In every campaign, there is an initial moment of choice–an inflection point that affects the entire course of events. It can be a policy decision that has major consequences for the race. It can be an unforeseen occurrence that shapes everything else that follows. It can be a stylistic matter–something as trivial as the typography on the campaign logo that ends up setting the tone for the campaign as a whole.
In this case, it was my girlfriend deciding that she wanted us to buy a house.
"I just don’t think it’s necessary," I said. "Look. We’re already going to rent office space for a campaign headquarters. We can rent an apartment in the same building. We’d have no commute, and we’d be able to have instant responses to anything that comes up."
"No," Emma said.
"We’ve been living in an apartment," I said. "It was just fine for us. I mean, I know that the baby is coming and all that, but we can get a larger apartment. We can make that work."
"No," Emma said.
"This is not an argument that we’re having, you know. An argument is where both sides make good points. I am making good points. On the other hand, you’re being completely unreasonable."
"No," Emma said.
A year ago, Emma and I met in Washington, DC, where we were both interns for a political action committee that had a loose but (legally) unofficial connection to the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. We’d both come to Washington straight out of college to try to make a difference. We’d worked together, fallen in love, and managed somehow, in a series of slightly ridiculous coincidences, to become entangled in some of the most pivotal–and most secret–moments of the campaign. For some reason, someone in the campaign hierarchy had determined that our talents were wasted in a Washington back office creating memes, and that we would be the perfect team to win back the 13th Congressional District of New Jersey for the Democrats.
There was just one little problem. Neither Emma nor I had ever set foot before in the 13th Congressional District of New Jersey. I grew up in New England, where my mother was a professor in the Yale English department and my dad was a hedge-fund manager. I’d spent much more time going to Marxist interpretive dance conferences with my mom in Cuba than I ever had in New Jersey. (Emma says not to tell people that.) Emma is actually from New Jersey, but she grew up in Montclair, which is split between two fairly entrenched districts.
The 13th District is in the west part of the Garden State, consisting primarily of formerly-rural Hanover County. It’s an affluent district, but the Republican incumbent only won by four percentage points in the last cycle, and Clinton strategists had it marked as a toss-up, if the right candidate were nominated. I wanted to be that candidate, but before I did anything else, I had to actually move into the district. And that meant I had to find someplace to live.
"Okay, look," I told Emma. "You have to communicate with me about this."
We were driving through Hanover County for the first time–well, I mean, Emma was driving. I hadn’t had a car in Washington due to some complexities with my carbon footprint, and I hadn’t needed a car in college, and of course I could get a Fairchild International town car to take me anywhere I wanted to go in New Haven. So I never learned how to drive. I had two items on my campaign checklist so far: "learn how to drive," and "advocate for way, way more public transportation infrastructure in Hanover County."
"Admit that I’m right, and that we need a house, and I’ll be happy to communicate with you."
"Microaggression," I said.
"We agreed you would stop using that word in the campaign," she said. "It’s divisive, and it’s getting to be politically loaded."
"You know what’s divisive? Insisting that we buy a house without asking me what I think about it."
"Get used to it," she said.
"I challenge the premise that we need to buy a house," I said.
"Your challenge is invalid," she said. "We’re buying a house."
"If I accept your premise," I said, "what kind of house would we even buy? Where would it be? How much money would we spend on it?"
"Details," she said.
"These are important details."
"So they are. And we need professional help to deal with them." Emma pulled our rental car into a Hanover County strip mall, and parked it in front of an office with a sign that said "Leland Campbell, Real Estate Broker."
"That name sounds familiar," I said. "Was it in the briefing materials?"
"So it was," Emma said.
"Why would a real estate broker’s name be in the briefing materials?"
"Justin," Emma said, "I love you dearly, but if you say one word I don’t like after we walk in that door, I am going to crush you like a bug. Do you understand me?"
"Microaggression," I said.
"No, this is the real thing. Just keep your mouth shut and nod."
Leland Campbell was tall and fiftyish, with an important gut and a shock of bright-white hair. He opened the door for us, wordlessly, and ushered us into his office in the back of the strip mall. The walls were liberally covered with pictures of Leland Campbell doing the grip-and-grin with various Democratic Party loyalists. A younger Leland Campbell was shaking the hands of Mario Cuomo, Ted Kennedy, and Daniel Moynihan. These were succeeded by pictures with Al Gore, Bill Clinton, a couple of Clinton-era Cabinet secretaries whose names I forget, and more than a few people that I didn’t recognize that I suspected were Jersey politicians.
For some reason there wasn’t a Barack Obama picture, but there was a picture of Leland Campbell on the floor of the DNC in Charlotte, and he was wearing a badge that said "Hanover County Democratic Chairman," and at that point I felt the feeling I sometimes get when I have done something that other people say is stupid.
"Siddown," Leland Campbell said. We sat down.
"Thank you for taking the time to meet with us," Emma said.
"Would one of you mind telling me exactly what you are doing here, and why three different people from the DNC called me to tell me you were coming?"
"I am doing exploratory work on running from Congress from this district," I said. That is what we had agreed to tell people. I hadn’t filed anything yet, and we had until the end of March to make a final decision.
"That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of," Leland Campbell said. "I don’t know you. I never heard of you, except you got the same name as that Canadian fella. You’re not from here, and you don’t live here."
"Yet," Emma said. "That’s why we’re here."
"You can’t just move into Hanover County and expect to win folks over," he said. "I don’t care who your parents are. It doesn’t work that way. I wouldn’t vote for you for assemblyman, even. You don’t have any experience."
"As Justin said, we are just exploring the possibility right now," Emma said. "Today, we’re house-hunting, and we hope that you could help us."
"House-hunting?" he asked. "It’s going to take a lot more than you coming in here and buying a two-bedroom tract house for any of this to make sense."
"Which is why we’re not looking for a two-bedroom tract house," Emma continued. "We’re looking for something… I think unique is the word. Something large. With plenty of area for entertaining, and fund-raising."
"Also a green house," I said.
"You don’t want a greenhouse," Leland said. "Too much maintenance. Unless you’re growing orchids or something like that."
"Not that kind of green house. Environmentally-sensitive," I said.
"Shut up, Justin," Emma said. "The point is that the kind of house we’re looking for, well, is going to be rather expensive, on one hand, and also very hard to locate, especially to make sure that it’s within the boundaries of the 13th District. We would expect to pay a higher-than-usual commission. Maybe like ten percent."
"I’m sorry?" Leland said. "Did you just say what I think you said?"
"I think I made myself clear," Emma said. "Keep in mind that the credit check won’t be any problem, considering that the house would be financed through Fairchild International."
"I may have underestimated you, Mr. Fairchild," he said. "And Mrs. Fairchild."
"Not quite yet," she said. "We’re working on that, too. Probably a spring wedding. I understand your daughter owns a banquet hall?"
"They do lovely weddings there," Leland said. "Tell you what. Give me a second to clear my schedule. I have a couple of places for you to look at today, and then we’ll see what works for you. And we can swing by and I can introduce you to my daughter. Sound good, ma’am?"
"That sounds good," Emma said.
"That sound good, Congressman?" he asked me.
I can recognize an inflection point when I see one. "That sounds good," I said.
Next, see Week Two: The Pipe Line
And Check out previous installments from last year: