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Out of the Woods / From city slicker to converted Yankee, a Westporter's learning curve

Published 7:09 am, Wednesday, March 12, 2014
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When I read the Westport News last Friday, I was saddened to learn that my old friend, Don Lunghino, the former popular, fair-minded moderator of the Westport Representative Town Meeting (1973-77), had passed away at age 92. His obituary brought back a flood of fond memories of when I served in District 8.

I had moved here in 1968 after nearly two decades of covering politics for the Washington Post and the New York World-Telegram & Sun. I had become enthralled as a reporter by the world of politics in two big-time cities.

It was time, I figured, when I landed in this old Connecticut Yankee town, to try a different side of politics -- running for public office myself. I had always wondered that it would be like to serve voters in the political arena. I had been deeply moved by John F. Kennedy's moving appeal in his 1961 inaugural speech, with the famous phrase: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

So, I gathered the required number of signatures to get on the ballot for the RTM and undertook what I considered a sophisticated professional campaign. I wrote the text for a nifty four-page foldout brochure, placed a photo of myself on the front and listed my qualifications, I talked to some of town's the leaders to learn about the issues -- including a thorough briefing by Don Lunghino -- and launched my campaign.

The first doorbell I rang was a neighbor down the road. When a man came to the door with a smile on his face, I introduced myself by name and told him I was running for the RTM.

The expression on his face immediately changed to an angry scowl, He asked: "Are you the same Woody Klein who wrote for the World-Telegram & Sun and plastered my name on its front page as one of the city's official "Top 10 Absentee Slumlords?"

I was stunned. I replied, politely: "Yes, sir, the same." Then, I added, meekly: "But I got the list from the Buildings Department."

"No matter!" he shouted. "You're an SOB and the last person I would vote for," as he slammed the door in my face. It was my bad luck that I chose the one guy who lived in Westport to include on my weekly lists of absentee slumlords. What a beginning!

I started fresh the next day, certain that I would overcome that unfortunate beginning. All went reasonably well until I arrived at a house on Coleytown Road. I rang the front door bell.

Joanne Woodward answered the door this time, but before I could finish my spiel, she said, politely: "Paul is not here at the moment."

I smiled and left her my brochure. I asked a friend when I got home about my stop at the Newman's home. "You're not supposed to bother the Newmans. Don't you know that? "Apparently, there was an unwritten custom not to disturb their privacy, which made sense. Another mis-step.

By now, I realized I was looking like a high-powered city-slicker out of my element. So, I completely changed my approach. After introducing myself, I asked each resident what they would like to see improved in town. I took notes like a good reporter should.

That seemed to go over well. Voters had found a candidate who listened instead of talked all about himself. Maybe I had a chance.

Meanwhile, I had heard of "bullet voting" -- you vote for only one candidate on a list, hoping it would give him or her an advantage. I suggested to my wife that she do that.

By then, we had become friendly with Stan and Rita Englebardt and met their good friend, Ginny Slaughter, the wife of Bob Slaughter, a former RTMer. Ginny told us she was running for his seat in District 8.

The day after election, I was tied for the most votes in my district.

There was one caveat: Ginny Slaughter garnered the same total. I asked my wife if she had voted for Ginny. She smiled. I knew what that meant. That taught me a final lesson in a campaign that changed me from a New York "hot shot" into a devoted student of Westport who learned enough to write a book about its history.in 2000.

Woody Klein's is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears very other Friday. He can reached at wklein11@aol.com.