A few weeks ago, being in an electoral mood, I started to list the guys (with one exception, they are currently all guys) who are representing me at various levels of government.

  • President Barack Obama
  • Vice President Joe Biden
  • Senator John Kerry
  • Senator Scott Brown
  • Congressman ????

I drew a complete blank. So I went on:

  • Governor Deval Patrick
  • State Senator Dan Wolf
  • State Representative Tim Madden
  • Selectmen Richard Knabel, Cindy Mitchell, and Skipper Manter

Who the hell was representing the Massachusetts 10th Congressional District in Congress these days? I walked around a few days waiting for the name to come to me or jump out of a headline or something. Nope. Finally I looked it up: William Keating. Didn’t ring a bell. The only Keating I remembered was Kenneth, the moderate Republican senator from New York who was defeated by Robert F. Kennedy in 1964.

So a week ago I got an email from Richard K., West Tisbury selectman and a key player in the fight against the roundabout, inviting me to a meet-and-greet for one Sam Sutter, who is running against Bill Keating in the Democratic primary. Anyone Richard endorses is worth checking out, and besides, it really, really bugged me that I couldn’t remember the incumbent’s name. Late Friday afternoon, as desperately needed rain started to fall in earnest, I drove over to Richard’s house, bearing two plates of miniature cheesecakes as an offering for the refreshment table.

The short version is that Malvina Forester has now got a Sam Sutter for U.S. Congress sticker on her ever more crowded bumper, and it turns out there’s a reason I hadn’t heard of Bill Keating: he hasn’t done much. In particular, thanks to a long-running bureaucratic snafu, Vineyard vets can’t get the care they need at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital but must travel to Providence or Hyannis instead. Apparent consensus among those working on the issue is that Gerry Studds or his successor, Bill Delahunt, would have solved this a long time ago.

Sam Sutter at Richard K.’s

So Sam Sutter started off as a tennis pro, went to law school, became a trial lawyer, and in 2007 ran for and became district attorney of Bristol County. In the mid-2000s, Bristol County, which includes New Bedford and Fall River, had a serious drug-related gun crime problem. As DA, working with elected officials and local police departments, he has helped turn that around. The stats are impressive, but what impressed me most is the leadership he displayed to pull this off.

Leadership is so rare around here that I’ve almost forgotten what it looks like. Here it involved from-the-ground-up awareness of the problem, familiarity with the tools available, ability to adapt those tools to the situation, and the ability to motivate a team (he kept saying that he couldn’t have done any of this alone) and to work productively with the community, the police, the court system, and the mayors’ offices.

Asked what he thought he could accomplish in a U.S. Congress so polarized and gridlocked that it’s been called the worst in our history, Sutter pointed out that the Tea Party is a minority on the GOP side of the aisle. He invoked the not-so-bygone days when a Ted Kennedy and an Orrin Hatch could work together across the aisle to hammer out compromises and get important legislation passed.

Leadership is what wields many disparate parts into a whole that can accomplish more than any individual can accomplish alone. The leadership we’ve become accustomed to, in Congress and elsewhere, does this by appealing to our fears and resentments; what it accomplishes this way is mostly obstruction and destruction and the incorporation of those fears and resentments into public policy. Sam Sutter has demonstrated the other kind of leadership, the kind that motivates people to rise above their differences and accomplish something that they all say they want: to solve problems and move forward.

I believe this guy. I believe in this guy. I’m more than a little freaked that after years of watching mediocre candidates come, go, and get elected, Malvina Forester now has two candidates’ stickers on her bumper.

Yesterday morning, the M.V. Democrats held a forum for the two Democratic congressional candidates. I went. “Congressional Candidates Address Island Democrats; Mr. Keating Is Fleeting,” says the Vineyard Gazette headline on the story.

Representative Bill Keating at the Howes House

I’ll say. Mr. Keating had a boat to catch — classic island excuse for not sticking around — so he gave his spiel and left. His spiel was almost all partisan generalities. He said nothing about the 10th Congressional District that he currently represents or the new 9th (Massachusetts lost a seat in the last census, so we’ve been redistricted) in which he is running.

He also orchestrated his schedule to avoid both questions from the audience and any interaction with his Democratic opponent. This, I’m told, is part of his pattern: he does as little as possible to even acknowledge the existence of Sam Sutter or Dan Botelho of Fall River, who is running as an Independent — and who was sitting next to me. He has agreed to only one debate with Sutter, in the days before the September 6 primary.

Sutter, in contrast, believes in debates, forums, meet-and-greets, and other ways of getting his views across to the voters directly. Campaign ads are inadequate, he says. He promised that as the Democratic nominee, he’ll be willing to debate Botelho and the Republican nominee every week until the general election. He strenuously opposes the Supreme Court’s 5–4 Citizens United decision, but he’s not waiting for it to be overturned or a constitutional amendment to be passed or even for Congress to enact meaningful campaign finance reform (is this oxymoronic, and in how many ways?). He’s not accepting campaign contributions from PACs, Super PACs, or 501(c)(4)s — social-welfare nonprofits that can be used to funnel big money to candidates.

He’s so right about the one-on-one thing. Going to Friday afternoon’s meet-and-greet and Saturday morning’s forum makes me think of similar events going on across the commonwealth and the whole country, of citizens connecting with candidates directly, unmediated by either the news media or the advertising juggernaut. And as I blogged last month in “Elizabeth at the Library,” playing a bit part in the big drama makes a difference. When I tell people I’m running for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, I get into conversations about the MVC, the roundabout, and the island in general. They make me think; I hope I make them think. The mere possibility is almost enough to make me giddy.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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