On the campaign trail with John Hartwell
"Excuse me, do you know where I'm supposed to throw this?"
It's an unexpected question for someone running for elected office, but not for this particular candidate.
"Anything that burns you can toss in there," the candidate replies and points to a garbage compactor housed in a cavernous building behind him. "It'll go down to a plant in Bridgeport. They'll burn it, and make electricity out of it."
The inquiring man -- who appears to be in his 20s, wears a striped hoodie and has a neatly trimmed beard -- then shuffles past the candidate with some planks of wood and heaves them into the compactor.
Before the young man scurries away, the candidate hands him some blue-and-orange literature.
"Hi, I'm John Hartwell, and I'm running for state Senate."
"Oh, ok, cool, thanks," the young man says with a slightly bemused expression, before trotting back to his car.
For John Hartwell, the 63-year-old Democratic candidate for the 26th District seat in the state Senate, this is a frequent and favored way to meet voters -- standing outside the garbage compactor at Westport's Transfer Station and Recycling Center at the Sherwood Island Connector.
Such a venue may appear to be an unconventional campaigning hub, but for Hartwell -- a management consultant -- it is a logical choice.
"You have a wide variety of people coming here," he says. "It's a great place to meet and talk."
Westport resident Hartwell faces state Sen. Toni Boucher, a Wilton Republican, on Nov. 2, whom he ran against for the 26th District seat unsuccessfully in 2008. Boucher prevailed with 53 percent of the vote district-wide, but Hartwell commanded 57 percent of Westport's vote.
His campaign strategy, he says, has changed somewhat from that first bid to be the senator representing the multi-town legislative district, which in addition to Westport and Wilton, includes Ridgefield, and parts of Weston, Redding, Bethel and New Canaan.
"I spent a lot of time last time getting myself up to speed on the issues," he says. "It's not just about that. People expect you know to know the policy details. What's important is really making a connection with people."
In 2010, he says he prefers to campaign at public venues like the recycling center, Compo Beach, and Levitt Pavilion because these places put him in contact with more people than going door-to-door.
"You can go door-to-door, but a lot of times people aren't home," he says. "Then, what you normally do is you leave some kind of mailer at their door. You could just pay someone to do that."
By contrast, Hartwell says that during a busy day at the recycling center he will meet and hand out his walking card to 50 to 60 people an hour.
At 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, the turnout is much lighter, but Hartwell still has several stacks of walking cards -- foldout flyers that explain his platform -- ready to hand out.
Like the exchange with the young man, most of Hartwell's interactions with the center's visitors are brief. He greets everyone dropping off trash at the compactor, and offers his walking card to all.
Most visitors accept the card, and most offer courteous responses.
"Thanks, I'll take a look at it."
"I know you, you're John Hartwell. We met this summer."
"Appreciate it. Good luck."
Some also stop for more substantive conversations with Hartwell.
"I want to bring more jobs to Fairfield County," Hartwell tells Dimitrios Koutsoukos, a contractor.
"That's good," Koutsoukos replies. "Jobs don't fall out of the sky. Of course, if the government has a lot of money, it can make more jobs."
"No, no, no," Hartwell says. "I don't want to do that. We can't just spend. I want to work with local entrepreneurs."
Later, Hartwell tries to steer another conversation towards jobs and the economy, but the man is more enlivened by another subject.
"I'm a big fan of Chris Dodd," he says. "And I was big fan of the Kennedys. The Kennedys are the most important family in the world."
This Kennedy family enthusiast still gladly takes a walking card. But there are also several visitors who do not.
After Hartwell introduces himself to a man hurriedly unloading scrap from his pickup truck, the man brusquely asks:
"Who are you? A Democrat or a Republican?"
"I'm a Democrat," Hartwell says.
The man gathers some more scrap before responding. "Well, then I can't vote for you, because if you're a Democrat that means you're going to take my guns away."
"That's not true," Hartwell says.
"Yeah, it is," the man continues. "You're gonna vote with Nancy Pelosi, and she wants to take away my guns. Sorry to say, that kills it."
The man tosses the last of the scrap in the compactor and hops in his pickup. Hartwell does not offer him a walking card.
A pungent smell soon emanates from the compactor as a garbage truck unloads another delivery. The compactor switches on, and the din temporarily drowns out any surrounding noise.
The compactor finally settles down. Conversely, Hartwell says, the pressure of campaigning only builds in the run-up to election day.
After this morning's stop at the recycling center, Hartwell will spend the rest of the day preparing for an Oct. 7 debate against Boucher in Ridgefield. The two will also meet at Westport's Town Hall for another debate on Oct. 13. Campaigning and working with his campaign staff on marketing materials and campaign ads will take up most of the rest of his time until Nov. 2.
"It's exhausting," he says. "You have to keep focused and push on until the end."
Just then, a woman pulls up in a minivan. After she disposes of her garbage, Hartwell recites his script one more time.
"You're a Democrat?" the woman asks.
"Yes, I am," Hartwell says.
She waits a beat, and then smiles. "You're a Democrat. You're with the good party."
Hartwell smiles as well. This time, he hands her a walking card.
The woman takes the card, gets in the minivan, and drives down a hill festooned with a cluster of candidates' yard signs.
Hartwell watches as the minivan disappears around a bend.
"She has a mailing, so now she knows who I am," he says with a nod of the head. "That's all I can ask."