Every September, just after the Labor Day weekend, the small town of Hebron, Connecticut sees a twenty-fold population increase as visitors from all over New England attend the annual four-day Hebron Harvest Fair.
Here, in addition to the normal country fair attractions, they can watch demolition derbies, listen to entertainment at the bandstands, wander among hundreds of food and vendors' booths, ride on the midway attractions, and greet old friends.
Here too, the annual election season kicks off for area politicians. Long ago the office seekers figured out that the popularity of the fair gives them a far better chance of being seen and pressing the flesh than going door to door in a rural district.
There are only two political booths at the fair, both located among the four rows of fixed booths near the bandstands where permanent vendors have held sway for decades, and you can find more of the district's voters. The politicians don't spend much time at the midway or the animal booths where out-of-towners are likely to be the dominant demographic. They roam the aisles between the fixed booths, and then head to the bandstand area, the better to be seen by likely voters.
The Hebron Republicans and the Hebron Democrats each maintain a food booth in these permanent rows and man them every year, raising funds for their campaigns, giving visibility to their candidates, and providing a satellite office of sorts for visiting office seekers.
The Republicans have sold pulled pork sandwiches as their chief fund raiser for years. The Democrats sold chips, salsa and pickles last year. This year the focus was on giant pretzels. The Dems seem to be searching for an identity in the fair food arena.
Make what you will of that.
Less than 30 feet from the Democrats, and two rows of booths away from the Republicans is one other booth that is as important to office holders and office seekers as their party headquarters.
At the end of the main aisle, square alongside the main drag where most fairgoers eventually wander by, in a quadruple booth that enjoys extensive counter space and exposure on two sides, Hebron's veterans spend four days each September cooking hamburgers and cheeseburgers, sauteed onions no extra charge. They work, they cook, and they use the expansive views provided by their giant booth to keep an eye out for neighbors, their children, and politicians.
Every astute politician who comes to the Hebron fair knows it is important, perhaps even a necessity to visit the veterans' booth. There are many Republicans in this booth, and quite a few Democrats, but mostly independents. Most vote, as do their families.
Although the burger booth is rented each year by the local American Legion, inside you'll also find representatives of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, the Sons of the American Legion, and the Legion Auxiliary. Inside that booth they are veterans first, but they watch the politicians as closely as they watch the girls passing by.
Local office seekers come to Hebron, but so do those seeking statewide office. Lowell Weicker came the year he was elected Governor. Republican Governor Jodi Rell has been here, although she skipped it this year. Her Democratic opponent, New Haven Mayor John DiStefano made an appearance, as did Republican U.S. Congressman Rob Simmons, and Linda Roberts, Republican candidate for state Treasurer.
But it was Ned Lamont, Democratic candidate for US Senator, opposing incumbent Joe Lieberman who is running as an independent Democrat, that garnered the most attention. This was a choice opportunity for Lamont. The vets who are registered Democrats want to know who he is, as do the independents, and even many of the Republican vets say they won't be voting for their party's nominee.
Most candidates come to Hebron on Saturday. The crowds are huge, the fair is bustling, the booths are manned by throngs of volunteers and the atmosphere is upbeat. Lamont strode into this setting and made straight for the Democrats' booth, less than 30 feet from the Hebron vets.
He could have been excused for not noticing the veterans' booth as he first entered the row. He was a newcomer, looking for something familiar. But it was his return trip, as he headed out with local Dems in tow to do the meet and greet that caught the vets' attention.
These veterans, who have served from World War II to the present, are an aware and organized group. Most are Vietnam vets, or Vietnam era vets, and many have served in the Gulf War or the War on Terror. They understand their place in the country, in the community, in the eyes of the voters, and in electorate demographics. They can ensure a candidate is elected if they come out in force and vote of a similar mind, or that a candidate goes down to defeat if they stay home or decide not to pull the lever by that candidate's name.
So when the word passed down the line that Ned Lamont was in the area and moving their way, the vets moved to the counter on that side of the booth, keeping an eye on the pretty girls and awaiting Lamont's arrival with equal vigor.
Until Ned Lamont ignored them for a second time.
He set out from the Democrats' booth, waved hello to the folks in the adjacent french fries booth, but then was ushered on a diagonal away from the vets, moving instead toward the booth across the way where the local high school music club sells milk shakes.
The vets saw this and another type of music erupted, a spontaneous chorus of boos, that stopped many fairgoers in their tracks, looking to see what had caused it. And then Ned Lamont squandered the opportunity of his campaign.
He refused to look at the vets, he refused to retrace his steps and visit the vets, he refused to acknowledge the vets. Instead he scurried away, with campaign workers and local Dems in tow, out onto the main drag where he was quickly lost in the throngs, invisible and unremarkable.
The word spread quickly throughout the fair community. Lamont had insulted the vets! The vets in turn had booed Lamont! Lamont had run away!
A short time later Congressman Rob Simmons, highly respected as a fellow Vietnam vet, and especially as one who does not try to embellish his service, came by on his tour. "What would you have done, Rob?" vets asked.
A crowd, including an internet blogger who was taking pictures and notes, had gathered. "In infantry leadership school they taught us to face toward the gunfire and advance," he responded.
The tactic works well in politics too. Simmons acknowledged that all politicians are booed on occasion, but "I go to talk to them. It usually is based on misinformation. I use it as an opportunity to set the record straight and convert another voter."
Someone should have told that to Lamont.
For the next eight hours the fairgrounds were abuzz with the news, and the rumors. Democrats and Republicans alike came by to see if it was true. "But there are Democrats in this booth," the Dems exploded. "Didn't he know that?!"
There are Republicans and independents too, they were reminded; all waiting to see who Lamont is, what he is made of, and whether in their opinion he would make a good senator.
Late that night, after the fair had closed and the crowds had left, a few vets were cleaning the booth, preparing it for the breakfast crew. A local Democratic leader came by, apologized, took the fall, and blamed himself.
The local post commander would hear nothing of it. "Lamont has a mind of his own," he said. "He could have come back to see us."
Lamont is a political neophyte the commander was told. It didn't matter. His refusal to talk to the vets, and his decision to scurry away gave the vets all the information they needed on Lamont's core character.
Another veteran shook the Democrat's hand, thanked him for coming by and apologizing. Nonetheless, "It was a bad move," he said, "a bad move."
Lamont wasn't the only candidate to ignore the vets that day. Democratic State Senator Edith Prague had refused to even approach the booth, but her anti-veteran stances are well known to the area vets and her boycott was no surprise, even to the Democrats in the booth.
The next day DiStefano came by, chatted with the vets and moved on. A lesson had been learned, but not by Lamont.
Ned Lamont wants to stride through the halls of the capital of the greatest nation on earth. He wants to be a major player in the world's preeminent democracy, taking a leading role in world shaping and nation-steering decisions.
He wants to take leisurely strolls along the green expanse of lawn on the National Mall by the Washington Monument discussing issues of great weight with the important people of his time.
But everything that voters need to know about Ned Lamont's ability to take on that challenge was displayed Saturday on a few square yards of well-worn turf at a country fair in a small town in Eastern Connecticut. It was played out in seconds near the booth housing the veterans of Hebron, Connecticut, who cook hamburgers and cheeseburgers, watch pretty girls and keep a very, very close eye on politicians.
In their opinion, if Ned Lamont goes to Washington, it should be as a visitor.
Monday, September 11, 2006