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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Op-Ed; Voters have spoken, darn it
Boston Herald, March 17, 2001

My political career suffered a major setback this week.

After years of secretly plotting a path to elected office, I finally had the chance for a sure-fire win Tuesday, only to see it thwarted by a last-minute dirty trick.

Making the loss particularly distressing was the fact that my decision to run came after much soul-searching, in which I pondered deeply on the conflicts of a journalist, whose job is to make politicians' lives miserable, seeking political office.

But some calls to service must be answered, and after sitting out several elections I know I could have won, I decided this was my year.

I would run for non-veteran custodian of the War Memorial for the Town of Westboro.

Before you say "Non-veteran what?" know that a pol's first elected office is the most important one: Today, non-veteran custodian of the War Memorial; tomorrow, state rep, then lieutenant governor, senator and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Or, in another scenario, I play the race card and take advantage of my ethnicity to join the National Association of Black Elected Officials. (In one happy fantasy, I'd ask a colleague: "What do you do?" "I'm mayor of Detroit." "Really? I'm non-veteran custodian of the War Memorial in Westboro.")

The trick, however, is not actually filing for the office, which no one in recent memory has. That means anyone with four or so write- in votes gets the job, which is a lot easier than scrounging up 50 nominating signatures.

With the local newspaper reporting no filers a week before the deadline, I only had to convince Julia, my better half, and a couple of neighbors.

Julia was the tough one.

"You're making a mockery out of the electoral process," she said.

After promising I'd really take care of the monuments, I eventually got her support. With the other two votes a phone call away, I headed to the polls, where I found Stephen Winchell's name printed on the ballot for office.

I gave up on calling the neighbors.

“Stephen who?" I asked Nancy Yendriga, the town clerk, when I called her for results the next day.

"He works for the town Department of Public Works. I begged him to run. I didn't want to go through 1,000 write-ins," she said, explaining that counting votes for Donald Duck and Goofy can take an awful lot of time.

Because Winchell takes care of the monuments anyway as part of his job, Yendriga thought he'd be a good fit, though she hadn't been able to convince him previously.

"Last year he got the most votes: four. But he declined," she said.

This time he won 1,347-2. But two years ago four votes were enough for Timothy A. Dodd, who at 18 took another custodian-of-the- memorial seat and became the youngest elected official in Westboro.

"His father is town counsel. They thought it was hilarious. I didn't think it was particularly funny," Yendriga said.

"He's still in office until 2002, though he's AWOL. He went to college out of state. After that I said, `This is ridiculous'," she said.

If Westboro voters agree with her, they'll approve Article 52 at Town Meeting today, which would make the position appointed, on a par with the two offices of fence viewer and measurer of wood.

"I don't know what that is. I guess if you have a cord of wood they can tell you if it's really a cord," Yendriga said.

Actually, the job I really want is boundary walker, who is the person who checks the border markers every five years to make sure neighboring towns like Northboro or Shrewsbury aren't stealing Westboro land.

Hey, all I need is approval from just two selectmen. Now that's easier than running for non-veteran custodian of the War Memorial after all.

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