he is best known as a consultant to the presidential campaigns of Republicans George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole.

Dawidziak says the camaraderie and fellowship of a political campaign “can be intoxicating,” making volunteers return again and again for their political fix.

“I enjoy doing it. You meet people who are like-minded,” said Ruth Silverman, 59, of Merrick, an adjunct professor of sociology. Several years back, Silverman began volunteering for the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and now regularly works with the Long Island Progressive Coalition in Massapequa.

Lisa Tyson, the coalition’s director, said the majority of the organization’s 1,000 members are 40 or older. She said the coalition leans left but welcomes anyone who wants to participate in a group discussion, serve on a committee, or make calls in a phone bank. They tend to work most on issues such as health care, election reform and affordable housing, Tyson said.

Another active coalition member, Barbara Buehring, 53, of Seaford, a retired copy editor, said she has found great satisfaction working on local issues such as pushing for power plant efficiency to lower pollution. She has written articles for the Long Island Progressive Coalition’s newsletter and used her computer skills to update their database and Web site. “Instead of knocking your head against a brick wall like Iraq, these are smaller issues, and we can possibly effect some change, at least right here on Long Island,” Buehring said. Buehring will receive the Long Island Progressive Coalition’s volunteer of the year award in March.

There’s plenty of room for partisanship in volunteerism. Michael D’Innocenzo, 72, and Andrea Libresco, 48, of Mineola, are a married couple who say they perennially find joy in political activism.

Libresco, an associate professor in the department of curriculum and teaching at Hofstra University in Hempstead, immediate past-president of the board of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Nassau Chapter, currently serves as co-president of the board of the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives.

She worked for D’Innocenzo in 1984, when he ran – and lost – a race for Congress in the Fifth District in southern Nassau on an anti-nuclear platform. D’Innocenzo was in his late-40s at the time, and would go on to run unsuccessfully for a North Hempstead town board seat.

An active citizenry

D’Innocenzo, a history professor at Hofstra, said, “Democracy cannot be effective” unless “citizens get energized and become active rather than just consumers of the decisions that other people make.”

Libresco, who also is a Democratic committeewoman, believes potential volunteers should inform themselves about the issues before choosing a candidate for whom to work. “People can do door knocking, where they talk about issues. They can be passionate about their candidate with neighbors and friends,” Libresco said.

Libresco and D’Innocenzo already are planning to make get-out-the-vote phone calls to fellow Democrats on Super Tuesday primary day, Feb. 5.

Approaching activism in a different way is Johanna Cervellino, 70, of Smithtown, a former global studies teacher in the Three Village School District. After retiring from teaching in 1997, Cervellino began to devote more of her time to the Long Island Coalition for Life.

Volunteers lobby for anti-abortion legislation in Albany, advocate for adult stem cell research rather than embryonic stem cell research and push for adequate care for “people at the end of life,” Cervellino says.

Volunteers in the nonpartisan organization also participate in “peaceful presences in front of abortion clinics” and give out clothing, formula and prenatal-care information at crisis pregnancy centers,” Cervellino said. She added, “we stress information and education.”

Bitten by the bug

Whether working from home or at a campaign office, volunteers are generally welcomed and given a task to do, officials and volunteers say. Officials often set aside a desk in their offices for volunteers.

McCarthy (D-Mineola) started out as a volunteer distributing campaign fliers door-to-door for Mineola Mayor Ann Galante in the 1970s. She expects to see her own perennial volunteers, many of them 50 and older, returning when her campaign office is set up in the spring.

Once you are bitten by the political bug, activists say, there’s no telling where it will end. Middle-age people tend to enter the political arena after years of volunteering for the local party apparatus, or because of a watershed moment in their lives, Dawidziak says.

McCarthy is an example of a watershed candidate who came to politics later in life. She was nearly 50 and a nurse with minimal experience in politics before her husband was killed and her son was critically injured in a nationally covered 1993 shooting aboard an LIRR train, an incident that eventually propelled her to gun control advocacy and a seat in Congress.

McCarthy, now 63 and preparing to run for a seventh term, said in an interview that her nursing background helps her in Congress.

“You have to have a lot of patience, especially if passing an amendment, and very patiently explain to everybody every part of the bill,” she said.

Added McCarthy: “It’s amazing when I look back how life does prepare you to be in this particular job.”

Want to get involved? Find out more:

Got the urge to volunteer for a candidate or a cause? Here are some political organizations, officeholders and issues-oriented groups that welcome volunteers and some paid workers. Some Web sites include a volunteer page with a link to an e-mail address.

Long Island Progressive Coalition, 516-541-1006, lipc.org

Sierra Club Long Island Group, 516-826-0801; newyork.sierraclub.org/longisland

Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives, 516-741-4360; longislandpeace.org
Related website: http://www.newsday.com/business/custom/retirement/ny-act2spd5442353nov03,0,454359.story