Daniel L. Feldman

Registering Indiana college students

In National Politics on April 22, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Craig and Sherry Sparks picked me up at the airport. Craig had played basketball for Purdue University in Indianapolis, where he had gone to school from Seymour, his very small Indiana hometown, and had just finished law school at Indiana University. He would later work for the SEC in Washington, and then for the very prominent Arent Fox D.C. law firm, before creating his own very successful law practice in Louisville, Kentucky. Sherry was a lovely local girl as well. They would put me up at their house for the next month, as their contribution to Lowenstein’s cause. How was it possible for Al Lowenstein to have attracted followers like me, and Craig and Sherry, all over the United States? Years later, when we met people our own demographic – college-educated boomers – we reacted only half-jokingly when we asked in surprise, “You mean you never worked for Al?”

Gordon St. Angelo, the chair of the Indiana State Democratic party, gave me a desk at his headquarters in downtown Indianapolis. This was my first journey to the Midwest. The only previous time I’d seen a state beyond those in the Boston-to-Washington corridor, my family had gone to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1962. I had read about the “whites only” and “colored only” signs on the restrooms and water fountains, but actually seeing them had shocked me deeply. We were there to hop a Greek freighter on which we had free passage to Amsterdam, through my father’s connections. I worked full-time as a member of the deck crew, mostly painting the ship, and learning a little Greek from the sailors I worked with.

But the Midwest was something different. Not everyone who worked for Al had a brilliant personality. After I’d spent a few days making telephone connections with key student leaders at all the key college campuses (Indiana University – I.U. – and Purdue in Indianapolis, I.U. at Bloomington, Notre Dame at South Bend, I.U. at Evansville, and many others), one of the national coordinators of Registration Summer swooped in one day. This brilliant Marshall Scholar commanded one of the local Indiana young ladies to “get me” So-and-So at some phone number. The immediate response: “you got ten fingers, lady? Dial it yourself!”  I liked these Indiana people. The Marshall Scholar didn’t stay in Indiana long.

Indiana politics struck me as a little different from what I knew. While back in New York, David Trager, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, was investigating the Republican County Chair, Joseph Margiottafor taking kickbacks in return for government jobs, a violation of state law, Indiana had only in the past few years repealed a state statute requiring each office holder to contribute two percent of the annual salary to the official’s political party. Craig had told me about this; I later verified it, but I can no longer find the source.

The other difference impressed me more favorably. At least among white Christians, Indiana seemed less ethnicity-conscious than New York. Italian-Americans made up a very small percentage of the electorate in Indiana, but Craig also told me that no one gave a thought to the fact that the State Democratic party chair had an Italian surname.

I don’t remember whether Registration Summer or the Indiana Democratic party paid for my visits to the campuses, where the student leaders and I planned the voter registration drives. Sometimes I went with my second-in-command, Keith Love, a black student several years younger than myself. One weekend Craig and Sherry took us to visit his parents in Seymour. Craig told us, and I’ve never had reason to doubt, that Keith and I were, respectively, the first black and the first Jew to set foot in Seymour. Of course, Craig’s parents treated us with generous hospitality.

Craig and Sherry, of course, treated us like family. They included us in their epic Scrabble games, although considering they each regularly scored in the 300s, we could hardly compete. We develop a strong friendship with their enormous St. Bernard, Candy, whose name signified the nature of her personality. Her only flaw was copious drooling (unless you count against her the fact that she needed about thirty pounds of meat to eat every day).

By the end of July, we had pretty much finished setting up the student voter registration structure, so Al called me back to New York. The Craig-and-Sherry marriage didn’t last, but the Craig-and-Dan friendship continues to this day.

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