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My Little Girl from Glassport, Pennsylvania

July 8, 2011

As a candidate for the Pennsylvania legislature many years ago, one campaign appearance stands out above all the rest.

I knocked on thousands of doors back then, talking to voters and asking for their support. One afternoon I was trudging along house-to-house in the Fifth Ward of Glassport Borough.  It was a depressed town, and many residents left after the steel mills closed in the late 1970s.

Glassport is a multi-ethnic town and residents had come to know hardship well. The neighborhoods were a series of clapboard row houses, one after another, which made it easy to campaign house-to-house.

Knocking on the door of one such home, a single mother answered with a baby girl in her arms. I introduced myself and began to give her my campaign pitch which usually ended with me asking for a vote in the upcoming election.

The woman was very polite but stood in silence and an awkward moment passed. I decided to change the subject and ask about her daughter; how old she was, and also about her well-being. The little girl seemed happy to be in her mother’s arms.

She began to tell me about the serious medical problems her little daughter had faced since birth. Her baby was now one year old even though doctors told her they did not expect her to live to see her first birthday.

Looking at the two of them, and taking all this in, I stopped talking about my political campaign. We sat on the porch and talked about her daughter and about the future. The little girl had no idea what she was going through nor did she understand the prognosis of her life. She was happy and content to be in her mother’s arms.

Our conversation finished, and I walked on to seek votes at the next house, a different candidate but also a different person. Running for office seemed less important to me, and it was humbling that it mattered even less to this mother and child.

Campaigning door-to-door gives you a glimpse into how people live. There are things going on outside the world of politics; more important than politics, and people are dealing with serious matters far outside the perimeters of government.

While I continued to campaign as hard as before, this one experience gave me a unique understanding of what motivates voters, and why they vote the way they do, or if they vote at all.

The little girl made me a better candidate, actually a great candidate. I learned what was important and what was not, and interacting with voters took on a different meaning. I was also impacted far beyond a campaign for office.

My life took various turns along the way, including working with many members of Congress, media personalities, captains of industry, dozens of trips in and out of the White House, and hanging out with more than one President of the United States.

Still, as heady and as gratifying as those experiences were, and in many cases, still are, I was forever changed by this one event. I am more moved by the outcomes and circumstances of individuals such as this mother and child than I am with politicians.

I do not know what kind of life, or how long a life, this little girl was ultimately given. For 30 years, not many days went by when she did not cross my mind, along with the silent hope that her life was long and that she defied the prognosis of her doctor.

I also wish she had known the impact she made on the career of a young man who came knocking on her mother’s door looking for a vote – and left with much more.