With an overcrowded field of Democratic candidates hoping to unseat President Trump, I’m reminded of a high school experience in which I was elected mayor of my hometown, Lebanon, a history-drenched, semi-rural onetime steel manufacturing city in southeast Pennsylvania.
In spring 1976 — the nation’s bicentennial — I was a junior at the lone Catholic high school. For some years prior, the local YMCA had sponsored a youth government program in which students could elect their own mayor and other city officials. Since the program was also in place at the local public high school, the two schools held their respective schoolwide elections every other year, with juniors and seniors at each school being allowed to run against each other for the various positions.
I wasn’t politically inclined back then, but I did play football, a sport that had its own peculiar social minefields to navigate. After learning three popular guys in the senior class had jumped in the race — two of them athletes, neither of them footballers, but all friends since grade school — I decided to give it a shot.
Politicians need issues to run on, right? What would my platform be? I was a pretty happy kid, but some things made me unhappy, and one was sophomore hazing. This was one of those decades-old traditions in which the sophomores were at the mercy of their senior “masters,” and things sometimes got out of hand.
Some of the more timid sophomores were attacked by sadistic seniors in the locker room after practice, having their heads “flushed” in a toilet. Some had heating jelly smeared in their jocks before practice and were made to play until it became unbearable. Shining a senior’s spikes was one thing. But this behavior would be considered criminal even by legal standards of those times.
Not really knowing what to do, and thinking I was going to lose, I turned to underclassmen on the football team, guys I trained with in the off-season, and let it be known that this slavery stuff was out, and I didn’t say “stuff.”
To be honest, I was never forced to endure hazing, mainly because as a sophomore I started at nose guard on defense. Oh, I had a “master,” the senior I sometimes replaced due to the many injuries he had suffered. He and I also became friends — him ultimately becoming my mentor.
In the mayor’s race, I wooed sophomores, who had fresh memories of being subjected to humiliation the previous season, and freshmen, who could envision their own hellish fate. In the end, it was a landslide victory.
As for the football team, key senior and junior players were sidelined with crippling injuries by the end of the first game of my senior year. This meant the underclassmen were given more time on the field and now were able to learn how to play at an accelerated rate through experience on game night.
Sure, we only won four games my senior year. By the second game we were down to three seniors. But in the coming two years, when “sophomore slavery” didn’t die as a result of some proclamation but simply faded away, the team, “The Beavers,” won the league championship in the first year, and went 9-2 the second season, coming in behind a team from Lancaster County that went 11-0.
Speaking from this experience, and others over nearly four decades as a political reporter, it seems to me the fragmented Democrats need to get their collective act together, pick a candidate and develop a message, one that means something to everyone, including conservatives. They must then get fully behind both now.
If the Dems do not somehow coalesce (which the seniors in my race did not do, thus losing to a junior for the first time in the program’s history), and fail to come up with a vision beyond merely beating Trump, the president will surely be re-elected, contrary to what MSNBC, CNN and The New York Times seem to be frantically trying to convince us will not happen.