A Call for Neutral Corners

Political campaigns in New York are like a mile-long sprint. Beginning in January, when the likely candidates start raising money and meeting with neighborhood groups, they round a corner in the summer months and hit full stride as September starts and New Yorkers start paying attention to politics again.

Except for one day, every year, when those running pull up short, only to start again 24 hours later.

That day, of course, is September 11. Then, after getting up every morning at 5:30 to greet commuters getting on the subway, and shaking every aged hand in every senior center in the city, and littering the airwaves and doorsteps of the city with ads, candidates and their high-priced campaign consultants can do little more than sit in their offices and wait anxiously.

Evan Stavisky, a Democratic consultant who estimated that he has worked for close to 100 local candidates since that day 10 years ago, is familiar with the fervor of the late-season push. “As you get closer to an election, there is an innate human desire to say, ‘What else can I do?’ To have a time-out inside the two-minute warning can be frustrating.”

9/11 as a “Day Off From Democracy” is a singularly New York phenomenon. The state was uniquely affected by the tragedy, and it has one of the nation’s latest primaries—and primaries are often the only vote that matters. Between Labor Day and the two Jewish holidays that typically fall in September, going dark for 9/11 means one less day to meet voters.

As more time has elapsed since the attacks, candidates in local races—for the City Council, the Assembly, and the like—have quietly begun to venture out on 9/11, but the taboo remains in effect for citywide, statewide, and closely watched Congressional races. (In more high-profile races, however, there are degrees of dark. Ads may be pulled from the air, and canvassers ordered inside, but savvy candidates have been known to work the phones for last-minute donations, and to try to make appearances at strategically located 9/11 memorial ceremonies.)

“It’s this weird thing where no one campaigns because people may take offense, but no one knows if people take offense because no one has ever done it,” said one veteran operative. “It’s like there is this attitude that if we don’t stop politics then the terrorists have won.”

Going dark on 9/11 may even feed the public’s cynicism about politics more than campaigning might. Elections are, after all, supposed to be the engine of democracy, that very thing that the hijackers supposedly wanted to take away from us. What, exactly, is shameful about asking someone for their vote? Instead, cautious pols, fearful of being the first one to break the vow of September silence, cower before the imagined opprobrium of the electorate.

But it is a tradition whose time has passed. And not because the day-off from democracy seal will be broken after ten years, but because starting next year, New York will be moving its primary from the second week in September to some time in June in order to comply with federal regulations. 9/11 will then come a full two months before an election, rendering the day a campaigning non-issue.

dfreedlander@observer.com